Shalem College comes alive

This evening, I will have the privilege of presiding over the very first opening exercises of the newly-established Shalem College. As a historian, I am cautious in how I deploy the adjective “historic” for a current event. But I have a strong premonition that the opening day of Shalem College will earn a place of distinction in the history of Israel.

Shalem College students will study Jewish thought and Greek philosophy, Islamic theology and Western history, modern Israel and economic theory, statistics and music. Fully half of all studies are given over to the core curriculum, taught through the close reading of texts. And it is accomplished principally in small classes, around the seminar table, where some of the best Israeli students will learn and debate the great ideas that have animated the Western world, the Middle East, and the people of Israel.

Tonight’s event is first and foremost a warm embrace of the fifty undergraduate students enrolled into our inaugural class. They come from the length and breadth of Israel, from a wide range of social backgrounds and traditions. Also in attendance will be hundreds of well-wishers, who have offered moral and material support for what has been an enormously challenging endeavor.

The founding of a new college, inspired by the American tradition of higher education, had to overcome many obstacles, which at times appeared insurmountable. Many of those who commended us upon the initiative must have thought in their hearts that realizing it was a bridge too far. And a few didn’t just think it—they told us so.

There were so many moving parts. The plan had to be submitted for approval to Israel’s Council for Higher Education—an official accrediting body charged with maintaining the most rigorous standards in Israeli higher education. It is the job of the Council’s professional committees to challenge each and every one of an applicant’s assumptions. And challenge they did—a four-year process from which we learned enormously, and that greatly improved our program. In January of this year, we celebrated the grant of our cherished accreditation.

Scaling up from a research institute could not be done without widening the many circles of stakeholders. We have recruited outstanding faculty, committed to the vision of the college and devoted to its mission. We have been fortunate to enjoy the confidence of long-standing supporters, and we have discovered new friends courageous enough to invest their philanthropy in an educational startup. And we have been applauded by leaders from all walks of Israeli life, who have joined our public and academic councils, and who have been generous with their time and advice as we navigate unfamiliar waters.

A college also requires physical space: lecture halls and seminar rooms, a library, a student lounge, faculty and administrative offices, and space that invites spontaneous conversations and the sharing of ideas. In other words, a college needs a campus—and through the good offices of the Jewish Agency, we have found an initial home in a magnificent building in the Agency’s bucolic Kiryat Moriah educational campus in Jerusalem, a few minutes’ walk from the Haas and Sherover Promenades, from which we have a splendid view of the Old City.

The capstone of these efforts has been the search for students of such high caliber that they could study anywhere in Israel. For a new institution, there could be no more daunting challenge. The good names of universities and colleges are built over generations. A top-achieving prospective student, with a choice of many options, must be a pioneer to enroll in a fledgling institution that has yet to make its mark.

In the course of student recruitment, we discovered, much to our delight, that such young pioneers do exist in Israel—highly motivated young men and women who have always loved being part of something new and challenging, who flocked to our open houses and who then subjected themselves to our rigorous admissions process.

We have an extraordinarily gifted team, eager and ready to carry us forward. The indefatigable and indispensable Daniel Polisar has spent almost every waking hour strategizing each move, consulting with colleagues, and winning the admiration of friends both for his broad vision and his exacting attention to every detail. Daniel Gordis has been our top diplomat, traveling long hours to reach influential people and explaining with persuasive passion why Israel needs Shalem College. And David Messer, now our board chair, has provided crucial resources for the ramp-up and has become an integral part of the team, offering invaluable advice and assistance at key junctures. Behind these three stands a top-notch professional cadre of administrators, in every area from development to admissions, who have kept all the many balls high in the air with true aplomb. Thanks to their brilliance, my job as college president is far easier than it would otherwise be: indeed, they all eagerly assume burdens most presidents bear alone. This is their day.

This team is supported by an energetic and generous board, which has provided crucial guidance at many a crossroads. Their breadth of experience in areas where we ourselves have little has spared us many a mistake that might have delayed our opening. In particular, Yair Shamir, who served as board chair from 2008 until his recent appointment as Minister of Agriculture, added Israeli gravitas and infused the project with his entrepreneurial spirit and good humor.

This is an opportunity to recall the faith in this project shown by the late Zalman C. Bernstein, of blessed memory. He always regarded the research-oriented Shalem Center as a pillar that would serve to buttress Shalem College, and he committed to support the College when the time came. The Tikvah Fund has honored that commitment with great generosity, and its largesse is a mainstay of Shalem College. We are grateful both for its support, and for the encouragement and extraordinarily sage advice and guidance offered to us by its chairman, Roger Hertog.

Much work is behind us, but we are keenly aware that much, much more lies ahead of us. Until now, we were planners. Now, with young men and women streaming into our building, we are educators—in addition to the now-multiplied tasks of planning on which our further growth depends. There are hurdles to come. But today we want to share the sheer joy we feel at seeing students, eager and ready, filing into class. Shalem College has come alive. May it realize all our dreams, and give strength to Israel.

Martin Kramer is the president of Shalem College.

Update: At the opening, left to right: Daniel Polisar, Martin Kramer, Yair Shamir.