At first blush, it might seem counterintuitive that Jerusalem is home to a unique institution that specializes in combining the spiritual values of Judaism with complementary medicine.
Located next to the central bus station on Jaffa Street, Shelem College trains practitioners in a wide variety of complementary medicine modalities, sometimes referred to as the healing arts.
Miri Hoffman, the founder of Shelem College, is an 11th-generation Israeli. Her Lithuanian family members were among the founders of the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem in the mid-19th century and among those who established Petah Tikva and Hadera.
“Eretz Yisrael was the common denominator of all the family,” Hoffman said.
Family health conditions, first her mother’s, then her own and eventually when her daughter “was mistreated at a hospital,” led her to create Shelem College. “Those were the roots planted in the back of my mind. That was the turning point of my life. I knew there has to be another way.
“I saw many people who were dishonest in the field. I saw clinical people take advantage of people fighting for their lives,” she reported.
In those days, it was not uncommon for someone to take a six-week course and then open a clinic. Hoffman wanted to improve the chances for patients to heal.
Having learned about the world of holistic medicine through her research, Hoffman “decided that there is an opportunity to give people an honest chance of broadening their horizons for living a healthier life.
“Holistic philosophy looks at mind and body,” she explained. “In the whole world of holistic healing, people are also using the spiritual dimension. I decided that I was going to open a place to train honest therapists, to give people a real honest education in holistic medicine from a Jewish viewpoint.”
To Hoffman as a religious Jewish woman, the marriage of Jewish spiritual teachings and holistic medicine seemed natural.
“We have a great, rich background that the whole intellectual world uses, so why run to other worldviews?” she argued.
Her friends were not exactly supportive. “My closest friends said, ‘You’re such a smart lady. What possessed you to go into a crazy obsession?’ This was the early 1990s. You had to be a meshuggener to try to create something then; it was more or less losing your marbles.”
Despite the lack of social support, Hoffman started Shelem College with 16 students. Her goal was to enroll 200 students at the end of the first year. Today, more than 1,200 students a year study in Shelem’s various programs in both English and Hebrew.
The 1,200 students are screened and chosen from among the 6,000 to 8,000 that Hoffman interviews each year. As a result of its spiritual dimension, many would-be students “are not connected to reality” and have to be screened out, Hoffman asserted.
“I sign every diploma, so I declare they are responsible and worthy enough to be a caregiver. It’s my responsibility. I will not accept everyone. I have high standards.”
Shelem College, which operates as a nonprofit organization, is equally careful about the faculty it employs.
“No one can teach without 10 years of clinical experience.” Hoffman stated. “Holistic medicine has limited texts. The clinical dimension is your real teacher. The field of life helps you bring out your experience.”
Both students and faculty at Shelem “are givers, looking for a way to contribute to society. There is an avenue to help and change the quality of people’s lives.”
The college’s philosophy is to work in cooperation with Western medicine, not in opposition to it.
“We never make promises that are not 100% connected to real life,” she said.
Combining Jewish thought with healing arts
Hoffman is critical of practitioners who claim a connection to Moses ben Maimon, the Jewish sage known as the Rambam. The Rambam was a great Jewish philosopher and an expert in Jewish law. He was also a physician in the 12th century.
“Anyone who advertises that they are coming from the Rambam’s perspective is lying, because there is no real organized medical theory from the Rambam,” Hoffman stated unequivocally.
Shelem College does comfortably draw from Chinese medicine.
“In China, the doctors were the wise people. They were not the priests,” she explained.
“In contrast, in India, the doctor and the priest and the way of worship was one. [Thus, we have a] much harder time incorporating Indian medicine in Shelem’s curriculum.” With Indian medicine, it’s much more difficult to discern “what’s a healing technique separate from religion.”
At Shelem, they do teach yoga, “but stress is on the practical part, not the theory part. We can’t teach Ayurveda yoga, because it includes religious motives grounded in real idol worship,” she clarified.
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