For Rivka Harari, the valedictorian of the first class to graduate from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies with an Israeli master's degree, her studies there have had a profound impact on her experience of being Jewish.
A clinical dietician at the Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, Harari describes herself as a member of the Zionist-religious community. Yet after completing her degree with a concentration on women's studies, Harari said she felt differently when she said the morning prayers, which she has recited throughout her life.
"This program taught me to ask questions that you don't ask in the Zionist-religious education system," Harari told The Jerusalem Post. "When I recite the prayers today, they sound different, even though I have been saying them automatically for years. Being enrolled in a Judaism and gender studies program has opened my eyes in a lot of ways and allowed me to gain a new awareness of many issues, including the problematic status of women in Judaism."
When the Schechter Institute's graduate school was founded as a branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1990, its first class consisted of 30 students. Last June, it received accreditation as an independent Israeli academic institute. Today, approximately 460 Israelis study in the program. Unlike Harari, most of them are teachers in secular Israeli schools who teach Bible, literature or history.
"We realized there were a lot of Israeli teachers looking for place to get a master's degree, and thought it was a wonderful way to reach out to educators and have a real influence on the Israeli school system," said Schechter Institute president Prof. David Golinkin. "We wanted to give Israeli teachers an interdisciplinary MA in Jewish studies which they could then use in class."
Unlike specialized Jewish studies departments at Israeli universities, the Schechter Institute's interdisciplinary model of study offers students a broad view of the field without insisting on specialization in one area such as Bible, history or Talmud. In addition, students may pursue a range of tracks that don't exist elsewhere - bringing together Jewish studies with fields such as art, community services and informal education, and which are aimed at particular areas in the Israeli school system.
While the program prided itself on its high academic level, Golinkin said, it also allowed students to ponder the kinds of existential questions that are not usually part of university programs in Jewish studies. One former student, he said, recently told him that after studying in depth the debate about whether women may say the mourner's kaddish, she decided that, based on what she had learned, she would begin saying kaddish for her father.
"I would like every Israeli to be knowledgeable about Judaism," Golinkin added. "The tragedy of the Israeli school system is that the powers that be decided that 80 percent of Israelis won't get a thorough Jewish education, and will only study the Bible. But we are rabbinic Jews, not biblical Jews, and Israelis who don't know medieval Jewish history, for instance, are ignorant of our sources. We want to educate teachers to educate students so that we can be well-rounded Jews knowledgeable about their tradition and culture - it's not about proselytizing to become religious."
According to Golinkin, "One of the problems in Israeli society is that Judaism functions as a dividing rather than a uniting element." To this end, the institute will award its ninth Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance in Israel to Ruth Lehavi, the founder and principal of the Keshet School in Jerusalem.
The prize, which was first given following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination to foster tolerance between different types of Jews, will be given to Lehavi for running a school which Golinkin considers to be "a microcosm of what we do at the Schechter Institute." Keshet, which was founded a decade ago, is the only school in the country in which secular and religious children study together from first to 12th grade.
"I aspired to create a common educational framework for a population that to a large degree lives in different frameworks while thinking similarly about its social, Jewish and Zionist responsibilities," Lehavi said. "When prime minister Rabin was assassinated several months after the school opened, the justification for its existence received a painful kind of reinforcement."
The NIS 50,000 prize will be awarded to Lehavi during the Schechter Institute's graduation ceremony on Wednesday.