"The Jewishness of Israel is something that should not be taken for granted," Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Menahem Magidor warned on Monday. But Magidor was not referring to the demographic threat so frequently mentioned by his colleague Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, but to the various rifts that pull Israeli society asunder - and most of all to ignorance.
Magidor, who was speaking at the launch of the new Gandel Institute for Adult Learning, said that one of the main missions of the university was to be a major player in guaranteeing Jewish continuity.
"It is not realistic to expect Jewish continuity to survive on observance," he said. "Jewish continuity depends on Jewish knowledge and Jewish unity."
Magidor made a distinction between "Jewish unity" and "Jewish uniformity." A lesson that his father had often taught him, he said, was that he could be as great a heretic as he wanted, but that he should not be an ignoramus.
Jewish continuity, Magidor said, should be based on Jewish knowledge and Jewish understanding. "It should be the basis of our culture, our identity and our unity," he said.
Toward that end, Magidor lauded the Avi Chai Foundation, which has been a longtime supporter of the Melton Center and helps train highly motivated teachers to convey the beauty of Jewish learning within the secular school system.
The Melton Center was established at the Hebrew University some 20 years ago through the vision of American Florence Melton. She ardently believed that adult Jews, who had missed out on Jewish studies while acquiring their secular education, should be encouraged and given every opportunity to acquire Jewish literacy.
In the past, the adult education programs developed by the Melton Center were largely for Diaspora Jews, but there has been a growing realization that Israelis do not know enough about being Jewish, even though they identify as part of the Jewish people.
The importance of Jewish literacy should be self-evident in Israel, said Avi Chai Foundation Chairman Arthur Fried, who noted that since 1993 the Avi Chai Foundation has been commissioning the Gutman Institute to survey Jewish identity in Israel. Findings indicate that the large majority of Jews want Jewish identity, consider themselves part of the Jewish people, believe in some form of Jewish tradition and most mark the Jewish festivals.
"What we want to do," said Fried, "is cultivate and bring the fruits of knowledge to those who didn't have enough exposure in their regular school years. If Israelis are self-defined as Jews, they cannot possibly want to be Jewishly illiterate. They must be exposed to the essence of Jewish learning, which will be the function of the Gandel Institute."
The Institute, to be funded by Australian businessman John Gandel and his wife Pauline, will be headquartered within the Melton Center.
Hebrew University alumnus and Keren Hayesod Chairman Avi Pazner, in a reference to Gandel's success as a businessman, called him "one of the most powerful people in Australia," and also noted that Pauline Gandel is the driving force behind her husband's philanthropic endeavors.
"Success in business is meaningless if it is not accompanied by philanthropy," said Pazner, whose organization has been supportive of the Hebrew University since its very inception. With regard to Gandel, Pazner added: "Here we have an example of an extraordinary businessman sharing his success with Australia and with Israel - and his children are continuing in this tradition."
Avinoam Armoni, the Hebrew University's vice president for external relations, said that negotiating the contract with Gandel had been easy, explaining: "I told him the needs, and he said 'Let's do it.'"
Gandel's commitment for an undisclosed amount is not his first investment in the Hebrew University. He has also given generously to Tel Aviv University.
Noting that the program at the Gandel Institute was initiated in the US and was implemented in Israel and Australia, Armoni said that its partners demonstrated "global understanding" of the importance of adult Jewish education in the lives of Jews everywhere.
With national security needs taking budgetary priority and a lack of resources for Jewish education, "Jewish literacy has been forced to take a back seat," said Gandel, explaining his willingness to help turn the tide of Jewish knowledge.
The Hebrew University, he said, was known as the university of the Jewish people and it should therefore showcase Jewish learning, just as it does secular academia. Gandel emphasized that a strong Jewish identity could be forged with solid Jewish learning as its core.
In Australia, he said, the need for adult Jewish education stemmed from the high enrollment of children in Jewish day schools. The parents, he said, "have been left behind."
Gandel, who is also involved with the computer-for-every-child project and with the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, said that he was proud to be playing a small role in adult Jewish education, and expressed confidence that the project would bring Jewish adults closer together.