Expanding pluralism

Schechter celebrates the groundbreaking of its new campus.

To the sounds of shofars and with the release of dozens of blue and white balloons, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of pluralistic Jewish education in Israel, Hungary and the Ukraine, celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for its new $20 million campus in Neveh Granot on Tuesday. The ceremony was attended by Education Minister Prof. Yuli Tamir, the chair of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executive Ze'ev Bielsky and hundreds of Schechter students, teachers, staff, alumni and supporters. The groundbreaking was held in the framework of Schechter's "Month of Jewish Pluralism," which also featured this past week the institute's graduation ceremony for its MA students, the awarding of the Tenth Annual Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance and its 19th rabbinical seminary ordination. Tamir said that she welcomed the growth of pluralistic Judaism in Israel in general and in the education system in particular. "Nothing is needed more in this country," she noted. Tamir went on to decry the fact that the Israeli education system defines Judaism in two unrealistic terms - Orthodox or secular, and because of that has failed to transmit the many different ways that it is possible to be Jewish. She praised Schechter for its educational programs for both students and educators and called for the education system "to open its doors to pluralistic Judaism" so that Jewish youth will be able to think about how they want to express their Jewish identity. Bielsky, who noted that the Jewish Agency provides $823,000 a year in support of Schechter's programs, called for promoting the unity of the Jewish people. At a time when Jews are fighting for their existence, "we do not have the luxury of excluding any group," he said. The new campus, covering 11,000 square meters of land located behind the Israel Museum, was designed by renowned Israeli architect Ada Karmi-Melamede, the architect of both the Supreme Court building and the Open University campus. Consisting of three buildings to be built in two phases, the new campus will triple Schechter's current space and enable the institute to increase its student body from 560 to approximately 800 students when construction is completed, early in the next decade. Through a capital campaign, the institute has already raised $5.1 million, with a goal of $11m. for completion of phase one. The new campus is being financed by individual donations, mainly from North American supporters of Schechter's programs. In addition, the institute received a planning grant from the Jerusalem Foundation for the architect, initial planning and licensing. The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies began in 1990 with four students. This graduate school offers a master's program in Jewish studies for Israeli educators. Today, it has an enrollment of 501 students and is fully accredited by the Council for Higher Education in Israel to operate as an independent, degree-granting institution. The foundations for the first building of the new campus in phase one, a three-story structure housing 17 lecture halls, classrooms and seminar rooms, are already under construction. When completed in two years time, this building will provide an immediate answer to Schechter's pressing space problems caused by a growing demand for its programs. Also slated in phase one is construction of the Center for Jewish Education, a building that will house the TALI Education Fund, Midreshet Yerushalayim, the graduate school and the rabbinical seminary, as well as administrative offices. Further off on the horizon is phase two, which will involve demolishing the original dormitory building from 1962 and constructing in its place a structure that will house a library, beit midrash, synagogue, campus center, presidential wing and parking facilities. In keeping with Schechter's guiding principles, architect Karmi-Melamede, who was chosen after an international competition conducted by the institute that included 14 candidates, has designed the new buildings to express the connection between the Jewish text as a Jewish symbol and the physical space. She draws her inspiration from the human pluralism at the institute, which in her opinion "reflects the connection between beauty and Judaism." "The new campus signals both a revolution and a coming of age for Schechter and perhaps also for the Conservative/Masorti Movement in Israel," said Schechter Institute president Rabbi David Golinkin at the ceremony.