The boot camp of Jewish learning

The Tikvah Fund’s fellowship gives gifted Americans and Israelis the tools to become the Jewish leaders of the next generation.

tikvah 521 (photo credit: Micah Rubin)
tikvah 521
(photo credit: Micah Rubin)
Out on the bustling streets of pre-Christmas New York City, there was a full-frontal assault of dazzling lights and extravagant store window scenes. Exuberant Salvation Army volunteers were shaking their tambourines to rocking Christmas standards and dancing around their kettles trying to keep warm in the December freeze, and the celebrated tree in Rockefeller Center was, as usual, a perennial magnet for the multitudes of tourists descending on this vibrant city.
But a few blocks away, in a typically sleek Midtown high-rise office building, high above the holiday season frenzy, a different kind of vibrancy was on display – a glowing of the mind.
In the confines of the Tikvah Fund office floor, which looks like it could house a thriving software start-up, 22 hand-picked adults from Israel, the US and England – secular and observant, Jewish and Christian, mostly in their 20s and 30s – were undergoing what the organization’s executive director Eric Cohen labels “an intellectual boot camp” in Jewish learning.
The good-looking, well-scrubbed students were all participants in the elite Tikvah Fund one-year fellowship, an intensive educational experience that, if all goes according to the organization’s vision, will provide the tools for the next generation of Jewish leadership in both the US and Israel.
“We’re trying to help educate and form the men and women who will go on to assume positions of responsibility in the Jewish world, especially in the areas of political, religious and intellectual leadership,” explains Cohen, a Boston-raised scholar who rose through the ranks of academia and think tanks in Washington, before relocating to New York in 2007 to devise and launch the Tikvah Fund’s growing array of programming.
It may be the new kid on the block in the Jewish foundation world, but in the last few years the fund has begun flexing its muscles in a variety of ways – via publications like the online Jewish Ideas Daily, the quarterly Jewish Review of Books, the Library of Jewish Ideas book series, and a variety of educational programs for college students conducted in conjunction with Princeton, Yale and Israel’s Ein Prat Academy for Leadership.
The crowning achievement of the foundation's portfolio is the Tikvah Fellowship, now in its second year. Boasting a roster of star-studded conservative leaning lecturers like former White House foreign-policy adviser and Middle East expert Elliott Abrams, Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, literary critic and novelist Hillel Halkin, military historian and political analyst Victor Davis Hansen and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, the program consists of a three-month-long course load of advanced seminars and writing assignments, followed by work placements and internships with leading Jewish and American institutions, independent projects ranging from research papers to book drafts, and mentorship and professional development. At the end of the year, the students will, in theory, enter or reenter the "real world" equipped to make a difference in their communities.
“The term ‘leadership’ is obviously thrown around by everyone, and we don’t have delusions of grandeur that we are going to be a factory of Jewish leaders, but our aim is to try to help shape people that have the talent, ambition and character to lead the Jewish people at the highest levels,” says Cohen.
The group that he and his staff – including senior directors Neal Kozodoy, the longtime editor of Commentary magazine, and Mark Gottlieb – have gathered for this second year of the Tikvah Fellowship are indeed shining lights of intellectual curiosity.
Ranging in age and life experience from post-BA graduates to mid-career professionals, the participants bring to mind those kids who were voted most likely to succeed in the high-school yearbook. They devour texts, challenge each other and their lecturers in class, and sit around after seminars discussing ideas with each other.
“The overall rationale is to try to find, cultivate, nurture and track a group of young people who will, whatever they end up being in life – accountants, politicians, journalists – become voices of their people and who will have a deeper education and appreciation of the legacy that has come down into their hands,” says Kozodoy.
The varied collection of young scholars in the fellowship run the gamut from people like 29-year-old Eran Schwartz – a former IAF pilot and commander pursuing a dual MA in communications and political science at the University of Haifa and Paris’s Institut d’Études Politiques – to Margaret Moslander, a 22- year-old Christian from New York with a love of constitutional law, who graduated last year from Middlebury College.
The convergence of such different backgrounds, countries and age groups (seven are Israeli, three are British, two are Christian and about a third define themselves as observant) might have been an obstacle, but all of the participants say their differences contribute to the dynamic nature of the classes.
Israeli fellow Benjamin Schvarcz – a former haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and now modern Orthodox father of two, who completed an MA in political science at the Hebrew University and served as an aide to Likud MK Michael Eitan – and the other non-Jewish fellow, Robert Nicholson – a former US marine who is interested in the role of law in Israel and the Middle East – have even formed a hevruta (study partnership) during their off hours to study each other’s religion.
“I’m a Christian. I feel like Jews and Christians, despite our crazy history, have a shared destiny,” says Nicholson. “I think that I see myself almost as someone in between, and [the need] to explain each side to the other. And so, Tikvah puts me in that environment, and enables me to meet people.”
Moslander also says she has thrived on being in the minority, as a Christian and as only one of five women in the fellowship.
“It’s nice to have a lot of different kinds of views, and especially in a program that focuses on Jewish studies and the roles of Jews in today’s political world,” she says. “I think it’s crucial to have both perspectives. It’s been fascinating for me because I think I’m one of the few people here who hasn’t been to Israel. So for me, it’s just a whole new world of information and knowledge.”
According to Cohen, it was clear from the beginning that non-Jews would be eligible for the fellowship, if they were qualified.
“A program like this, looking for people who are going to be leaders in service to Jewish purposes, is naturally going to attract Jews, but if there are non- Jews who want to make this central to their lives, that’s great. Standards are standards, and both Robert and Margaret were both very interesting candidates,” he says.
The age discrepancies and life-experience differences between the Israelis and many of the American and British participants sometimes create a disconnect that the fellows deliberately work to overcome.
“It’s funny, we have the chutzpah, and they have the politeness,” says 29-year-old Israeli fellow Avnet Kleiner. “The Israelis are more mature and adult than the Americans, it is obvious. We’re all in our 30s, and they are all 23. But the Americans also come from a very high level of university [education], so I think it all evens out.”
Benjamin Schvarcz has noticed that he tends to veer toward those fellows who are closer to his age, like Nicholson.
“I think Israelis feel like it’s very comfortable to speak with people like Robert. Maybe because he’s more open to our rudeness,” he laughs. “For me, when he speaks with me, I understand what he’s saying to me. You have different people that when they speak to me, I don’t understand what they say, because my English is not so good. The British people, for example, speak very fast. But Robert, when he speaks, what I hear, even if there is a word I don’t get, it doesn’t matter because I understand.”
The classes, as one participant describes them, are like a mix of a co-ed yeshiva and a high-level graduate school. During an involved lecture on “Love and Family,” Cohen brought in sources as wide-ranging as Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as the participants discussed the class source book Love in the Western World by Denis De Rougement. By the end of the three-hour session, my head hurt.
At another seminar, Suzanne Last Stone – professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law and director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization – lectured on “Religion and State in Modern Democracy: The Jewish Perspective.”
Phrases like “the Augustinian notion of tranquilatas” (the Latin phrase for the tranquility of order – I looked it up later) were bandied about as effortlessly as “What are you going to do for dinner?” Clearly the Tikvah fellows are in a class of their own.
“If you come here for this year without a passion for a specific path in your life, I think you’ll feel awkward. Because here, every person is committed to a certain direction and driven by it,” says Schvarcz.
The inaugural 2011 fellowship year focused on post-BA applicants in their early 20s, with the Israeli participants being a few years older due to their army service. One change the organization made for this year’s group was to expand the requirements to include applicants at any stage of life.
“The youngest is still 22 or 23, but our average age now is 29,” says Kozodoy.
“This has resulted in a more serious and focused group, many of whom know more or less what they want to do in life.”
There were close to 500 applications for the 22 slots available on the fellowship, which provides a stipend of between $30,000 and $75,000 for each participant, depending on age, experience and financial need.
“It’s an incredibly competitive process, involving multiple rounds of interviews and extensive writing exercises,” explains Cohen, adding that he expects even more applicants for the 2013 program – the application deadline for which is the end of January.
“The criteria by which we chose the participants are, one: we believe they have the potential to achieve something great in their lives, and two: that we can help inspire them to devote their lives to the purpose of Jewish leadership,” he says.
The nuts-and-bolts of the fellowship is divided into two segments. The first is the serious learning, in which the participants focus on blocks of multi-week courses – including an extensive curriculum of classical texts and modern analysis of current issues, along with pervasive writing assignments.
“It’s conceived as a high-level conversation among citizens – meaning that you have to be very capable to be in the room,” says Cohen. “At the same time, it’s not conceived as ‘This is Physics 501 and you’ve already taken Physics 401’ – you have a huge variety of people in that room, certainly in terms of Judaic skills and background, as well as life aspirations.”
Following that intensive three-month, class-focused environment, the larger portion of the fellowship begins: Each participant delves into an individual study program – either working on a major project like a book or series of essays, or being placed with a job in a relevant New York institution to help them develop their careers and vocations.
“All of the participants can be roughly grouped into three categories: religious leaders, whether at the level of congregations or schools; people who want to go into politics or public policy, whether electoral or at think tanks; and people who want to be writers and scholars,” says Cohen. “We try to advise them on their projects. Some of the fellows work with Neal, who is arguably the most distinguished editor of Jewish ideas in the world, and in other cases, we connect them with mentors. We’ve had one fellow work at The Wall Street Journal with [former Jerusalem Post editor] Bret Stephens, and others will be working in important synagogues or teaching in day schools, or writing major essays or books.”
A look at the faculty of the fellowship, and of the board of the Tikvah Fund which includes Kristol and former Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz, may lead one to believe that it subscribes to a strict, conservative view of the world.
In fact, in one widely disseminated essay originally published in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, Syracuse University associate professor of religion Zachary Braiterman wrote that the organization “is pugnaciously neoconservative.
Indeed, anyone interested in connecting the dots between corporate capital, rightwing ideology, and current drifts in academic and popular Jewish thought and culture would do well by starting with the Tikvah Fund.”
But while on the surface it appears that the fellowship would be happy to churn out a new generation of squeaky Young Republicans – or Likudniks, as the case may be – Cohen and the participants laud the wide spectrum of views that are presented and represented.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is transparent, and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” says the executive director. “In terms of the worldview, it’s an important issue, and one we’ve thought a lot about.
Look at our faculty – incredibly diverse – and look at our students – incredibly diverse. There aren’t a lot of Jewish institutions that would assemble such a mixed group of secular and religious Americans and Israelis.”
He freely admits that “Tikvah does have a worldview – it’s politically Zionist, economically more free-trade-market oriented, culturally more traditional. But I think you can be that and still be at the table and exchange all the different reasonable arguments. We believe that you can, with integrity, have a point of view on certain issues, without settling any debates. That’s the balance we’ve evolved into trying to sustain.”
Among the fellowship’s 50-plus speakers, he continues, “you’re going to see incredible diversity – from [political philosopher] Michael Walzer and Ruth Gavison to [Saban Centre for Middle East Policy senior fellow] Mike Doran and [Harvard University scholar] Ruth Wisse. These are people you want to have in the room arguing with you and each other on the big subjects. I think we have a pretty broad playing field. We don’t sit around agreeing with each other on everything, but there’s a commonality of spirit in place.”
Kozodoy, while acknowledging that the Tikvah Fund is associated with the Center-Right perspective, suggests looking at the fellows to understand where the real diversity lies.
“There are all kinds of views within the group, and especially among the Israelis. They have different ways of defining themselves. People can be hawks on security while thinking of themselves as socialists,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that Tikvah has a political slant,” says 26-year-old fellow Dov Lerner, an England native in his second year of a rabbinical internship at a West Side synagogue. “But they respect the fact that we have ideas and can think for ourselves. There’s no attempt to brainwash us, and there’s a fair amount of balance.”
Kleiner, who hails from Netanya, argues that the program actually provides more diversity of thought than Israeli universities do.
“I knew that Tikvah was a right-wing, conservative organization. So I was aware of that, but they bring a lot of different ideas,” says Kleiner, who finished a degree in international relations at Tel Aviv University and established a student organization called “What Israel,” which sends students to campuses abroad for public diplomacy.
He contrasts the fellowship’s approach with “the Israeli universities that show you just one side and there is no other side, with no chance even to present another argument. So we get different views here and there is a lot of discussion about those views.”
“There’s a lot of dissent tolerated,” adds Nicholson.
“And there’s no ostracizing if you’re not on board. So I think, all around, there is a conservative ideology generally, but I think it’s like a suggestion. So it’s open. And at our level, to bring in so many different people and texts, there’s a lot of freedom within that.
I’ll put it this way: I appreciate the way that they just kind of give you the ball and you can run with it.”
Eran Schwartz, the IAF pilot, says the fact that Tikvah chose him for the fellowship despite his left-leaning political views demonstrates its desire to create an encompassing environment.
“I think that’s a good point for Tikvah, that they didn’t exclude me. And they made sure that they brought people from all the scopes of society,” he says. “There’s no discrimination, and I think it’s part of the purpose of Tikvah, which is creating a kind of discourse among the Jews. If you exclude [the Left], you’re talking to yourselves.”
The Tikvah Fund’s goal of providing the blueprint for future Jewish thought is an ambitious one, but the year-long, fully subsidized fellowship is only one way the organization is going about trying to establish a new Jewish agenda; its fingerprints are also visible on campuses, in print and online.
The fund came about thanks to the philanthropy of Zalman Bernstein, a Wall Street giant who became religiously observant later in life and left a portion of his fortune to three foundations – the Avi Chai Foundation, which funds Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai in its work toward secular-religious reconciliation; the Keshet Foundation, which funds the Nextbook series and the Tablet website; and the Tikvah Fund, whose raison d’etre for many years was to fund the conservative Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Upon Bernstein’s death in 1999, his business associate and fellow philanthropist Roger Hertog took over the chairmanship of the Tikvah Fund. Hertog, long associated with conservative and neoconservative think tanks and publications via his own Hertog Foundation, continued the Shalem funding, but he also began to expand beyond the foundation’s donor role and to look for opportunities to initiate its own programming.
“The idea of the foundation is to try to invest in Jewish ideas – writing, thinking, arguing about the permanent and deep problems of human life as understood by the Jewish traditions, as well as the urgent debates facing the Jewish people and state,” says Cohen. “That’s the vision, and that hasn’t changed.
What has changed is that we originally felt that we could do that by being a grant-making operation, looking for interesting people and projects and providing them with capital. We still do some of that, but the big change is that, at some point we simply decided to become our own institution and actually run our own projects, often in cooperation with others.”
A big feather in the organization’s cap came along when Kozodoy was brought in as senior director upon his retirement from Commentary in 2009, to oversee the fund’s publications department. He goodnaturedly admits that he was “dragged kicking and screaming into the educational initiatives.”
Kozodoy is the fund's "celebrity" and, ensconced in his corner office, is treated with a mixture of awe and respect among the fellows and his colleagues. Since coming aboard, he's launched Jewish Ideas Daily, a website with a daily newsletter that has several thousand recipients. Now edited by Margot Lurie and Suzanne Garment, it aims to be "the premier aggregator and originator of Jewish ideas on the web," with original articles (some of which appear in The Jerusalem Post's op-ed pages), and reviews of scholarly Jewish books.
Another key Tikvah publication is the Jewish Review of Books, a quarterly magazine edited by Abe Socher with articles on literature, culture and current affairs from a Jewish perspective. Its editorial board includes heavy hitters like Leon Wieseltier, Walzer and Wisse.
"It's a highbrow but accessible review of Jewish books. There's nothing like it out there at that level of seriousness," says Kozodoy.
Finally, Kozodoy has initiated the Library of Jewish Ideas, an open-ended book series published by the Princeton University Press. He describes its books as "written by academics but whose purpose is to engage the general reader.
“The first book, released last month, is Inheriting Abraham by Jon D. Levenson, about the whole idea of Abrahamic religion, and the second one – a book by Ruth Wisse on Jewish humor – will be published in April,” he says.
Looking back on the Tikvah Fund’s relatively speedy transition from a foundation which powered outside projects to one which has developed a thriving lineup of its own high-quality educational programs and materials, Cohen recalls that the board’s long-range plan had always been for Tikvah to develop its own profile.
That it has done, and the Tikvah Fellowship is its calling card. Whether or not the work-in-progress endeavor will make an impact on the Jewish landscape in the coming years remains an open question, but Cohen says the criteria for its success need is still being developed.
“In my view in history, a relatively small number of people can do great things. That’s the first principle you have to buy into if you buy what we’re doing,” he says. “One great religious leader can move a community, one great political leader can shoulder a nation, and one intellectual leader can change hearts and minds.”
He offers a baseball metaphor, saying that “what we’re doing is finding very good Double A players, and using this year to bring them up to Triple A and maybe even get them their first play in the majors.”
In that sense, not only has the Tikvah Fund joined the starting lineup in the Jewish continuity game, it is on its way to creating its own ball park.
Noa Amouyal contributed to this report.
The writer was a guest of the Tikvah Fund.