The Hebrew University of Jerusalem... ... A love affair

Imagine in 1957, standing next to Sam Rothberg, that towering American Jewish leader, as the cornerstone of the second or third building on the Giv’at Ram campus.

ESTABLISHING THE Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and laying the cornerstone, 1918 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ESTABLISHING THE Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and laying the cornerstone, 1918
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Had there not been a university in Jerusalem, it would not be Jerusalem, and Israel might not have come into existence.
Imagine a child in Canada, hearing the word “Yerushalayim,” not knowing what it meant, just that it was said in a hushed tone, as befits a holy word. Imagine being there before the State was established, reading that the Zionist movement wanted to have a great university in Jerusalem – and had in fact opened one in 1925.
Following the Jordan-Israel armistice in 1949, Mt. Scopus was an Israeli enclave surrounded by Jordanian- controlled areas of Jerusalem. The university departments were scattered in 70 buildings all over Jewish Jerusalem, in a makeshift effort to keep the university alive. Imagine a man of 22 years of age in 1953, who had never been inside a church, entering the Terra Sancta building of the Franciscan friars, with a beautiful statue on its roof. Was that Jesus presiding over the faculty of humanities of Hebrew University? Imagine the thrill of studying in Hebrew, a spoken language revived after a hiatus of two millennia, and understanding why the institution was named The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Imagine as well taking a two-hour lecture in Hebrew about the theory of marginality, and understanding every word, except for “marginality!” Imagine in 1955 going up to Scopus in the bi-weekly convoy of Israeli armored cars carrying our soldiers, in police uniforms, while an armed Jordanian soldier stood at the middle exit, machine-gun on his hip, loaded and aimed – the campus deserted, a notice from 1948 browned, curling up, and buildings empty, longing to be filled again.
Imagine in 1957, standing next to Sam Rothberg, that towering American Jewish leader, as the cornerstone of the second or third building on the Giv’at Ram campus.
Imagine while building a career in the service of Israel’s founding prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, you took off whenever you could to sit in on lectures by brilliant Bible scholars.
Imagine leaving government service because you were asked by the great university president, Avraham Harman, to be point-man on campus in establishing the School for Overseas Students as envisioned and founded by Sam Rothberg.
Only after the 1967 Six Day War did we regain full access to Mt. Scopus. Imagine being among the first who, in 1970, went back to Mount Scopus in the Goldsmith building with an office in one of those bereft buildings you first saw 15 years earlier.
THE ROTHBERG International School will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. We created a school that embraced all immigrants and all students from abroad who wanted to study for a year in Jerusalem, as it was then, in English, French, Russian and Spanish, until their Hebrew would be adequate. The school later added a vital and important graduate level, which attracts students from Korea in the northeast to Argentina in the southwest, from every continent, speaking many languages. We also had a summer school and tailored special programs in cooperation with universities abroad.
It was my dream that we would not only enrich overseas Jewish communities with returning students, which Sam especially stressed, but also see non-Jewish students enhance their countries’ relations with Israel by sharing their positive Jerusalem and academic memories with their colleagues and friends.
Furthermore, as discussed at a Rothberg board meeting, the school can broaden the university’s intake, which already attracts the best Israeli students, and open the potential of the university to attract the best and brightest from across the world. From a recent meeting with university president Asher Cohen, as well as previous discussions with chancellor Menachem Ben Sasson, I understand that this has become an important part of the vision and program of the university. I estimate that well over 100,000 overseas students have participated in the school’s programs.
As Sam Rothberg would declare in his fundraising speeches, “Say it s-l-o-w-l-y. It’s a lot!” THERE ARE many more tales I could tell, but now I salute the board of governors meeting now taking place, which for good family reasons I cannot attend. I will return to my love affair; I have been fortunate. I have realized the dream I had from age 15, when I decided to make my home in the land of Israel, not yet a state.
When I got married in Toronto, it was not Mendelssohn’s Wedding March or even Wagner’s which the small klezmer orchestra played. It was a Hebrew poem set to music: “From the summit of Mount Scopus/ Shalom to thee, Yerushalayim.”
Now an octogenarian, I have the honor of being a member emeritus in the University’s Board of Governors.
I served on the board for about three decades and helped form, as Sam Rothberg’s vice-chairman, the Board of Overseers of the Rothberg International School.
The university is in the DNA of our clan. Every single member of our nuclear family has either studied, worked and/or taught there. Next week, my oldest grandson will receive his doctoral diploma at the commencement exercises of “our university.” The nuclear family of 10, plus three grandchildren (more waiting their turn) hold 18 Hebrew University degrees. One member of this group is a professor at HU, while another is a professor at Ben-Gurion University.
Had there not been a university in Jerusalem, it would not be Jerusalem, and Israel might not have come into existence.
Those are weighty words. Let’s begin with the role the University played in helping create the State of Israel. The fledgling Science Corps of the Hagana and later of the Israel Defense Forces were recruited from the Faculty of Science at Hebrew University, together with scientists from the Technion and the Sieff (later Weizmann) Institute. Many of the Hebrew University scientists have been of help in developing important segments of Israel’s defense capabilities. Today this is not a fashionable subject, but when our new state stood with its back to the sea and arms embargoes from the West, “home-made” equipment might just have given the determined young men and women the weapon’s edge they needed.
And Jerusalem. There is a quiet battle for the soul of Jerusalem. I doubt whether any Chief Rabbi would come to greet an anniversary of the university as did the courageous and visionary chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook at the initiation ceremony in 1925. For Jews, observant and not, for Arabs, Muslim or Christian, for students of all races and religions who assemble in Jerusalem, The Hebrew University is a beacon of rationality, of the search for truth and service to humanity in all fields of knowledge, from agriculture to medicine to pure and applied science, to the humanities and social sciences – simultaneously a beacon and a magnet.
As an 11-year-old in Toronto, I learned that before our people had a fixed calendar, the Sanhedrin would declare the new month by taking testimony from those who had seen the new moon. Then a signal flare would be lit on the Temple Mount. This light would then flare from Mount Scopus, leap across the valleys from mountain to mountain until it reached into the communities of distant Babylon.
Now too, this beloved university sends forth the light of learning from Mount Scopus and its campuses to the entire world, mountain and valley, over oceans and seas. The founding prime ministers called for Israel to be a light unto the Jews, and, quoting a fellow Jerusalemite, the prophet Isaiah: “a light unto the nations.”
The writer also served as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal for a decade, when he reached thousands of Jews across all continents with the message of Jerusalem’s centrality. This column honors Dr.Ariel Levinson, and Robert Simons on his honorary doctorate.