Liberal arts take the holy land

The Tel Aviv University International School’s bachelor’s in liberal arts draws students from across the world – offering a broad array of subjects and voices.

Joy Phua, the valedictorian of the program’s first 50-person class, speaks at graduation. (photo credit: ASAF SHILO)
Joy Phua, the valedictorian of the program’s first 50-person class, speaks at graduation.
(photo credit: ASAF SHILO)
Joy Phua had a dream one night in her Singapore home – that she was in Israel.
When she woke up the next morning, the then-21-year-old googled higher education and stumbled across the Tel Aviv University International School’s Liberal Arts bachelor’s program, which launched that year, in 2012.
Phua – who graduated last month as the valedictorian of the first 50-person class of the program – describes her dream as “very random.” She explains that previously she had no connection to Israel whatsoever and couldn’t trace the origin of the dream.
“I expected to see camels!” she laughs, poking fun at this stereotype of the country. She had originally intended to go to university in Australia, as many Singaporeans do, but decided to instead follow her subconscious suggestion and become the first Singaporean to complete a full degree at Tel Aviv University.
Phua joined 33 other students from the UK, the US, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Turkey, Ukraine, Argentina and Mexico in Tel Aviv.
Subjects undertaken by students include literature, philosophy, history of the economy, history of Israel, philosophy of science and arts. In addition, all first-year students are required to take academic writing. Students must also choose four tracks from literature, philosophy, Middle Eastern studies, modern Jewish and Israel studies, psychology and digital culture and communication. The three-year program is taught entirely in English, but there is a foreign language requirement, which means that students must master another language by the time they graduate.
“One of the reasons we started the program was to give a push to a discipline which is in less demand,” says TAU International director Maureen Meyer Adiri, regarding the fact that humanities in Israel is “more tricky” than vocational subjects.
While Phua was drawn to Israel by an arbitrary dream, the broad program attracts students for a variety of reasons. Swedish graduate Alex Eisen, 25, saw the program as a stepping-stone to becoming a Masorti rabbi.
Eisen left a teaching degree when he realized he wanted his future to be intertwined with his Jewish identity. A degree that offers Jewish studies doesn’t exist to the same extent in Sweden, he says, so he looked outside of his native country. Having already spent time in Israel in a kibbutz ulpan, he decided the Holy Land was the place to “grow Jewishly” and come into contact with Israeli culture while studying an array of subjects.
Field trips tailored to the various subjects offered enhance this broad education. Moreover, the social staff organize trips around the country, some of them overnight, to familiarize the international students with the Jewish state and one another, and to provide them with insight into Israeli and Jewish culture and traditions.
“This degree is a gateway to get into rabbinical college in Europe, because I felt I needed some sort of preparation,” Eisen tells Metro. “I thought it would be better for a prospective rabbi to have a sense of the bigger world and to learn secular studies; I thought it would gel well with future prospects.
“In Europe, being a rabbi is much bigger than interacting with a specific congregation; you have to have a much bigger perspective – and I feel this education enables me to have that,” Eisen asserts.
He feels that the liberal arts degree equipped him with great clarity in perceiving diverse subjects. Over the three years he learned methodology of history, philosophy, psychology, Jewish and Israel studies.
“I learned all these distinct perspectives that one needs to take into account to get a bigger picture and get closer to finding your own truth – this education provided me with those tools.”
Furthermore, he adds, the degree taught him how to write for different audiences according to subject.
Eline Rosenhart of the Netherlands had less specific motivations for undertaking the degree. A published author of a novel by the age of 16, with the second out at age 21, the accomplished young adult considered studying medicine but soon discarded that dream; she decided she didn’t want a career that would consume her whole life and prevent her from pursuing other passions.
“I didn’t really know what to study, so I thought if I started broad I would subsequently learn what I want to focus on,” recounted Rosenhart, who majored in Middle East studies and, having completed her degree, has now taken up Arabic. She plans to do a master’s in Middle Eastern history at TAU but, having become proficient in Israel’s native language, will do her second degree in Hebrew.
Like many people her age, the 21-year-old Rosenhart isn’t yet sure what she wants to do after her MA, but she is unfazed by this uncertainty. “It’s hard to find a job anyway, so it’s better to do something you like and then afterwards think what you’ll do with it,” she says.
Rosenhart, Eisen and Phua arrived at the program from different countries and with diverging goals, but they all agree that the broadness of the degree is one of its biggest pull factors, as well as the opportunity to build relationships with people from around the world and to hear an array of voices and opinions.
“By meeting other people, I learned that different people think differently about different concepts,” Eisen reflects, noting that this taught him to think openly and to genuinely listen to other people’s ideas. “Not to dismiss people just because they have different ideologies, but hear their voices. When you study Talmud or Mishna, you have a multi-vocal tradition and you always have to listen to different voices and rabbis speaking from different ages and try not to be judgmental, not just to listen to ideology similar to yours but to listen to the Jewish people as a whole.
“Having a broad knowledge of things was the best aspect of the program, and you make out of it what you want – you choose what you want to focus on, so it’s very personal and no one gets the same thing,” Rosenhart enthuses.
TAU’s Adiri supports this sentiment, describing the program as “very open” and saying its goal is convey to the students that “they can do anything.”
Indeed, as Eisen returns to Sweden to begin a fellowship at Paideia - The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden and pursue his dream of becoming a rabbi, Phua plans to stay in Israel and launch a start-up together with a friend, to create a bridge between Singaporean investors and Israeli start-ups.
Although Eisen feels his calling is in Sweden, where he is more needed as a Jewish educator, the passion he has for Israel, which was ignited when he traveled the country as a high-school student, will not be forgotten.
“I would like to come back to Israel as an educator and give others the experience that I had,” he reveals. “I’d like to make a lot of connections with Israel and always keep it close to my heart.”