Jewish Knowledge for All

Each year, more than 20,000 BIU students enrich their Jewish literacy, as they delve into Biblical and Talmudic works, examine central tenets of Judaism, and explore key chapters in our people’s history in close to 300 courses offered by the Helene and Paul Shulman School for Basic Jewish Studies. Unique among Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan has, from its inception, sought to acquaint every Jewish student with core Jewish values and tradition, with an eye toward fostering Jewish unity, and commitment to the people and land of Israel.The Shulman School, recently upgraded from a Center, services the entire University, including the regional and haredi colleges, and special programs. Housed in the striking Jack & Gitta Nagel Family Jewish Heritage Center, the School offers courses (including internet and independent study) in Jewish history, the Bible, Talmud, Jewish thought, Jewish art, Hebrew and Semitic languages, and more. Some 120 distinguished academicians who are also talmidei hachamim, (including 20 full-time faculty members) impart fundamental Jewish knowledge to religious and secular alike, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and intellectual inquiry. Students readily attest to the engaging courses and excellent lecturers in their course evaluations:

• “You taught me to read the Biblein a way that’s more personal and experiential. You are my role model for derech eretz.”

• “The creative way in which you relayed Jewish family law made for a real learning experience. Now I want to deepen my knowledge in the area.”

• “Sitting in class was an energizing and uplifting experience.”

• “You piqued my curiosity, instilling in me a desire to continue to enrich my  knowledge about Jewish tradition and customs.”

• “Much to your credit, I have become a devotee of the Bible. For decades, my home library – replete with Biblical books and commentaries – has been gathering dust. Now I am excited to delve into these works and find a world unto itself – the story of the evolution of the Jewish people intrigues me and I study it with passion and awe.”

Contemporary Jewish History Prof. Judy Baumel Schwartz, who heads the School, highlights the importance of BJS courses in addressing widespread ignorance of our deep Jewish roots. “It’s impossible to understand the true depth and beauty of life in the State of Israel without knowing where it all comes from. It’s what epitomizes BIU for our students.” A sought after lecturer on the Holocaust, she stresses: “We teach academic Jewish studies but do not ‘proselytize.’”

During their undergrad studies, students take seven year-long BJS courses (Jewish studies majors take fewer). MA candidates take 1-2 courses. Students must also pass an exam in basic Jewish concepts. Popular courses include Halakha and Medicine, Contemporary Issues, Holidays, and the Jewish Home (when a student learned about the pidyon haben – redemption of a first-born son – the staff organized the ceremony he never had). The School regularly hosts guest lectures on topics ranging from the Rabbinical Courts to organ transplants in the light of halakha.

Over the years, the program has sought to adapt to changing needs, providing courses in Russian and French for the influx of immigrant students. Currently, the School offers two yearly courses each in English and in easy Hebrew. The Shulman School for Basic Jewish Studies is clearly making its mark, ensuring that each and every BIU grad has core Jewish knowledge. As the students note:

“Having grown up on a left-wing, secular kibbutz, I thank you for enabling me to redress my ignorance of Jewish tradition. This was an important beginning for me and I hope to continue throughout my life, without any connection to becoming religious.”

“As a secular Jew who is far from tradition, I didn’t expect much from BJS, but after I began taking courses, a profound world unfolded before me, leaving a deep impression and bringing me closer to the traditional world.”

Finally, a Parisian-born IDF Intelligence officer, who attended his first Jewish studies course ever at BIU, was amazed to “learn so many things about Judaism from Megillat Ruth. Although the semester hasn’t come to a close, I already feel my outlook has changed significantly.”