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Former Israeli Ambassador, Inspired by Russia Stint, Leads Diverse College

August 30, 2004
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When Aliza Shenhar was asked by Shimon Peres to be the Israeli ambassador to Russia in 1994, her first thought was, “Why me?” At the time, Shenhar, now 61, was provost of the University of Haifa. Though she was the first woman to serve as provost anywhere in Israel, she had no expertise when it came to Russia: She was a scholar of Jewish folklore.

“I didn’t speak the language and I’d never been in Russia before,” she recalled in a recent interview in Connecticut. “He told me, ‘There’s a need for a person who understands the meaning of Jewish life and Jewish culture to go to Russia and try to support it.’ “

That she did, not realizing that the experience would shape the way she approached education upon her return to Israel.

Peres offered Shenhar the job because he had been impressed by her leadership of a blue-ribbon commission on Jewish education in Israel’s secular schools. The group produced a landmark report i! n 1994 bearing her name.

The Shenhar Report called for the reallocation of educational funding so that schools’ Jewish studies curricula would no longer be the monopoly of the Orthodox.

Jewish history, heritage and values, the report said, should be taught in a pluralistic way to make them relevant to all students.

The report received widespread endorsement, but funding was not reallocated and the recommendations were not implemented.

But Shenhar said she remains optimistic that the recommended reforms may yet come to fruition in light of a new government commission.

For Shenhar, the stakes are high. Part of what drove her, she said, was the polarization in Israeli society between religious and secular.

A more pluralistic Jewish education for all students would not only increase knowledge, it would help create tolerance and “common ground on which national issues could be debated,” she said.

Helping build tolerance and common ground through educat! ion has become a theme in Shenhar’s life.

Now she’s doing it in th e Galilee as president of Emek Yezreel College, where the demographics could be daunting for a more conventional administrator: Arabs make up 20 percent of the student body, and many of the Jewish students are poor or new immigrants living in rural towns and villages.

Shenhar took the position at the fledgling college, surprising many of her colleagues, after a transformation she said she underwent in Russia. There, she said, she applied what she learned from the Shenhar commission and watched Jewish identity come alive.

“I gave hundreds of lectures about Jewish culture, about our common history, about Jewish values, all over Russia to young people who sat there with open mouths like they heard the voice of Moses from Sinai,” she said. “Then they came and touched me and said, ‘Do you have some materials for us? We need to know more.’ “

The communists, “destroyed the economy. They destroyed the value of human beings, but they didn’t destroy the Jewish community. Fr! om ashes, you see the re-creation of Jewish life,” she said.

“For me it was so obvious how to be a Jew,” she added. “I didn’t realize how difficult it is to create your identity again. Russia changed my whole life.”

Upon her return in December 1997 she was invited back to the University of Haifa, Shenhar said. But Russia “was so shocking and so moving I realized I was not going back to an established university. I needed to go back and contribute in my own way to improve something in Israel. I was looking for a mission, not a job.”

Shenhar said she was offered the position at the college “out of the blue.”

“I stayed there for three days and said yes,” she recalled “My friends thought I was mishugah. They said, ‘You can be a member of Knesset. Why this?’ I said, ‘I wanted to make change.’ “

“In the center of Israel, it’s like Broadway. It’s hard to experiment. No one is going to let you make something new,” she continued. “Off-Off Broadway it’s much easier! . This college is Off-Off-Off Broadway.”

When she arrived at the co llege, she said, there were 750 students, 20 faculty and a president who had been fired. The college, she said, “had not managed to define its character.”

Seven years later, there are 3,500 students, 70 full-time faculty and 100 part timers.

Shenhar immediately began studying the region — which is poor and has a high unemployment rate — to understand how best to serve it.

“A college is not a research university. It’s not an ivory tower,” she said. “It should take part in the region and create new programs to empower different kinds of people.”

The college’s mission is to meet the academic needs of first-generation higher education students. It also embraces pluralism on its campuses, pledging never to minimize students’ “vastly different historical perceptions and belief systems,” according to Shenhar.

Educators at the college must teach that a shared future “depends on a peace narrative whose starting premise is that each side has the right to disagree ! with the other,” she said.

Shenhar proudly noted that about 2,000 area adults take part in an outreach program offered by the college, called Tree of Knowledge. These include lectures in art, Bible studies, Jewish history and other areas of Jewish life. For those over age 70, courses are free, she added.

She also made note of coexistence programs for Arabs and Jews and a research and outreach institute for Middle Eastern women’s studies.

Finally, in the spirit of the Shenhar Report, she said, she requires all students to take courses on Jewish and Israel studies. For many, it’s their first exposure to such learning, but “we find many go on to take more classes,” Shenhar said. Arabs have the option of taking courses in comparative religious studies.

“When the first pioneers came to Israel, they came to this region to do agriculture,” she said. “Now, we’re in the second stage of pioneering. Instead of planting trees, we plant education.”

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