Through its flagship program, Matanel Fellows, Alma offers a unique opportunity for aspiring intellectuals and public leaders to learn about the treasures of classic Jewish culture, so that they can use them as a source of inspiration, to ensure a robust cultural dialogue, to create a unique connection between the language of the traditional Beit Midrash, academia, and cultural creativity, and to suffuse contemporary public discourse and culture with an acknowledgement of our shared Jewish roots. These cultural treasures are there for the taking, but for much of non-orthodox society have been seen, for too long, as the exclusive domain of religious sectors of the country. Yet they can offer inspiration for contemporary creativity, provide a moral compass for ethical dilemmas, serve as a unifying factor in the creation of a national Jewish identity. The need for this is all the more critical as society becomes increasingly fractured, and as parts of our society become increasingly distanced from our, shared, Jewish roots.
The emphasis on cultural and public leaders is deliberate: significant cultural change comes from small groups of intellectuals and artists studying together, and they, in turn, enrich cultural intensity for all, and enhance the quality and Jewishly-infused richness of public discourse for everyone.
The unique interdisciplinary approach to both content and study methods facilitates an innovative exploration of Jewish sources and cultural traditions. Its programs fuse the traditional Bet Midrash style of learning classic Jewish sources with novel study methods, and offer an examination of world and Hebrew literature, poetry, philosophy and the arts. This mix of disciplines and perspectives encourages creative thinking, enriches public discourse and nurtures a Jewishly-literate cultural leadership.
Within this approach, those accepted into the program – there is fierce competition for the 25 places – have the opportunity to tap into the cultural wealth of the past as a source of answers to contemporary issues, and as a unifying factor in the creation of a robust Israeli identity. For a full semester, Matanel Fellows at Alma spend two days each week attending five to six lectures on topics ranging from Spinoza and Greek philosophy to the nature of Israeliness, and from Talmud to modern Hebrew and world literature, combined with four hours of traditional studying in hevruta, small groups, within a Beit Midrash framework. The study program is taught by some of the most brilliant academics, public intellectuals and teachers in Israel, and perhaps more important, participants study together and learn from each other. This traditional approach to non-frontal study incorporates peer learning, and invites the students to take ownership of their studies.
Achievements of the project in the last 3 years
Over its first 20 years, through a wide range of cultural programming, Alma has significantly affected Israel’s public cultural discourse, specifically through the more than 400 graduates of Matanel Fellows at Alma.
Cultural figures are increasingly using layers of reference to Jewish sources without being regarded as newly religious. Graduates report that the studies were a source of inspiration and empowerment, and fruitful for creativity and activity, and that the program broadened their horizons and changed their world views.
Among the comments of recent graduates:
“I found the learning to be very enriching; it opened up new ways of thinking. The different courses succeeded in touching upon and deepening the same rich cultures that I had either forgotten or repressed… The wide variety of courses provided me with a broad view of different voices and diverse opinions, and allowed me to understand how the various streams of Judaism became what they are today.”
“The structure of the program of in-depth joint study gave the texts personal relevance; the lecturers contributed a great deal of their knowledge and experience, which made the content valuable way beyond that of mere study… [to] a fruitful discourse and Midrash-style study encounter with the texts, an encounter that led both to a discussion of precisely those issues that are part of Israel today, and to a dialogue with differing textual dilemmas. This allowed for a fresh look at Hebrew culture, as well as providing amazing inspiration. The Midrashic dialogues led to discussions on contemporary values and mutual responsibility, and offered a new outlook on Jewish thought in Europe and the Zionist melting pot, on contemporary issues and the events of the daily news. We were all astonished at how the writings of Spinoza are as relevant to us today as they were in his time.”
“Nowhere else was I able to find such a concentrated dose of familiarity with Jewish sources and traditions on a modern-secular basis… The program opened a door to innovative thought that could translate into public activity, especially during a period of deep divisions in Israeli society. I will certainly continue to partake of the treasures that Alma offers, and work to expose young people to the values that should shape civil society, as reflected in the Alma philosophy.”
These graduates are already impacting on the arts scene in Israel, on education, and on Hebrew cultural dialogue internationally. Furthermore, through weekly meetings for graduates in the Amitim Alumni Program, Alma is nurturing a community that encourages Jewishly-suffused artistic and cultural activity, while inspired by the Matanel Fellows at Alma model, leading figures from the world of Israel’s culture come together weekly – in some meetings there can be as many as 40 participants – to examine Jewish classic texts in a Beit Midrash-style learning forum.
The conditions in which the program can be expanded or duplicated in Israel or another country
Alma seeks to expand and duplicate the Matanel Fellows at Alma program by:
1. Providing more and larger scholarships to suitable, young, candidates. Over the past two years, we have found that a segment of the public that is particularly important to us, promising young intellectuals and artists in their twenties, find it difficult to free themselves for the two weekly six-hour sessions that make up this program. Many of this target audience are not yet financially stable and often work shifts. Asking them not to work two weekly shifts while not providing them with a significant scholarship makes it hard for them to participate in the program.
2. Annually mounting one study semester in Israel’s north and a second semester in the south, in addition to the two study groups that take place in Tel Aviv. While it is natural that the home of Alma is in Israel’s cultural capital, we wish to ensure that a wider spectrum of emerging public intellectuals and cultural leaders can benefit from the unique study program that Alma offers, and through them, an increased number of people can be exposed to cultural programming that is suffused with Jewish culture and inspired by Jewish sources.
Using existing facilities and local academics and cultural figures, who will teach alongside Alma’s educators from Tel Aviv, each such study semester will seek to impact up to 25 young public leaders.
3. Annually mount one Matanel Fellow at Alma style program in a key Diaspora community, and there reach out to members of the community’s cultural and public leadership.
There is fertile ground for such programs across the Jewish world: the majority of world Jewry is unaffiliated, and has not found in traditional community frameworks a channel through which to express their Jewish identity, so that opportunities to study Hebrew culture within a secular setting will enrich understanding of the Jewish people’s shared cultural heritage and common national past. This in turn, will help enrich dialogue and the sense of connection between Jews living in Israel and those living in the Diaspora.
Dr. Ruth Calderon is an educator and Talmud scholar, and for many years already has been one of Israel’s leading figures spearheading activities to make classical Jewish texts accessible to the widest audience of the observant and non-traditional alike. She seeks to reinvigorate Hebrew culture as a shared space, with the aim of ensuring that contemporary public discourse and culture acknowledges our shared Jewish roots, and so that the cultural wealth of the past can serve as a source of answers to contemporary issues and as a unifying factor in the creation of a robust Israeli identity.
Ruth created Alma Home for Hebrew Culture in 1996. It works to strengthen the Jewish cultural underpinning of Israel, and enrich the Jewish identity of unaffiliated Jews through study programs on the Jewish cultural, ethical and spiritual legacy, and it does so in order that these treasures serve as a source of inspiration for public discourse. The target audience for the Jewish renewal in which Alma has played and continues to play a central role, and where it has a proven track record, is every Jew who wants to study in a Beit Midrash, free from the bounds of traditional Jewish Law (halakha) as dictated by a rabbinic authority, every Jew who wishes to delve into Jewish cultural-religious sources and find in them guidelines for contemporary life and the strengthening of Israeli society.
With an MA and doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Talmud, who served as a member of Knesset and Knesset deputy speaker for two years, Ruth works through Alma to nurture Jewish renewal within Israel’s secular world and encourage cultural creation – film, theater, popular music, established and emerging authors – inspired by Jewish sources. She is guided by her belief that still today, after 70 years of statehood, and even as Jewish renewal has become an important feature of secular culture, the Jewish identity of Israel continues to be shaped. To realize this mission, Alma offers a unique channel for studying the great, classical, works of Hebrew and Jewish culture, and focuses its efforts on providing opportunities for the country’s artists and public intellectuals to delve into the riches of the past, in order to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel. “It is impossible,” she argues, “to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are.”
Ruth is the chair and acting director of Alma Home for Hebrew Culture. She is responsible for shaping and realizing Alma’s vision; nurturing existing and identifying new sources of philanthropic support; and developing new and exciting programming that will firmly place the organization as the key organization devoted to strengthening the Jewish identity and sense of connection to Jewish heritage among Israel’s cultural leaders, and facilitating encounters for these leaders with the riches of classical Jewish culture to enrich and inspire them. It is through these efforts that Alma and its impact can continue to grow.