In the context of the well-known and long-studied shifting American-Jewish identity in the 21st century, a philanthropic “ideas institution” for the Jewish world is investing, on multiple fronts, to educate the next generation of Jewish, American and Zionist leaders.

Working to communicate the multilayered Jewish tradition while creating “animated” citizens who are thoughtful champions of a Jewish worldview, the Tikvah Fund offers educational summer programs that cater to the range of Jewish students—from those with little to no formal Jewish education to those who have been enrolled in Jewish day schools for their entire lives.

In the wake of the coronavirus, the fund’s two residential summer programs at Yale University—Tikvah scholars for students studying in full-time Jewish day schools, and Maimonides scholars for students from a range of Jewish backgrounds and perspectives—have gone remote. Most years, four visiting teachers with a passion for Jewish ideas, Western civilization, Zionism and Israel host twice-daily seminars and roundtable discussions that use classical Jewish and Western texts to discuss philosophy, statesmanship, Zionism and more.

This year’s online learning has expanded the scope of teachers worldwide. It includes 20 additional course offerings through the newly launched Tikvah Online Academy, which includes cohorts for seventh- and eighth-graders, ninth- and 10th-graders, 11th- and 12th-graders, and college students.

“At this time of great receptivity towards a new mode of learning, we realized there was this incredible opportunity to leverage the moment of remote learning with the same quality programs Yale had been offering for 10 years,” said Tikvah Fund’s senior director of educational programming, Rabbi Mark Gottlieb. “So we launched something totally new that we had never conceived of before, expanding class offerings, and naturally, the faculty.”

Offering these seminars, said Gottlieb, is “not just buying time, but it is the pass key to a new way of engaging students throughout the year and moving forward. From what I observed firsthand, the online learning is an effective medium to engage in classic Jewish texts.”

The students engage in talks with leading professors, policy experts, writers and rabbis, who share their experience and wisdom with the hope that participants can apply the lessons to their own lives.

Coupled with that, master teachers of the scholars programs “facilitate robust conversation that come out of the texts with students arguing, debating and getting clarity on what these texts have to say about the modern condition,” said Gottlieb.

This seminar-style learning, he maintained, is successful in exposing students to a more holistic, integrated way to thinking, leading them to ask questions that animate public culture.

“It also creates individuals who are more likely to go out into the world, starting in the college years, who become sophisticated and thoughtful champions of a Jewish worldview,” he told JNS. “If our Judaism means more than the space in the synagogue and school—to express its rich world of ideas which has contributed to western civilization in profound ways—we can’t be strangers to our own tradition’s ability to speak to our whole integrated lives. We must mine Jewish traditions for its teachings.”

‘The Jewish world is my calling’

Meira Saffra, 19, grew up in an Orthodox family in New York, where she studied in Jewish schools from elementary grades on. Before spending two summers with Tikvah Scholars, she said “I had no understanding of the greater Jewish world,” which she attributed to her Orthodox community that “is so robust that there almost isn’t a need for larger Jewish unity.”

She told JNS that interacting with non-Orthodox Jews and understanding their Jewish identity, which seemed less rooted in text and religious practice, “opened my eyes to my responsibility for the greater Jewish community. There is so much to gain from being in settings where Jews from all different backgrounds come together and discuss Jewish ideas and values. It made me feel that I have a stake in the Jewish future and have the ability to contribute.”

“Now, when I look at my future, I feel like the Jewish world is my calling,” she said.

Martin Chapman, 18, grew up in a secular household in New York City and had little involvement with Jewish life prior to attending the Maimonides program. The schedule, Chapman told JNS, offered “an entree into Judaism,” where he left feeling spiritually fulfilled and connecting to something greater than myself.”

Now, said Chapman, he prays regularly, and is learning Hebrew to “better understand prayers, the Torah, and the culture of our people.” He added that he also enjoys connecting with the community through Shabbat dinners and prayer.

Just as young people can greatly benefit from “a thoughtful, sophisticated and rich introduction to Jewish life—one that is not patronizing but challenging intellectually,” summarized Gottlieb, so, too, can the Jewish world and beyond, even from one’s living room.

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