On June 1 and 2, 2022, the Straus Scholars visited Israel for an in-depth look at the intersection of Torah and Israeli literature, politics, art, and ethics. Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik began the program with an emotional close reading of Hannah Szenes’ Blessed is the Match, written just before the author, having left the safety of Palestine, reentered Nazi-occupied Hungary in an attempt to find her mother. Szenes was captured and executed, but her recognition that “Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake” has inspired generations of Zionists ever since. Straus Center Associate Director Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, the author of a soon-to-be-released volume on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, then offered students a learned analysis of the founding document, emphasizing the implications of David Ben-Gurion ensuring that Israel declare itself a “sovereign state.”
Kohelet Policy Forum founder Dr. Moshe Koppel then joined the students to discuss his recent book Judaism Straight Up and describe his work advancing Israel’s evolution as a Zionist state. The Straus Scholars were led on a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Library, where the curator of the Judaica collection Dr. Yoel Finkelman surveyed the history of Jewish printing and displayed rare Rashi manuscripts housed in the Library’s renowned collection. Naomi Schacter, director of international relations and partnerships, offered a preview of the Library’s extensive renovation.
Rabbi Soloveichik then led the students on a tour of some highlights in the Israel Museum, including Poussin’s The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem. The painting, Rabbi Soloveichik noted, doesn’t attempt to depict the Temple as it actually appeared, in contrast to the rabbinic perspective, which sought—despite the physical building’s destruction—to preserve the intricacies of how it operated and what commandments were involved in its service. He noted how inspiring it was to be discussing the work standing amidst modern-day, rebuilt Jerusalem.
Rabbi Soloveichik then offered a reading of Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem HaMatmid. He contrasted this work, which so eloquently describes the tension between a flourishing general culture and Torah learning in the beit midrash, with the contemporary scene in Israel, in which the two realms have been bridged in recent years, as reflected in nationally lauded religious pop stars like Ishay Ribo.
The Scholars then joined close to 100 other attendees at YU’s Gruss campus for the Jerusalem launch of Ambassador Danny Danon’s memoir In the Lion’s Den: Israel and the World. Ambassador Danon, a visiting professor at YU, was interviewed by The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, in a conversation that offered both personal anecdotes and a survey of the ambassador’s wide-ranging and impactful political career.
The second day of the program began with journalist Matti Friedman’s captivating analysis of contemporary Western coverage of Israel in the media and his own passion for telling stories on the margins of Israeli society, including his recent book on Leonard Cohen’s visit to the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. The morning continued with Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody previewing his upcoming volume on Jewish military ethics by reviewing the relevant Talmudic sources that can inform how Israel approaches arms sales on the international stage.
Following the morning sessions, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum hosted the students in her office for an in-depth discussion of the complex business, political, religious, and cultural dynamics in the holy city. Throughout, she emphasized her focus on “building for the future while keeping the integrity of the past.” The students then toured the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and learned about the personal and political story of the former Israeli prime minister and historic peacemaker. Author Yossi Klein Halevi then joined the students to discuss his beloved book Like Dreamers and the still-simmering political tensions resulting from Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem in 1967.
Ru Benhamou summed up the program by commenting that “the trip offered me immense insight and knowledge of the nuances of Israeli politics, literature, and culture. I have gained a humbling understanding of the events that have fashioned our homeland and Jewish identity. I am very thankful for such an impactful trip of spiritual and intellectual wisdom.”
To learn more about the Straus Scholars Program, click here.