What does Jewish thought say about big questions regarding public and social policy, economics, history, war, and statesmanship?
Select yeshiva high school juniors and seniors have had the opportunity to learn, discuss, and debate such issues for the last six summers at the Tikvah Institute for High School Students, held on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The session this year is set for June 24 through July 8.
This summer, working in partnership with the Maimonides Fund, Tikvah is adding a parallel track for Jewish students in public and non-Jewish private schools. It will be called the Maimonides Scholars program.
The new program’s goal “is to train these students to take on leadership positions in the Jewish community on campus and beyond, by teaching them a broader base of knowledge and wisdom through history, politics, and philosophy,” said Rabbi Mark Gottlieb of Teaneck, dean of the Tikvah Institute for High School Students. The institute is one of a number of programs run by the Tikvah Institute, a philanthropic foundation whose mission is to foster intellectual, religious, and political leadership development for the Jewish people and state.
Rabbi Gottlieb, formerly principal of Orthodox schools including the Maimonides School in greater Boston and Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, said the Maimonides Scholars Program is not a religious outreach program but rather the realization of his ambition to address the interests and needs of young Jewish thinkers outside the formal Jewish high school education system.
“We aim to reach these students where they are, showing them the sophistication and beauty of Jewish thought in a nondenominational way,” he said. “We will have teachers representing different denominations, and students won’t be expected to adopt Orthodox practice. We don’t intend to convey an exclusive or monolithic view of Judaism. When students are exposed to Jewish texts and ideas that speak to them, we expect they’ll grow closer to Judaism, wherever they are in their practices and beliefs.”
Each track will accept 60 students who are assessed as exceptionally “passionate about ideas, reading, and debating contemporary ideas, questions, and policy.”
While the Tikvah Scholars and Maimonides Scholars sessions will be separate and geared to each cohort’s educational background, there will be integrated experiences, including a debate workshop. Both cohorts will be provided with kosher cuisine and a choice of non-mandatory Shabbat options for prayer, meditation, and study.
All 120 students are urged to “see each other as real allies in the struggle to represent and live their Judaism in a deep, sophisticated, and proud fashion, building up to the time when they arrive at college together,” Rabbi Gottlieb said.
Graduates of Jewish schools aren’t necessarily better equipped for philosophical challenges they will encounter in secular higher education, he added. “Most Jewish day schools spend a lot of time teaching Jewish texts and preparing kids for college, but spend less time on the space between Jewish thought and the contemporary world. The students come out with a strong Jewish identity, but when confronted with intellectual counter-narratives and social and moral trends opposed to tradition — including questions having to do with Zionism, sexual ethics, and pluralism — they struggle to respond in a thoughtful and sophisticated way.”
The sense of community and the experience of learning ideas of substance are what led Jared Mayer, a member of the 2013 cohort of Tikvah Scholars, to continue participating in Tikvah programs during his gap year in Israel and during college at Johns Hopkins, where he is a senior philosophy major.
“It inspired in me a great sense of intrigue in Jewish questions and ideas that I would later pursue during my time in college,” Mr. Mayer, who grew up in East Brunswick and whose family now lives in Teaneck, said. “It provides an introduction to great Jewish and Western texts and ideas as well as a community of like-minded people for kids who feel drawn by these big questions but have little to no outlet in high school to pursue them.”
Lecturers and seminar leaders in the summer program include at least two others with roots in Teaneck. They are Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Yeshiva University and senior scholar at its Center for the Jewish Future, and Shuli Taubes, who has a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard and teaches Bible and Jewish identity at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y.
Other seminar leaders or guest lecturers this summer include National Jewish Book award-winning authors Daniel Gordis and Dara Horn; former NYU President John Sexton; Michael Doran, an expert in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, radical Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict; Tulane professor of philosophy and Jewish studies Ronna Burger; Darren Staloff, professor of history at City College and City University of New York; and Kate Havard, a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in economic warfare.
“It’s an exciting group of people and will lead to a vibrant learning environment where students can ask tough questions,” Rabbi Gottlieb said.
An essay contest launched in honor of the inaugural Maimonides Scholars Program asks juniors and seniors from public and private non-Jewish high schools to consider “What does it mean to be both an American and a Jew? How do these two identities inform each other? How do they complement each other — and how are they in tension?” The submission deadline is January 22; the first prize is $5,000 and a scholarship to the Maimonides Scholars Program. Three runners-up each will receive $1,000 and a scholarship to the Maimonides Scholars Program.
Applications for Tikvah Scholars will be accepted until February 4, and for Maimonides Scholars until February 16. The total cost for either program is $400, which covers a portion of the actual costs for books, materials, and food. All other onsite program expenses, including housing, are fully subsidized. Merit- and need-based financial aid is available.
For more information or to apply, go to www.MaimonidesScholars.org.