The statue of Albert Einstein sits cozily in the center of the tranquil gardens of the Van Leer Jerusalem campus, not as a patron saint, perhaps, but as a fellow scholar, an honored elder, and an inspiration.
Set back modestly from Jabotinsky Street, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute gathers the brightest minds in Israel and from abroad to examine foundational philosophical questions, which, in the words of the Institute director Professor Shai Lavi, “bridge the world of ideas and reality.”
During our conversation last week, Professor Lavi explained that although some might consider philosophical inquiry to be exclusively academic and theoretical, in his view, “deep philosophical questions are relevant to daily life. The deeper the question, the more relevant.”
In this season of self-examination and self-reflection, his observation was a meaningful reminder that the way we think about things, the basic assumptions we hold about the world and one another, profoundly impacts our notions of ourselves and therefore the society we create.
Lavi’s vision for the Institute is that its work helps to broaden and deepen our self-understanding, which has a transformative effect on our society. For example, Van Leer scholars in the humanities and social sciences conducted research into the religious-secular divide – a source of tension in Israel, and a source of conflict in many other societies, as well. It turns out that an individual’s identity is far more complex than the conventional dichotomy suggests. In fact, “secular” itself is a relative term, whose meaning is linked to other factors, such as nationality, gender, ethnicity and social class. Rethinking the way we think about the religious-secular dimension can have an important positive influence on Israeli society, with implications internationally.
The Van Leer Institute Jerusalem goes about accomplishing its mission in multiple ways: as an incubator for innovative ideas, as a research center, and as a source for shaping the public discourse, and pointing the way to alternative ways of thinking about current issues; in other words, to encourage thinking outside the box.
The Institute is committed to deepening the public discourse on important topics, and to being a place where different parts of society can meet, as well. They address these commitments in a variety of ways. A newly-launched digital magazine, “Hazeman Hazeh (These Times)”, is aimed at the general public. It is in Hebrew only, but they hope to translate some of the articles into English and make them available on their website. Public lectures, educational programs for local leaders, and interactions with civil society are all vehicles for expanding their reach.
Their flagship program recruited young Israeli intellectuals, future leaders, from all sectors of society. The 15 exceptional students included people from the country’s periphery, from the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) sector, from the Arab sector, the religious Zionist sector and the country’s center. The students spent two months living together, learning from one another, studying and attending cultural activities together during the summer before they entered university. For most of these young people, this was a first, and no doubt challenging, exposure to Israelis very different from themselves, as well as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the humanities – of ideas – to society. Each participant left the program with an individual project to work on. The institute plans to stay in touch with them. It hopes to continue to impact future generations of Israeli leadership, who will bring their experiences and their ideas back to their communities.
We wish them success.