The Canadian Jewish News - Hebrew U’s 85th Anniversary

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Canadian Jewish News - headerHebrew U's 85th Anniversary

From the editor's deskFirst of a series.

Some seven years after the foundation stone was laid in 1918, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem officially opened on April 1, 1925.

The renowned artist Leopold Pilichowski captured the ceremony, the significance and the magnificent magic of the university’s inauguration on a large 3.5x2-metre oil canvas.

Against the beige and brown hills of Judea, the mountains of Moab, the Jordan Valley and the shimmering blue of the northern lip of the Dead Sea, Pilichowski paints hundreds of people (of the thousands who were at the ceremony) sitting and standing, encircling a large dais on Mount Scopus. They are clearly in rapt attention, listening to a white-haired man of senior years delivering an oration of apparent import.

The speaker is British foreign secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour, the author of the Balfour Declaration. Seated behind him in the first row of a five-row gallery of scholars, dignitaries and representatives of foreign governments are Chaim Nachman Bialik; Achad Ha’am; Chief Sephardi Rabbi Jacob Meir; Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook; Lord General Edmund Henry Allenby, the British commander who defeated the Turkish army in 1918; Sir Herbert Louis Samuel, the first high commissioner of Palestine; and Chaim Weizmann.

It is very clearly an important assembly on an equally important occasion. Beyond any doubt, that sun-blazed ceremony on that spring day in 1925 on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus, merely one week before the start of the festival of freedom, was a watershed moment in the course of establishing a sovereign Jewish state, in the course of modern Jewish history and, it is not an exaggeration to add, in the course of modern world history.

To commemorate the 85th anniversary of that milestone moment on Mount Scopus, The CJN was invited by the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University to travel to Jerusalem, visit the university and meet and engage with some of its scholars, researchers and teachers.

Our first visit was with Menahem Ben-Sasson, the president of the university.
Ben-Sasson is an internationally recognized scholar of Jewish history. The author of some 40 books and articles, he has won numerous distinctions and honours for his work and taught in many prestigious institutions.

He is soft-spoken of manner, precise of thought and often poetic in expression.
The decision to found the Hebrew University “was itself a breakthrough in Jewish thinking,” Ben-Sasson emphasized.

“‘How shall we build a Jewish state?’ the visionaries asked themselves.” But it was actually the very asking of this question and the determination to act upon it, Ben-Sasson pointed out, that laid the real cornerstone of the university.

“The mission that emerged from the foundational question,” Ben-Sasson emphatically said, “was a twofold one: we will be committed to the building of a state and to the betterment of the world.”

To ensure that we understand the significance of the twofold commitment of the university, Ben-Sasson elaborated in nearly rabbinic rhapsody.

“The ceremony at the amphitheatre [an amphitheatre exists today at the spot on Mount Scopus where the ceremony took place] symbolized the duality of this mission,” he said. “Facing the desert, we face the open vista, the open spaces. We face the future. You can build upon it what you consider important.

“Facing the Old City [below the western slopes of Mount Scopus], by contrast, we  face the past and the present. We must build upon it too. Like then, the university sees itself taking from the past and feeding the future.”

Gently yet excitedly, as if unwrapping a gift, the president of the university seemed to be almost personally recollecting events as he described the atmosphere, the anticipation, the excitement at the makeshift  wooden stage on Mount Scopus 85 years earlier.

“There was a messianic feeling to the ceremony,” he said. “Jews had been the subject of quotas and suffered discrimination throughout Europe. Now they had a university of their own. The first programs at Hebrew University were Jewish studies, mathematics and biochemistry.”

Ben-Sasson emphasized that the mission of the university today is the same as it was when it opened 85 years ago.

“Our mission is service to the Jewish People and service to the world.”

Over the next few weeks, I shall write about some of the ways in which the men and women of Hebrew University apply their knowledge, curiosity, skill and resolve in fulfilment of the twofold mission that was and remains the cornerstone of the university.

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