Winnipeg Jewish Review Article "Top Notch Learning At Best Of Hebrew U"

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Winnipeg Jewish Review - BOHU headerOn October 24th, 140 people gathered at Balmoral Hall School for a day of inspired learning with four renowned lecturers from one of the world’s leading universities. The “Best of Hebrew U” event, organized by the Winnipeg chapter of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, brought in Professors Menachem Hofnung, Ein-Ya Gura, Michael Segal, and Abraham Fainsod to speak about a wide variety of topics.

Winnipeg BOHU speakersKicking the morning off with his keynote address, Professor Fainsod, a professor of Genetics in the Faculty of Medicine and the Deputy Chairman of the Institute of Medical Research Israel-Canada, engaged participants in his lecture on fetal alcohol syndrome and the partnered research being done by labs at the University of Manitoba and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to find preventative measures for this disease. The lecture centered primarily on an explanation of the negative effects of ethanol on developing fetuses. Fainsod outlined facial deformities, stunted growth, and central nervous system defects as key indicators of FASD. During pregnancy, ethanol alcohol, if ingested, “competes with enzymes that synthesize retinoic acid, a molecule that is integral in developing proper pattern formation.” An audible gasp went through the crowd as the professor explained that the damaging effects of alcohol consumption for pregnant women, most prevalent in cases of binge drinking, occurs only in the third week of embryo development.

“A common misconception of FASD”, Fainsod said, “is that it is only present in situations where women knowingly binge drink while pregnant.” In truth, because a fetus’s development is most hindered by alcohol in only the third week of growth, many cases of FASD can potentially result unwittingly.

Dr. Adrienne Meyers of the University of Manitoba bolstered Professor Fainsod’s lecture, detailing further the partnership between the U of M and Hebrew U. She cited as a particularly progressive aspect of this research relationship the ongoing joint work of Dr. Frank Plummer, a 2008 recipient of the Canadian Friends of Hebrew U Scopus Award, and his lab team, and researchers at Hebrew U in Jerusalem, in investigating Kenyan prostitutes who appear to be immune to HIV/AIDS.

Wrapping up the morning, Dr. Bryan Schwartz gave an informative lecture regarding the legal background of suggested FASD prevention methods, such as an infusion of vitamin A into foods. “A similar attempt has been made with folic acid, which has been inserted into many grocery products to prevent widespread birth defects in Canada,” Dr. Schwartz explained. But, in the case of vitamin A, “[researchers] have found that this measure is unfeasible as it has been deemed potentially harmful.” It is therefore “extremely difficult” to find a preventative solution to this epidemic that could “work in an extensive fashion in Canadian communities”.

As well, an additional partnership between Hebrew U and the U of M law school is in the works. “We’re trying to start a program modeled after the Australian “Mishpatim”, which sends Australian law students to the Hebrew University to study for six weeks during their summer”. “Ideally, we will have enough registration to begin the program this summer with Manitoba law students – both Jewish and non-Jewish – and then expand in numbers in coming years.”

Professor Menachem Hofnung, a Political Science professor and former President of the Israeli Law Society Association, gave two separate lectures, the first on the reconciliation of civil liberties and national security in Israel, and the second on the question of whether Israel can retain its Jewish character and still remain a democracy. On the issue of freedom and security, Hofnung focused on issues of Arab liberties within Israel, noting that the country’s policies on Arab rights, such as landholding, have remained unchanged since Israel’s founding.

“In 1948, [Israel] faced immediate problems: specifically, what to do with the pre-state armed militias that did not recognize the authority of the majority,” Hofnung explained. To that end, in many ways, Israel’s initial political stance on minority rights has led to a degree of “path dependency” reflected in contemporary policies. The 1950s saw most Arabs living in areas that were controlled by a military government, leading to the confiscation of abandoned lands previously inhabited by Arabs, who, according to the Absentees Property Law, may not retain property ownership of them. “This is a difficult situation,” said Hofnung, “because it has created a situation of ‘present absentees’, that is, Israeli Arabs who enjoy all other civil rights but for the right to hold land.”

When questioned about the potential effects of the Israeli Cabinet’s recent approval of a loyalty oath, which would require all future non-Jews applying for citizenship to declare loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Hofnung declared his skepticism that the oath would hold water and pass in the Knesset. “I don’t think the oath will – we forget that it is not only the Cabinet that approves these things, but that they have to go through the Knesset, which is much more diverse in opinion.” But Hofnung did elucidate that he feels that a certain degree of loyalty to the state is important. “Israeli academics, professors… when they call for boycotts of institutions at which they are working, this doesn’t make sense to me,” Hofnung declared. “It is rather like biting the hand that feeds you.”    

In another room, Dr. Ein-Ya Gura, of the Mathematics department at the Centre for the Study of Rationality, was busy lecturing about the application of game theory to everyday life. Referencing a book she co-authored with Michael Maschler, called Insights into Game Theory: An Alternative Mathematical Experience, Dr. Gura took her audience through a step-by-step description of game theory as used to determine success in marriage proposals. In his introduction of Dr. Gura to the crowd, U of M Economics Professor Irwin Lipnowski discussed her work with Professor Robert Aumann, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on game theory analysis. Dr. Gura began her talk with a background to her involvement with teaching and learning logic and rationality. “I realized that game theory and logic can be applied to so many aspects of life,” she explained. “In this book [Insights into Game Theory], we show that even a problem in the Talmud, which scholars found difficult to understand and solve, is an example of the uses of game theory.”

Using a lettered diagram of four uppercase and corresponding lowercase letters to represent men and women, she showed that “the preferences of men and women,” as demonstrated by a logic game, correspond so that “when both men AND women do the proposing, there is a high success rate”. Though introductory in nature, Dr. Gura’s lecture sincerely piqued the interest of many in the room toward logic and rationality.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Segal was captivating his audience with comparisons of the same biblical texts found in different places. He spoke on Dream Interpretation in the Book of Daniel, and How the Dead Sea Scrolls Interpret the Bible. Portions of the Dead Sea scrolls indicate slightly different names and verb tenses than those found in the modern version of the Tanach that we commonly use. He outlined similarities between the story found in the Book of Daniel and other Biblical figures and stories, such as Joseph. Both Daniel and Joseph were dream interpreters for the mightiest non-Jewish kings of their times, called upon when living in a foreign land. The tantalizing question of how and why we study the current version of our Tanach is one worth further exploration. Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Department of Bible, and author of The Book of Jubilee: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and Theology, Dr. Segal shared how his knowledge of several ancient languages was instrumental in his work unraveling the different and disparate sources he has used to piece together his theories to answer those questions.

The day was a resounding success, with participants heralding the informative and interactive nature of the learning sessions.

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