At a time when a disturbing number of Jewish nonprofit organizations are cutting back on programming or closing their doors altogether, why is the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) dramatically expanding its reach?
“Precisely at this moment, one of the most important and challenging times in Jewish life, the Jewish community cannot afford to put its educational needs on hold,” says Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Our current obligation is to act in ways that meet the needs of the Jewish community to create a strong and vibrant future.”
What Hartman’s father, David Hartman, set out to accomplish nearly 40 years ago in Israel was nothing less than deepening and spreading Jewish knowledge, commitment, passion and pluralism. Much more than a think tank, SHI has been called an “action tank,” a laboratory for the development of high-impact initiatives destined to shape the future of Jewish life in Israel and around the world. Through learning and dialogue the Institute has built strong new models of unity within diversity, based on mutual respect across the denominational spectrum.
“The Hartman Institute creates a place where some of the finest minds in the world can come together to address the critical challenges facing the Jewish people,” says Hartman. “We then disseminate these ideas to the people best positioned to influence the future of their communities,” adds Hartman.
Now, the Institute is building on the work it has long done in its Jerusalem campus by expanding programming directly to North American shores. “The vitality and independence of the North American Jewish community requires us to have a North American base of operations to ensure that we sufficiently serve this community,” says Hartman. “North America has its own unique challenges. We need to make sure that we service the Jewish community there at the highest level, which is tough to do at a 6,000-mile distance.”
Yehuda Kurtzer, a rising star in the Jewish world, has been selected to spearhead the new Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (SHI-NA). Two years ago, the Harvard doctoral student was selected over 200 other applicants to capture the first Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University. Kurtzer takes the Hartman mission seriously. “We are looking to become the Jewish community’s premier provider of serious learning applied to leaders and change-agents, and the central address for serious engagement with ideas,” he says. In order to accomplish this, SHI-NA will reach out to Jewish leaders, from congregational rabbis to start-up entrepreneurs. “We will continue to build on the Institute’s innovative work: engaging and empowering these change-agents with the kind of Torah wisdom they need to be stronger and more effective leaders. Our vision is to elevate the discourse of the North American Jewish community to deal with texts, ideas, and learning; rather than crisis-management.”
“Yehuda combines intellectual academic rigor with the passion to change Jewish life,” comments Donniel Hartman. “He has a deep understanding of the connection between ideas and reality, between depth and relevance. As one of our foremost young thinkers, he is deeply engaged at the cutting-edge of challenges facing modern Jewish life.”
Kurtzer’s partner in this ambitious new undertaking is newly elected SHI-NA Board Chair Angelica Berrie. Proud Jew-by-choice and one of the few women heading up a major Jewish organization today, Berrie is known as a community leader with vision and energy, determined to grow her late husband Russ’ commitment to enlivening – and strengthening – the Jewish future.
“Experiencing the learning which takes place within the walls of the Institute in Jerusalem was a beacon of light,” she says. “It was a transformative experience that inspired me to take on the leadership of an institution that has changed my life and shaped my Jewish journey.”
Berrie knows that she has taken the reins of SHI at a pivotal juncture in its growth. “Today’s challenges require us to exercise our Jewish values in a way that gives meaning and purpose to our lives and stimulates us to interpret our tradition in ways that revitalize the Jewish spirit,” she says.
Kurtzer and Berrie are already setting up a network of powerful North American Jewish organizations to link arms with, from federations and synagogues to Jewish museums and community centers. Beginning with community leadership programs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, South Florida, Washington, DC, and New York, SHI-NA plans to expand rapidly. Strengthening Jewish communities by empowering leaders with knowledge, Berrie and Kurtzer agree, is the overarching goal.
“One way to achieve Jewish continuity is to make Jewish life compelling for every generation,” says Kurtzer. “To do that, we must make Jewish change-agents stronger in their ability to lead others, teach others and become role-models for the transformative power of ongoing learning and growth.”