(Courtesy of YU’s Straus Center) From January 8-11, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought traveled to Israel for education and solidarity during the ongoing conflict with Hamas. The Straus Center convened a series of seminars by Israeli scholars, journalists, ethicists and public figures at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, and the students conducted volunteer missions on behalf of soldiers, children and families through the non-profit Smiles for the Kids.
On Monday, Straus Center Deputy Director Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern interviewed Lahav Harkov, senior political correspondent for Jewish Insider, on “Politics, the Press, and the Social Media War.” Jacob Siegel, a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine, subsequently delivered a lecture on “War in a Post-American Age,” drawing upon his extensive reporting on the US-Israel military and diplomatic relationship. Rabbi Dr. Aaron Segal, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University, presented a literary and theological analysis of Chaim Grade’s short story “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” to reflect on theodicy in light of October 7 and the Holocaust and to examine the inner tensions of current Israeli society.
In the afternoon, the students helped package snack bags for IDF soldiers on the front lines in Gaza.; the volunteer session featured a presentation from a chef who explained the practical necessities for soldiers’ nutrition and addressed misconceptions about what is most helpful to families whose husbands and fathers are in the field. Afterward, Straus Center Associate Director Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, author of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment, delivered a seminar reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Ben Gurion’s death and what lessons we can learn from him in a post-10/7 World. YU’s President Ari Berman joined the Straus Center’s group for dinner to share his thoughts and field questions on YU’s ongoing efforts to support Israel.
On Tuesday, Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik interviewed Dr. Russ Roberts, president of Shalem College. Roberts reflected on his experiences as a recent oleh to Israel, and offered economic and moral insights on the current moment. Rabbi Soloveichik then interviewed Gil Hoffman (executive director of Honest Reporting) and his wife Maayan Jaffe Hoffman (deputy CEO at the Jerusalem Post) on “Israel’s Friends, Israel’s Enemies, and the Media Today.” Gil, who is the first person to speak about Israel in all 50 states of America, described how his organization’s research on misinformation has led to the firing of multiple antisemitic reporters in mainstream media organizations. Mayaan, who launched the Post’s Christian World portal, discussed the phenomenon of Christian Zionism in America, arguing that their support is significant and essential despite its theological underpinnings. In the afternoon, students traveled to a local hotel housing displaced families from Sderot and led a cookie and cupcake decorating workshop for the kids, bringing smiles to many faces. The day concluded with another seminar by Dr. Rogachevsky, “Lessons from Menachem Begin’s Liberal Nationalism.”
On Wednesday, another YU solidarity mission led by the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership joined the Straus Center for sessions with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, a renowned scholar of Jewish law, and Natan Sharansky, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union and former minister in Israeli governments. Rabbi Rimon lectured on war in Jewish law, and Rabbi Soloveichik interviewed Sharansky on the theme of “Jewish Unity and the Future of Democracy.” Sharansky reflected on the threat of antisemitism on today’s college campuses, and he fielded questions from students who wanted to know how they can best support Israel. In the afternoon, students packaged candy for families that have a father in military service, which were distributed for Shabbat. The session featured a talk by a combat engineer in the IDF, who described his experiences on the front lines and the effect of the war on his family and community. The day concluded with a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Grossman, a professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University, connecting the weekly Torah reading with our current wartime moment.
On Thursday, Dr. Halpern led a conversation with Straus Center Senior Scholar Dr. Tevi Troy and his brother Dr. Gil Troy, a distinguished professor at McGill University, on “What Zionism Looks Like after October 7 – in Israel, America and Beyond.” Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody, author of Ethics of our Fighters, then delivered a seminar on Jewish military ethics, and Straus Center Resident Scholar Dr. Shaina Trapedo lectured on women warrior poets in Jewish and Western history. The students were then treated to a tour of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The program concluded with a dinner session, led by Dr. Halpern, with Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem) and Rabbi Alex Israel (an educator and scholar at the Sacks Legacy Trust) on “The Future of the Fight Against Antisemitism.”
The Straus Center’s trip to Israel was a deeply meaningful and educational experience for the group, which included twenty-two Straus Scholars and six staff and faculty members. In addition to viewing the Israel-Hamas war through the lens of Torah and Western thought, as well as learning from many distinguished speakers based in Israel, the volunteering efforts advanced YU’s values, helping and supporting our brethren in Israel in their time of need.