Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies was founded in 2007 with the mission of “deepening Yeshiva University’s longstanding relationship with the State of Israel.” This summer, Tzili Charney donated a $1 million grant to the Center in the honor of her late husband, Leon Charney. Leon Charney, who graduated from Yeshiva College in 1960, was a prominent lawyer, author, and Jewish activist, who served as an advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and President Ezer Weizman. He also worked with Prime Minister Golda Meir on Israel’s initiative to help Soviet Jews immigrate to Israel. Charney aided President Jimmy Carter in assembling the documents leading to the Camp David Accords. As a prominent philanthropist, he funded the Cardiology Wing at NYU Langone Medical Center, and established the school of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa. In 2005, Leon Charney received an honorary degree from YU.
Tzili Charney, renowned artist, activist, and philanthropist, continues her and Leon’s mission of striving to help others, and create a vision of peace for Israel and Palestine. She works as a costume designer for Habima Theater in Israel, the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv, the Jewish Repertory Theater, and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in New York. In 2014, she founded the Leon Charney Resolution Center in Hakfar Hayarok, Israel which works to advance peace education and resolution. The Resolution Center also advances Tzili Charney’s project of facilitating communication between Israeli and Palestinian families. Charney was awarded an honorary degree from YU in 2017.
Dr. Steven Fine, Director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies expressed the magnitude of Tzili Charney’s gift to the center. Fine explained, “Tzili really understands our mission here. We’re not AIPAC, and we’re not the YU Israel Club. Tzili’s gift enables us to go deeper, to look Israel’s legal system and culture in the eye, and say, ‘Who are you? What are you?’” Fine explained that the Center was founded upon this unique goal, and now finally has the budget to explore Israel’s multi-faceted culture and complexities in more nuanced ways. Fine added that another unique feature of the Center, which distinguishes it from other Israel Studies Programs, is that it explores the entire history of Israel, exploring both past and present— “Literally from Abraham to the meaning of Zionism today,” said Fine. He also stressed that the Center is focused on exploring Israeli culture and ideas, rather than politics.
In a letter to the YU faculty, Dr. Fine wrote that the Center for Israel Studies’ work is expressed through “diverse scholarship, publications, academic programs, museum exhibitions, public events and educational opportunities.” It encourages faculty to organize research groups, lectures, conferences, and exhibitions that will be funded by the Center. Projects that are currently underway are Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Rabbi Ozer Glickaman’s Zionist Thought and Literature Project, Dr. Jacob Wisse’s Art and Museology Project, Josh Karlip’s Russia, Eastern Europe and Modern Israel Project, and Dr. Ronnie Perelis’ Sephardim and Israel Project. On September 13, the YU Museum will open “The Arch of Titus: From Rome to Jerusalem and Back”, an exhibit directed by Fine, and supported by the Center.
The Center for Israel Studies is also deeply committed to involving YU students in its mission. One of its initiatives is its Israel Social Science and Humanities Summer Internship Program. Dr. Fine explained that the program, which will be individually tailored to the interests of each student, includes two stipulations; it should preferably take place outside of Jerusalem, and outside of the “Anglo bubble.” Fine explained, “We are committed to studying Jews and Arabs, Jews of different religious backgrounds, international connections, history and archaeology, and Samaritan and Druze culture…Our students often know only one piece of this complex tapestry.” By helping students explore different parts of Israel, the Center hopes to expose students to more pieces of the tapestry, enabling them to form a richer understanding of the country. “Our goal is for students to really explore Israel as it is,” said Fine.
The Center is also looking for students to get involved through work study, and is open to receive suggestions and ideas from students regarding future projects and initiatives that the Center can develop. Another initiative that the Center for Israel Studies is implementing, “Israel in the Classroom,” will provide funds for professors to develop relevant courses, host visiting speakers, trips, and other educational opportunities. Malka Lebovic, the Center’s Assistant Director, will hold office hours at both the Beren and Wilf campuses. The Center is excited to be in touch with students, and to help make Israel-related student initiatives happen. The Center is sponsoring the September 12 “Evening of Sephardic Music” for students, and is planning a future event where students can learn about the BDS movement and its implications in a more nuanced way.
Fine explained that as a major center of American Jewry, “YU must confront the big issues that confound us as Jewish people today—that’s what we’re trying to achieve at the Center for Israel Studies.” Fine added that former President Joel initiated the creation of the Center in 2007, and that President Berman is deeply on board with the Center’s mission and goals. In response to Tzili Charney’s gift to the Center, President Berman wrote, “Tzili Charney’s gift is a twofold blessing. It is a blessing to the Jewish people, for whom Israel stands at the center of its collective soul. And it is also a blessing to all of humanity, for whose flourishing Israel’s role as a source of breathtaking innovation and ingenuity is essential.”