Ruth Calderon’s New Vision for Jewish Learning

Just about everyone seems to have her vision for the State of Israel these days, but it’s hard not to feel pretty convinced by the one Ruth Calderon has articulated and worked for all of her life: the Bible, the Talmud, sacred stories and ongoing interpretations — these are the cultural inheritance of all Jews, and Calderon is insistent that they grasp hold of it. Calderon is part visionary, part scholar and teacher, part public persona, known in Israel for her television show, HaCheder, on which she interviewed famous Israelis about ancient and modern religious texts. (It certainly does speaks to Calderon’s charisma and drive, and to the unique role of Judaism in Israeli culture, that this sort of television program could be remotely categorized as “popular.”)

With an M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from the Hebrew University, Calderon has been bringing a fiercely egalitarian ethic to Jewish learning for decades. In 1989, she launched the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, with Jewish learning open to men and women, and that ethic lives on in Alma: The Home for Hebrew Culture. Not quite a university but more than an educational center, Alma — run by Calderon since she founded it in 1996 — seeks to “acquaint Israelis with the wealth of Jewish heritage.” Jewish learning is expansive, and so is Calderon’s vision for it in a modern Jewish state. “Jewish texts are not only for the Orthodox,” she repeats again and again, and Alma’s comprehensive curriculum certainly proves this, applying modern psychology and literary analysis to ancient texts.

Alma also hosts an annual tikkun leil shavuot, an all-night learning extravaganza at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which in recent years has hosted sessions by famous scholars, politicians, and musicians, and has become an enthusiastically trendy event. Calderon’s presentations at this tikkun are always so packed that the overflow crowd fills the museum’s hallways.

Alma, like the other projects of Calderon, is centered in Tel Aviv, where she lives, the city she affectionately calls “the only total urban Jewish space in the world.” It’s the perfect home for Calderon’s dreams of a secular, Jewishly educated and Jewishly invested home.