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Towards an Informed Jewish Life: A Conversation with Eric Cohen and Mark Gottlieb

Eric Cohen, Executive Director of the Tikvah Fund and editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, has published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (2008) and co-editor of The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics (2002). He was previously managing editor of the Public Interest and served as a senior consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Mark Gottlieb is Senior Director of the Tikvah Fund and Dean of the Tikvah Summer Institute at Yale University. Prior to joining Tikvah, Rabbi Gottlieb served as Head of School at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in New York and Principal of the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA. He received an MA in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and has taught at the Frisch School, the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, Loyola University in Chicago, and the University of Chicago.


G.B.: What is Tikvah?

E.C.: Tikvah is both a philanthropic foundation and its own center for Jewish ideas and Jewish intellectual life. We focus on two big goals. The first goal is to help form the next generation of Jewish leaders, especially in the realms of politics, religious leadership, and intellectual leadership. We aim to attract and excite Jews of great talent and character, and we try to be a meaningful part of their formation as they define how they want to invest their energies and spend their lives, both as human beings and  as Jews. That’s really the first big aim: to create a whole series of programs, fellowships, courses, mentoring that contribute to educating and inspiring people who can serve the Jewish community and the Jewish state in significant ways.

The second big mission of Tikvah is to support and encourage Jewish ideas, especially written ideas. And that means ideas about both the permanent questions of human life and human existence understood from a Jewish perspective as well as the most urgent and challenging issues that face the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

G.B.: Who funds Tikvah?

E. C.: Tikvah was one of a couple of major foundations created by Zalman Bernstein when he was alive and left as a legacy after he passed away in the late 1990s. So the resources for Tikvah—the endowment—came from him. He was a very successful businessman and institution builder in the world of finance who, during the course of his life, became increasingly and ultimately deeply devoted to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people.

G.B.: What programs does Tikvah run for college students?

M.G.: Many of our programs for college students take place in the summer. These institutes are not meant to replace a traditional liberal arts college or university, but are meant to create a more focused, immersive environment for young Jews to engage with the most pressing Jewish problems and the broadest humanistic questions: questions of love and war, of the marketplace and morality, questions of life and death, family and children. Our longest-running, flagship summer program convenes at Princeton University every summer.  Called “Jewish Thought and Enduring Human Questions, ” it is a three-week experience that focuses on both these traditional questions of meaning and purpose and Jewish contributions to these questions. It also thinks through questions of the future of Jewish theology in America, questions of marriage and family and Jewish continuity, and  questions related to the political future of the Jewish state.

E.C.: The Princeton program really captures much of what Tikvah is all about. It spends its time on fundamental classical texts from the Bible through medieval tradition and philosophy as well as texts from the West. Our faculty members bring those texts into conversation on the questions of human life that matter most.  We also spend much of the program actually arguing the Jewish future—arguing what Jewish life and the Jewish state should look like in the days and decades ahead. That’s at Princeton, and it’s a mix of American and Israeli students.

We will also be running a partnership with Midreshet Ein Prat, which is an important institution in Israel headed by Micha Goodman. It is a program on Zionist thought and statesmanship for both American and Israeli students. This program is in Israel and is focused much more specifically on Zionism and its future. It looks at the Biblical origins of Zionism, at the classical thinkers of the modern Zionist movement, and then examines David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin as two great statesmen in the founding of modern Israel. Fellows spend time asking what lessons we can learn about the future of the Jewish state from the decisions that these great leaders made and from the challenges they confronted.

The third summer program we run is mostly for Israelis, and it looks at politics, economics, and strategy. The program was held last year at the Hebrew University and tries to take young Israelis who are interested in political life and immerse them in some of the fundamental texts of political philosophy, strategic and military thought, and economic thought.

G.B.: And do you also have programs for high school students?

M.G.:  We have a foundational, educational  commitment to starting programming at an age when students are forming their worldview. I think we know that the power of formative ideas in late adolescence is a great pull on young people. Through the high school scholars program, through course-insertion grants that many Jewish schools receive, and through the summer institute at Yale.

E.C.: We will be running this summer institute at Yale in partnership with the Straus Center at Yeshiva University—

M.G.: —and that’s an important first for us in that it is a formal partnership with the Straus Center.

E.C. Indeed, and it will be on “God, Ethics and American Democracy,” looking at some very fundamental ethical questions from a Jewish and Western perspective and then exploring the big issues in American public life. Thinking as Jews and thinking about Americans but having a real ethical dimension to that conversation. Questions about the end of life, questions related to war and statesmanship, questions related to religious freedom. We try to connect students with the deepest thinkers on those topics and hopefully prepare them to enter lives as public servants a little better informed than they might have been otherwise.

G.B.: You mentioned a partnership with the Strauss Center at YU. Has Tikvah ever thought of forming an institute at YU as it did in Princeton or the Hebrew University?

M.G: We are always eager to find the right partners for our programming. We have found in the Straus Center an ideal partner for this particular summer program. Rabbi Soloveichik, who heads the Straus Center, is a faculty member in our yearlong fellowship and co-directs the summer program at Yale. We have ongoing conversations with colleagues and friends at Yeshiva University. Certainly if you look where our students are coming from percentage-wise, Yeshiva represents the largest single cohort of any college or institution that participates in Tikvah programs. That holds true for our college-age programs as well as our yearlong fellowship. It’s clear that Yeshiva University is a partner in many real ways today in our work and we continue to be open to future relationships as well.

G.B.: I understand that at some point Tikvah did approach YU with the idea to open an institute and that many members of the faculty of YU were not happy with the idea.

E.C.: Around five years ago, Yeshiva University approached Tikvah with an idea for a new intellectual structure for the Honor’s Program at the college. We thought it was an exciting set of ideas that Yeshiva came forward with. We were excited about the possibility of funding it, but as often happens, things didn’t work out.

G.B.: Were there strings attached to the funds that you were offering? Were there particular interests that you wanted to bring in that the faculty was concerned about?

E.C.: You will have to ask the faculty of Yeshiva University about what concerns they may have had. Here’s what I know. Tikvah has an intellectual vision. That vision is embodied in the teachers, in the courses, in the programs that we run, which, by the way, are an open book. Every syllabus, every faculty member we bring in, every reading we conduct on any Tikvah program is available to the public. It’s an intellectual vision we are proud of. If you look at the faculty of the fellowship that we put together this fall, its one of the most impressive sets of thinkers, leaders, and intellectuals that has ever been assembled in a four month period. Our deep commitment is to Jewish and intellectual excellence. We are committed to a diversity of thought and argument. The faculty that we put together is extremely diverse as are the fellows..

And while we do have a particular intellectual vision, what we are always looking for are people we can partner with who share that vision and want to work with us in a collaborative way. And in various projects, Yeshiva University has been a great partner. We are excited about the new partnership with the Straus center in our high school program. We ran a series of incredibly successful programs for leading orthodox rabbis in collaboration with Rabbi J.J. Schacter and the Center for the Jewish Future.  Suzanne Stone and Jim Otteson have been crucial faculty members for us. These ties run deep and from my perspective, I see YU as one of the great partners that Tikvah has the privilege to work with.

This next piece is important: Tikvah is not a donor in the normal sense of the word. Tikvah has become its own hybrid between a graduate school and a think tank. Tikvah is not primarily in the business of giving money away; that’s just not our core focus right now. We have a unique intellectual vision of how we educate future Jewish leaders, how we build Jewish intellectual institutions. And for better or worse, we want to succeed or fail on the strength of that vision and on the strength of our capacity to execute it. That means we are constantly looking for collaborators. We collaborate with Princeton, Yale, Hebrew University and Ein Prat and we collaborated in the past with Oxford and Columbia. We love to work in partnership with places where we share a similar vision. Sometimes you have a shared vision in a particular institution on one project and you don’t on another project, and that’s fine. I have only high hopes that we will find ways continue to work with Yeshiva University.

G.B.: You mention Tikvah as a “hybrid” between a graduate school and a think tank. Think tanks do have particular political affiliations or certain political visions. Many people wonder whether Tikvah has a political affiliation or vision.

E.C.: I would answer that question in two ways. First, if you look at the people who teach in our programs and if you look at the students who participate in our programs, there is an incredible diversity at every level: religious and secular, conservative and liberal, Americans and Israelis. Anyone who thinks you are going to fit all these people into a mold is committing an injustice and an act of unfairness to the seriousness of those people. If you were to sit together in a room with Meir Soloveichik, Leora Batnitzky, Ruth Wisse, Eric Edelman, Michael Walzer—all of these distinguished people who have taught for us—and try to figure out some theory of how they are all the same, well it doesn’t do a lot of justice to those people.


Many of the things we run are precisely in that kind of liberal education spirit. At the same time, there are other programs and projects that have a much more clear worldview, and that’s the way I would describe it. If I had to put that worldview in simple terms it is politically Zionist, culturally traditional, economically free market oriented, and theologically open minded. But that means you want to welcome people into debate. You want Michael Walzer one day and you want Yoram Hazony another day. You want Meir Soloveichik and Ruth Gavision. We want those debates.

I tried in my opening address to the year-long fellows this year to capture this spirit of the serious Jewish alternatives in the image of three towering figures of 20th century Jewry: Joseph Soloveitchik, Leo Strauss and David Ben Gurion. One was a great political leader, one a great religious leader, one a great philosopher. If you sat these three men in a room and tried to figure out how to classify them in some simple-minded way you wouldn’t be able to do it. These are men who had the deepest disagreements on the most fundamental issues of human life and Jewish life: theological issues, Jewish issues, economic issues, political issues. We welcome a serious debate. Does that mean that every conceivable view gets represented in our programs? Absolutely not. You are not going to find Peter Beinart doing a lot of lecturing at Tikvah programs.

Shocking as it is, we can hold two ideas in our heads at the same time. That some programs over here are meant to be more diverse, more heterodox, more liberal arts, welcoming more points of view, and some programs over here may have a clearer world view, a clearer point of view on certain issues. Most serious people can hold two different ideas in his or her head at the same time, and I think Tikvah can function with integrity in both ways at the same time, as long as you are clear and transparent about what you are doing. And clarity and transparency is, I think, the only way to run a serious institution.

The best way to understand what we are doing is just to look at our programs, read the syllabi, the biographies of the faculty, the background of the students. That tells the story.

G.B.: I assume you are pointing to those who accuse Tikvah of being a “neo-conservative” institution and trying to push back on those that accuse you of having that bent.

E.C.: I’m not trying to push back on anything. If you want to put a label on our faculty—anyone is welcome to do it. I just want to educate students in the most serious way, and we are proud to defend the principles we preach. Tikvah is not engaged in the world of practical American politics. It’s only in that world, it seems to me, that the term “neo-conservative” even makes sense. We are, as I put it, politically Zionist, culturally more traditional, theologically more open minded and economically free market oriented all because we believe those broad sets of ideas are what the Jewish people need and what are most truthful to the Jewish tradition and most essential to the Jewish future. I will proudly defend those ideals.

G.B.: How do you think Tikvah has changed the Jewish intellectual landscape?

M.G.: Intellectual influence isn’t measured in a handful of years; it’s measured in decades. It’s really too early to speculate as to how Tikvah has changed the Jewish intellectual landscape. But in terms of creating an immersion in Jewish ideas, or the opportunity for talented young people to come together and to be exposed to first-rate thinkers, I think Tikvah has contributed to both the sense of vitality and urgency in recognizing that great ideas matter, that ideas have consequences. Our programs are animated by that spirit. Whether or not we are going to be able to produce more graduate students that are interested in taking the works of Rabbi Soloveitchik very seriously, or create the conditions for the next Leo Strauss or David Ben Gurion or even Rabbi Soloveitchik himself, as ambitious as that may be–well, that’s probably over ambitious–is what we are all about.