Would you believe that the founding of Israel’s second largest university (33,000 students) was conceived “deep in the heart of Dixie”?

Two years after Israel’s founding in 1948, the participants at a meeting of the American Mizrachi Organization in Atlanta, GA, dreamed of the need for an Israeli institution of higher learning committed to a dual academic curriculum of Torah and general studies, in the model of New York’s Yeshiva University. The founders hoped its alumni would espouse the values of the religious Zionist movement, yet embrace, at the highest academic levels, the great disciplines of Western thought and civilization.
The new university was named for Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan (1880-1949), a leader of the Religious Zionist movement and son of the renowned sage Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin. Rabbi Bar Ilan, who passed away the year before the Atlanta meeting, served as president of U.S. Mizrachi from 1915-1928, functioning in this capacity from Jerusalem, after he moved there in 1923.

The dream became a reality on August 7, 1955, when Bar Ilan University was founded in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Rabbi Dr. Pinkhas Churgin (1894-1957) served as the university’s first president. A native of Belarus, young Pinkhas moved to Jerusalem with his family in 1906 where he received a traditional Jewish education, culminating in rabbinic ordination. Desiring a serious general education, Dr. Churgin moved to the United States, receiving his doctorate in Semitics from Yale College in 1922. While still a student in 1920, Rabbi Dr. Churgin took a position at the YU-affiliated Beit Midrash LeMorim/Teachers Institute, which was founded by Mizrachi as a way to train Judaic studies teachers at the highest academic level. By 1923, he was the principal and built up Teachers Institute until he assumed the presidency of Bar Ilan in 1955.

In its early days, Bar Ilan catered exclusively to religious students and retained the services of only religious professors. While religious students are still a majority, today, both secular and non-Jewish students and teachers attend and teach at Bar Ilan.

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