Gentile in a Hebrew Ulpan

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Israel and Archaeology First Year Program director Dr. Edgar Hardesty has built Jewish-Christian relations and a 6,000-volume Middle Eastern and Jewish Studies collection at Cairn.

Years ago, during a sermon series on the Psalms, Dr. Edgar Hardesty ’75 stumbled over the reading of a Hebrew text. His ineptitude, despite usual seminary training, bothered him so much that he began calling Hebrew schools in his hometown of Baltimore. Most refused to engage with a Christian, especially one who served as a pastor and professor at a biblical university.

Fortunately, Baltimore Hebrew University decided to give him a chance.

“The president [of BHU] showed me around the school himself, but it took seven or eight years of study there before I wasn’t looked at kind of sideways,” Hardesty said. “Now I’m trusted in the community because I first extended to them that trust and honor and respect.”

After completing an intensive Hebrew language program, known as an “ulpan,” Hardesty continued to take courses “for personal enrichment,” often the oldest student and usually the only Gentile in the classroom.

Eventually, a faculty member encouraged Hardesty to fill in some curriculum gaps and write a thesis: The avid learner had unintentionally completed nearly an entire master’s program. And he kept learning.

Years later, the same instructor notified Hardesty that he had completed nearly the entire PhD curriculum, as well. In November 2015, Dr. Hardesty defended his dissertation in Jewish Studies.

For Hardesty, the relationships built during these years were even more important than the knowledge gained. “They knew who I was and what I stood for,” Hardesty says, “but they also knew I wouldn’t blindside them, proselytize them, or jerk them around. So one day in class, the professor asked me to explain the Christian idea of atonement. For the next 20 minutes, I talked about justification by grace alone. That was an amazing day.”

This fall, these relationships bore remarkable fruit for the Cairn community: over 6,000 volumes of academic literature on Middle Eastern and Jewish studies. Hundreds of journals arrived after Hardesty’s dissertation advisor downsized his office. Thousands of books were acquired as duplicates were purged after BHU was acquired by Towson University. Personal libraries were donated by others in the Jewish community, ranging from a Holocaust survivor to a Byzantine Jewish studies professor.

Hardesty says, “They told me, ‘Take them. No charge. You just pack them up and transport them.’ None of these donations have come through normal channels or somebody’s letters. Each collection came through a network of people I’ve known, spent time with, and earned the right to be trusted by. It takes a long time to build that kind of relationships.”

Once the new collection is catalogued, Cairn will fill a void in Philadelphia’s Jewish studies offerings, Hardesty says. “Since Gratz [College] has gotten smaller and Dropsie [University] was absorbed into the Annenberg Research Institute at UPenn, there really is no place for Jewish studies. And most Christians don’t understand their Jewish background. If the Church is marrying an Orthodox Jewish rabbi for all eternity, we probably ought to get in touch with our Jewish roots. That’s the platform we’re establishing here at Cairn.”

Dr. Hardesty is the director of Cairn’s Israel and Archaeology First Year Program, which guides a cohort of freshman in deep study of Christianity’s Jewish roots and culminates with participation in an authentic archaeological dig in Israel. He can be reached at