Jewish professor at Christian university embraces kindness of community at GCU

Computer science associate professor Dr. Isac Artzi holds a copy of “A Pledge for Humanity," written by his wife's grandfather, as he reflected on the war in his homeland and the camaraderie he has found at GCU.

Artzi reflects on GCU's camaraderie in face of Israel-Hamas war

Photos by Ralph Freso

Dr. Isac Artzi returned home to Israel many times over the last two years to be with his father. To listen to him tell the story of his life as a Holocaust survivor.

Artzi’s parents and grandparents were deported in 1941 to a concentration camp in Transnistria, in what is now eastern Moldova.

His grandfather forbade any talk of the Holocaust.

But his grandmother, in whispers and quiet places, told him stories. His aunt, too, who ran from the Nazis when they invaded her school and heard her classmates’ screams. She was just 6 years old.

Before he passed away in May, his father shared his story, too, in a biography published in Romanian and sent to the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Artzi’s task, one day, will be to translate it.

“After the Holocaust, the big tagline of Israel was ‘Never Again.’ But it happened again,” said Artzi, a Jewish associate professor of computer science at the largest Christian university in the world, Grand Canyon University.

Israel declared war with Hamas on Oct. 8 after the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion, which resulted in the death of 1,400 Israelis.

Except for a brother in San Diego, all of Artzi’s family, including more than 100 cousins, remain in Israel.

He thinks about his family there. He worries. Of course he does. Though he says, “It’s not worry, because what would worry do?”

Artzi himself lived through war in Israel in the 1980s and knows this current escalation won’t be the last. The Middle East, he said, is a “giant powder keg so easy to ignite over stupid things.”

The current war turned his thoughts to the life he leads here at GCU and inspired him to write an email to University President Brian Mueller, who shared Artzi’s words at the recent 10th anniversary celebration of the Honors College:

Dear President Mueller,

With everything happening in the world, in our country, and the recent events that attempted to taint GCU’s reputation, I felt compelled to write you.

As a Jewish faculty member in a Christian university and as a dual national (American/Israeli), I have to express my appreciation for the community you created on this campus. This is an island of peace, decency, respect and camaraderie, which I have rarely encountered in my 44 years of professional life. I am not only a very engaged member of the GCU community, but a proud ambassador of the Christian values GCU stands for, so aptly reflected in our mission statement.

Thank you,

Isac

“It is what we should be doing,” Mueller expressed at the anniversary celebration. We should be decent and respectful, compassionate and kind to one another, despite what may separate us.

Artzi was moved to write that email, he said, because of what was happening in Israel.

“It was such a big contrast. … I said, ‘OK, I have the luxury now to wake up in the morning and leisurely go to work and be with nice people,’” he said, while others are mourning the deaths in the conflict.

Artzi, who has been teaching at GCU for 12 years, wanted to work at GCU because the University felt like a startup.

GCU almost closed in 2004, but after turning to the public markets and receiving an infusion of $230 million, the campus was booming, experiencing unprecedented growth in students, faculty, programs and buildings by the time Artzi arrived in 2011.

Artzi finds inspiration in this writing by Howard Faber, his wife's grandfather. The Israel-Hamas war motivated him to write to GCU President Brian Mueller about the kindness he experiences on the campus, a contrast to the war in his homeland.

“I was working in Silicon Valley, and I missed that startup mentality,” he said. “I looked at GCU and said, ‘That’s a startup in academia.’”

He was part of the team that included Haley Peebles and Dr. Mike Mobley, which created the University’s computer science program. Right before his eyes, a new college was born (the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, which recently split into the College of Engineering and Technology and the College of Natural Sciences).

“We had these plans on paper, and then fast forward five years, six years, you have students graduating from the thing you put on paper,” Artzi said. “And that’s super exciting.”

That he was Jewish and teaching at a Christian university didn’t give him pause.

“I can debate theological themes all day long with anyone, and we can go into the Jewish roots of Christianity. Very often when we do prayers or we cite Scriptures, about half of the time at least, it’s what Christians call the Old Testament, so it’s one continuous thing.

“I don’t feel my religion vs. your religion.”

Artzi also was compelled to write that email, he said, because of GCU’s current dispute with the U.S. Education Department and criticism of the University in the media.

“It bothers me when people criticize, I don’t know for what reason,” he said.

GCU touts the same labs, internet, computer access as other universities, and his students are working at “Google, Amazon, Raytheon, the largest companies,” so the criticism contradicts what he knows about the quality of education at GCU.

Artzi, in what will become the College of Engineering and Technology's AI lab, says being an educator is more than formulas and theorems. It's also about raising good human beings.

What he wanted to express to Mueller is that as public discourse seems to be crumbling, he doesn’t feel that here.

“There’s a degradation of public discourse in the United States in general, in the world in general,” he said. “… It’s the media. It’s the denigration of human values in the media. It’ s a lot of little things that compound issues.”

But what it comes down to is, “before anything else, people at GCU are decent human beings. … On the human side of it, it’s different here. Not many people can see it unless you’ve been to a lot of places and a lot of countries,” Artzi said, and he has, having traveled and worked in more than 20 countries, from universities in Israel to the Art Institute of Phoenix, Glendale Community College and Michigan State University.

While wanting to work for a startup university brought him to GCU, it’s the people and values, he said, that have kept him here.

Artzi displays a framed print in his office given to him and his wife by his wife’s grandfather, Howard Faber. Faber’s “A Pledge for Humanity” is inside of that frame. It goes, “I hereby pledge my best efforts to encourage altruism and discourage animosity/practice brotherhood and oppose bigotry/encourage compassion and discourage corruption …”

They’re values he wants to pass on to his students.

“When students come to my office hours, rarely is it because they have a question on an assignment,” said Artzi, who recently completed his master’s degree in clinical health mental counseling and already is working on projects to use AI in that field. “We just talk – talk about life, talk about career – where they come from, where I come from.”

Touting his college’s new master’s degrees in data science and computer science and new bachelor’s programs in artificial intelligence and game development, Artzi said that, soon AI will handle the mechanical work instructors do, like prep work for class and feedback to students.

So what's left?

“What’s left is mentoring students to be decent human beings,” he said, the kind of human beings he has found at GCU that’s such a contrast to the war back home.

“So you got a C in class. You got a B in class. But are you a decent human being?” Artzi asked.

“Imagine every college says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to teach you medicine and history and journalism and engineering. But first of all, we’re going to teach you to be a decent human being.’

“Everything else follows from that.”

Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected].

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Bible Verse

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

To Read More: www.verseoftheday.com/