On 7 August 1955, Bar Ilan University was founded by Professor Pinkhos Churgin, an American Orthodox rabbi and educator, who served as Bar Ilan’s first president from 1955 to 1957.
The idea of establishing the university was conceived during a meeting of the American Mizrahi Organization in Atlanta, Georgia, with the hope of creating an Israeli educational institution committed to a dual academic curriculum of Torah and general studies, in the model of Yeshiva University. The university was named after Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, who served as the leader of the Mizrachi movement in the United States and Mandatory Palestine from 1915–1928, and “led traditional Judaism from the ashes of Europe to rebirth and renaissance in the Land of Israel.”
During the opening ceremony, Prof. Churgin said that Bar-Ilan would "demonstrate that Judaism is not a cloistered way of life, removed from scientific investigation and worldly knowledge."
The school was not without its detractors, as the Israeli government doubted that there was need for another university in addition to the Hebrew University, and Orthodox groups such as Agudat Israel were concerned that the university would imperil certain types of religious education, particularly the yeshivot.
The school year began on September 20, a month after its founding, with students studying in temporary buildings. The permanent buildings were finished in the spring. during its first year, 90 students studied at Bar-Ilan in thirty-four courses held in eight classrooms and two laboratories—all in provisional buildings. The university had twenty-three staff members teaching across four departments: Jewish studies, natural sciences and mathematics, social sciences, and languages and literature.
The university aims to "blend tradition with modern technologies and scholarship, and teach the compelling ethics of Jewish heritage to all … to synthesize the ancient and modern, the sacred and the material, the spiritual and the scientific.” As such, its symbol is a combination of a Torah scroll and a microscope, and nearly seventy years after its opening, basic Jewish studies remain an integral part of the academic program.
Bar-Ilan has grown exponentially and is currently Israel's second-largest academic institution, with 18,000 students and 1,350 faculty members in 42 departments offering over 8,000 academic courses. It also boasts 55 research centers and institutes, 60 endowed chairs, and more than 100 international academic and research cooperation agreements.