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by Chava Zviklin – Lubavitch.com
In a conference room buzzing with the excitement, passion and curiosity of young minds and seasoned scholars, university students and preeminent academics from across the globe came together for a day of lively discussion, exploration, and debate on a myriad of topics under the theme, “Ancient Ethics in a Post-Modern World.”
The third annual Sinai Scholars Society Academic Symposium, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, showcased the work of 22 budding scholars from universities around the country. The Symposium challenged students to tackle cutting-edge contemporary issues through the lens of classical Jewish thought. Students presented papers on topics ranging from Jewish ethics applied to internet censorship, to the affect of modern technology on Shabbat observance, to the Jewish perspective on cannabis.
Sinai Scholars Society is a joint project of Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the adult education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch Movement. The society aims to provide a fresh and exciting context for Jewish life and learning on the university campus, inviting students to explore their Jewish heritage as part of a rigorous curriculum on the 10 commandments. Each year, 1500-2000 students from 60 universities participate in the program.
Every year, some students choose to conduct independent research projects during the course. Those with the best papers are selected to present their work before a panel of academic scholars at the annual Symposium.
The day commenced with warm remarks by Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, who noted that U Penn was one of the first places he visited when the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him to Philadelphia, at which time the notion of students combining academic and religious studies seemed far-fetched. Rabbi Shemtov said he felt “honored to take part in such an event,” where “young Jewish people can explore their Judaism in a way that would have been unheard of forty years ago.”
Distinguished scholar and lecturer, Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet opened the Symposium with a debate-spurring talk on the historical accuracy of the giving of the Torah.
Student presenters from far and wide—U of Central Florida, Tulane, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, U of Colorado ,U of Wisconsin, U of Delaware, U of Texas, U of Georgia, and U of Pennsylvania—stepped up to share their innovative papers.
STUDENT PRESENT ON CONTEMPORARY THEMES
Rebecca Abeles, a freshman at University of California-Berkeley studying Cognitive Science, presented on the subtleties of organ donation and transplantation in Jewish law and contemporary thought.
Kieth Lewis, a first-year math and economics major at the University of Wisconsin, conducted an original study for his paper, interviewing over 25 people about the meaning of prayer in their lives.
Daniel Weissman, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying chemical engineering, sparked an animated discussion with his presentation on the “Jewish Perspective on Cannabis,” in which he explores philosophical and halachic augments concerning whether a Jew should or should not smoke marijuana.
Student presentations were followed by dynamic Q&A sessions with other students and scholars, challenging students to consider new angles, rethink perspectives, and probe deeper into their respective areas of study.
SCHOLARS OFFER JEWISH VIEWS ON ACADEMIC DISCIPLINES
In addition to Rabbi Schochet, the panel included Dr. Talya Fishman, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania, Rabbi Dr. Tali Loewenthal BA, PhD, author and lecturer from London England, Dr. Kate Miriam Loewenthal, Professor of Psychology in London University and New York University in London, and Dr. Lewis Glinert, Professor of Linguistics and Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College—each took the podium during conference to present on topics of their own.
In one such presentation, Dr. Fishman explored traditional Jewish mnemonic strategies for the strengthening of memory while learning—including such practices as “shuckling,” saying the words aloud and with a tune, and reading from aesthetically beautiful books.
As Weissman remarked, “Dr. Fishman’s subject really interested me. It made me think about learning not as just a thinking experience—but one in which you can use all of your senses.”
Brandon Floch, a Government major at Dartmouth College, presented the winning paper on the relationship between intellect and faith. The paper culminated an independent study with Professor Lewis Gilnert, Porfessor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, during which Floch delved into the works of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, especially Shaar HaYichud Ve’emunah.
Rabbi Ephraim Levin, director of Lubavitch house at U Penn, said that after being on campus for 20 years, seeing students analyzing Jewish law and philosophy in an academic context was incredibly special for all involved. “You could feel the coming together of fresh ideas and perspectives of a new generation,” he said.
For Weissman, exploring modern issues from a Jewish perspective was an eye-opening experience. “Legal experts approach these issues legally, and philosophers look at them from a philosophical view. It was amazing to see how Jewish scholars had such a multi-dimensional perspective, which is something you don’t see so often with secular scholars.”
STUDENTS APPLY JEWISH IDEALS TO LIFE ISSUES
Stephanie Wolf, a junior engineering student at Dartmouth who spoke about the nuances of the commandment to honor one’s parents, related a personal story in which she had to decide whether or not to honor her father. While faced with this dilemma, Wolf found herself wondering what the Jewish answer would be. This question became the inspiration for her paper.
“Even though I have always considered myself to be Jewish, I never took the time to question or wonder about Judaism.” she said. “Sinai Scholars allowed me to challenge myself and really see how each commandment is directly related to my daily life.”
Despite the packed schedule and many presenters, the excitement never waned. During lunch and in breaks between presenters, students were eager to interact with the scholars, who happily made themselves available to give students further input and ideas.
“Being able to discuss what I created with these bright minds, scholars who have such a clear picture of religion and academia, was just great,” says Lewis. When asked what he personally gained from the experience, he said, “It has showed me how you can live within the secular world as an observant Jew consistently, and be someone who you’re proud to be.”
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