Kabbalah and Freud Carry the Day at Jewish Student Symposium

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Students from around the country gathered at Johns Hopkins University for an all-day symposium sponsored by the Sinai Scholars Society, presenting original papers on Jewish themes for review by a panel of distinguished academics. The winning paper posited that behind Freud’s secularism and rejection of Judaism was a strong connection with the teachings of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. The theme of the symposium was “Ancient Ethics in a Postmodern World.”

An all-day Students-and-Scholars symposium at Johns Hopkins University in April turned the tables on the typical conference format by having students present original papers on Judaism-related themes. Rabbis and distinguished academics listened, commented, and finally voted on a winning paper.

Responding to the theme, “Ancient Ethics in a Postmodern World,” students applied their Jewish learning experience to themes dealing with philosophy, the Internet, end of life issues, civil liberties and democracy, and the basis of scriptural belief itself.

The atmosphere at the symposium, which was sponsored by the Sinai Scholars Society (http://www.sinaischolars.com) and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), was supportive, friendly and constructive – even when some ideas that were bound to raise a few eyebrows, if not hackles, among some in the audience.

“Unlike many oral presentations, the student’s talks were not meant to be a defense of their work, but rather an opportunity to receive construction feedback and to spur a conversation about these ideas,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov, director of the Sinai Scholars Society. Discussions were lively and often spiced with humor. The academic panelists often urged students to dig deeper or follow up on related research.

The winning paper, presented by Aden Ratner-Stauber, 23, makes the case that behind Freud’s secularism and outright rejection of Judaism were some core concepts about the subconscious that parallel the teachings of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. Ratner-Stauber is a graduate student in clinical psychology at New York University and is distantly related to Sigmund Freud on her mother’s side.

Professor Naftali Loewenthal of University College, London, flew to Baltimore to be part of the symposium academic panel. He told an observer he was impressed with the fact that students took time out amid all the pressures of their exams and assignments to participate in a program devoted to Jewish learning.

The academic panel included professors Beatrice Lang Caplan of Johns Hopkins, Jan Feldman of the University of Vermont, Lewis Glinert of Dartmouth, and Steven Harvey of Bar-Ilan University, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins. The program featured talks by the panelists on their special areas of interest.

Feldman, who spoke about “Judaism, Islam, and Women’s Rights,” said she appreicated being able to keep her finger on the pulse of Jewish student thinking. “You don’t have the opportunity to incorporate students into most academic conferences,” she said.

For graduate film student Andrew Aidman, 25, presenting at the symposium was an opportunity to gain experience and confidence in speaking and teaching. After speaking at last year’s conference, he said, “I got this really positive feedback and I felt like, okay, I can do this.” The University of Southern California student now regularly teaches about Judaism, and gave daily classes during a Birthright trip to Israel.

Dartmouth student Stephanie DeCross, 21, said that for her the symposium was “a once in a lifetime experience to have a bunch of other Jewish students together who are so invested in topics they are very passionate about.” A graduate of Sinai Scholars, the campus program that culminates in the annual symposium, she said the greatest value of the experience for her was in being exposed to viewpoints other than her own.

As the symposium drew to a close, ending with dinner and an awards ceremony at which Ratner-Stauber was announced winner of the $500 prize, students who may have met only that morning were chatting like old friends.

Their papers will be printed in the Sinai Scholars Journal, which is sent out to colleges across the country. Many of the students will continue to refine and develop the papers in the coming months.

Commenting on the papers, Feldman laughed and said, “It may raise my expectations in terms of my own students’ performance.”

The Sinai Scholars Society, a joint project of Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), provides a fresh and exciting context for Jewish life and learning on college campuses by integrating the study of classic Jewish texts, social programming, and national networking opportunities. The curriculum addresses important issues in modern life in light of ancient sources, and provides an opportunity to join a discussion that stretches across three millennia. For a list of affiliated campuses, go to http://www.sinaischolars.com.

Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov
Director, Sinai Scholars Society
718 221-6900

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