Science For Rabbis-To-Be

In 2011, while serving at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman took part in a “public conversation” with a Jewish evolutionary psychologist, a self-declared atheist. The discussion’s purpose was to show the common elements that science and religion share.

The synagogue event, one of several on the topic of science and religion that the Hebrew Union College graduate has led over the years, was designed to demonstrate that members of the Jewish community who embrace a science-based approach to life do not have to reject the teachings of Judaism — an approach he takes in a new educational initiative.

Rabbi Mitelman is founding director of Sinai and Synapses (sinaiandsynapses.org), an education organization that is housed at, and has received financial and logistical support from, CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Sinai and Synapses, launched two years ago, with the motto “Scientifically Grounded, Spiritually Uplifting,” has recently begun planning for two new pilot educational efforts, to be offered in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

The first, “Scientists in Synagogues,” will sponsor scholar-in-residence programs with “top-notch scientists” at 10 congregations around the country. Participating scientists will focus on such topics as spirituality and health, “Genesis and the Big Bang” and the “Science of Virtue.”

The second, “Science in Rabbinic Training,” will run daylong training sessions for rabbis, and give lectures to rabbinical students at HUC, and at Hebrew College in Boston.

“We’re starting small,” Rabbi Mitelman said, adding that plans to expand to add more rabbinical seminaries, develop a curriculum for Hebrew schools, and sponsor more scholar-in-residence programs are in the works.

The programs’ purpose is to show that religion and science are not incompatible,” to bring disaffected Jews closer to Jewish tradition. Rabbi Mitelman said. “The problem is not getting Jews excited about science. The problem is getting Jews excited about Judaism.”

The rabbi said his organization’s orientation parallels a growing recognition in some circles of a strengthened relationship between scientific and religious communities. In Jewish circles, he points to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Sci-Tech Academy summer camp, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ 2012 book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning,” which documents ties between the empirical and the spiritual.

“We need both — we need religion and we need science,” Rabbi Mitelman said.

His program “inspires creation and creativity,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, CLAL president. “An ongoing dialogue [between science and religion] can enrich our appreciation of each other. We need as much wisdom as possible.”

And the evolutionary psychologist whom the rabbi publicly debated five years ago?

The two have become friends, Rabbi Mitelman said. The scientist said at the end of the 2011 program that “If religion was what Rabbi Mitelman said it was, I wouldn’t be an atheist,” the rabbi recalled.

“He still considers himself an atheist,” Rabbi Mitelman said, “but he is not as adamant.”

Steve Lipman

JTS Gets ‘Best 10 Colleges for the Money’ Ranking

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America was featured as one of USA Today’s “Best 10 Colleges for the Money.”

The ranking published last month says the list identifies schools “that have good outcomes for students (high graduation rates, low student loan default rates, etc.), as well as a reasonable price tag for the quality they offer.”

While better known for its rabbinical school, JTS enrolls approximately 200 students in List College, its undergraduate program, which offers joint degrees with Barnard and Columbia colleges.

The article reports that the college has a 5-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio and an 85 percent “on-time graduation rate.” List College, according to USA Today, “ranks in the top 100 nationwide for overall quality” and “is considered very underpriced compared to its peers.”

JTS was the only Jewish-affiliated school on the list. However, eight out of 10 schools on the list are faith-based, all Christian, including Brigham Young University in Utah; Ohio Northern University in Ohio, and Berea College in Kentucky.

Only one state school, the University of Minnesota-Morris, made the list.

JTA

California Assembly Bill Seeks To Drown Out BDS Movement

With an eye on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, California State Assemblyman Travis Allen, a Republican, last week introduced Assembly Bill 1552, which would ensure that California doesn’t contract with businesses that engage in boycotts based on race, color, religion, gender or nationality.

“California strongly opposes discrimination. Of particular concern lately is the fact that boycotts of entities and individuals affiliated with specific countries can amount to ethnic, religious, racial and/or national origin discrimination,” said Allen. “No group better demonstrates this fact than the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), whose use of false, demonizing and delegitimizing propaganda against the State of Israel has become a pretext for the expression of anti-Jewish bigotry.”

Since 2005, the BDS movement has targeted the Jewish state for economic and political sanctions. In California, BDS efforts have been widespread within the 10-campus University of California (UC) system. Spurred by the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine, various student governments and organizations have authorized non-binding resolutions endorsing anti-Israel boycott efforts. During this same time, incidents of anti-Semitism on California campuses have dramatically increased, leading the UC Board of Regents to consider adopting the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Allen’s concerns over BDS efforts go beyond “ethnic, religious, racial, or nationality discrimination.” Targeting Israel for boycotts can have a negative economic impact on the Golden State itself, he argued.

According to Allen, “In 2014, California exported over $2.3 billion in goods to Israel, making it the state’s 18th largest export destination. Manufactured commodities are the largest export category for California, with over $1.6 billion, representing nearly 70 percent of all exports to Israel.”

In addition, Israeli technology may also be a source of life — literally — for California. With a disastrous drought threatening the entire state, California political and business leaders have turned to the Jewish state for an innovative solution in the form of desalination water treatment plants.

Paul Miller/JNS.org