Dartmouth College student Cameron Isen, an Ardmore native, won the Jewish Academic Innovation Award for his in-depth, intelligent research paper on the relationship between secular wisdom in Jewish theology.
In between working toward a double major in classics and economics at Dartmouth College, Cameron Isen found time to write an in-depth, intelligent research paper on the relationship between secular wisdom in Jewish theology.
And it paid off. Isen, an Ardmore native, won the Jewish Academic Innovation Award for his work on Feb. 7.
Isen, 19, presented his work to a panel and a group of nine other finalists from across the country at the Sinai Scholars Academic Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., an annual event that centers on a theme. This year’s was “Sinaitic Wisdom for the Modern Age.”
This was ideal for Isen, who had been interested in the subject since reading two books by Saul Lieberman — Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission, Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I century B.C.E.-IV Century C.E.; and Greek in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Life and Manners of Jewish Palestine in the II-IV centuries C.E. — during his senior year of high school at The Hill School in Pottstown.
“More or less,” he said, “what happened was, I was familiar with a book on the influence of Hellenism and Greek wisdom on Second Temple-era Judaism.” He was on a fellowship to Israel when a rabbi on the trip gave him the books, which are frequently referenced in his research paper, to read.
“I was trying to come up with an excuse to write a paper on the topic for a while,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t really have a proper avenue through which to pursue it.”
After Rabbi Moshe Gray, co-director of the Chabad at Dartmouth, told him about the Sinai Scholars program and encouraged him to participate, Isen was given the chance to explore the subject.
“We are so proud of Cameron for receiving this prestigious award,” said Gray. “I was excited to see that the incredible amount of work he put into his impressive paper was recognized. The entire Dartmouth community can be extremely proud of this devoted young man.”
The topic itself had a personal significance for Isen, who started connecting with Judaism more after getting involved with Chabad in Chester County in high school. Today, he is much more observant and keeps kosher while studying at a secular school.
“To some extent, this was an attempt to navigate my way through that struggle and dissonance,” he said.
During the spring of last year, he participated in the Sinai Scholars program through Dartmouth, which included classes, a Shabbat dinner and a field trip.
In addition to working with Gray, whom Isen called an “exceedingly influential” person in his life and a catalyst behind participating, he was paired with a mentor to work on his paper, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe.
His research explored everything from Talmudic passages to Maimonides and his beliefs about secular education.
“An analysis of the past can, however, shed light on the present,” Isen wrote in the introduction of his paper. “For this reason, my paper will examine the permissibility of secular study for a Torah-observant Jew through a historical lens. Beginning with the Talmudic rabbis and concluding with modern interpretations, I will argue that secular wisdom has positively influenced Torah study while examining arguments both for and against its study in general.”
It’s basically taking a look at how secular wisdom influenced Jewish theology, he explained, “and how those ideas permeated the line of Jewish religion and also how it informed some Jewish legal decision-making.”
His paper, he was told by the panelists, was a good introduction to the subject and his mentor suggested he continue on with his research in a longer format, perhaps as a book. Though, as he is only a sophomore now, “I have a lot of other stuff to do before then,” Isen laughed.
However, he said, it is definitely a topic he wants to look further into at some point, perhaps when he is not also buried under homework and balancing a full course load, which was the biggest challenge he faced in doing the research paper.
“It’s definitely an issue I’m going to continue exploring because I need to, and something I’m interested in,” he said. “As somebody who tries to use Torah as a moral basis for his life, I think it’s an important issue, especially because I go to a secular college that doesn’t have a lot of Jewish life in it.”
He enjoyed listening to the other finalists’ presentations and being introduced to topics he might not have looked further into before, such as modesty and connections between Maimonides and Nietzsche — which was the topic California State University student Shlomit Ovadia, who co-won with Isen, presented.
“Even when we weren’t presenting, we got to spend time together and talk about these issues,” he said. “It was a pleasure to be a part of.”
The weekend also included a Shabbaton prior to the symposium, which included Isen along with more than 250 students from other schools on the West Coast. For him, the experience was not all about winning — though that was a nice perk.
“It’s really nice I now have people I can consider friends that I got out of this process — that’s really what matters in the end.”
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