Science Storms the Synagogue

Rabbi Janine Jankovitz. Courtesy of CBENT

Alan Zeitlin

Science and religion don’t traditionally go together, but a $5,000 grant awarded to Congregation Beth El – Ner Tamid, will allow for cutting-edge connective programs for both adults and children.

“It’s a big deal,” CBENT Rabbi Janine Jankovitz said. “I submitted the grant application because I thought it would be perfect for us. We have incredible scientists as part of our congregation. I think we were selected because of our commitment to science, gender diversity and a belief in being open to new ideas. I believe we are the only synagogue in Philadelphia to be awarded the grant.”

Education Director Ellen Glassman said the world is entering a new world of innovation.
“I think 20 years ago, if you put synagogues and science in the same sentence, people might have wondered if you had the right idea,” Glassman said. “But now, we are living it. There is a clear excitement to study technology, from artificial intelligence to robotics and a hunger to examine how Judaism interfaces with it and gives us guidance.”

The project is called “J-STEM: Judaism with Science, Technology, Ethics and Meaning.” It’s an initiative run by Sinai and Synapses with consultation from the American Association for The Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.

There will be four events as part of “Shabbat for The Soul” at the Broomall synagogue.
On Nov. 4, the topic will be “Artificial Intelligence and Jewish Values.” Artificial intelligence has been one of the most hotly debated topics in recent weeks, with some saying it will improve and simplify our lives, while others say it may cause job losses and exacerbate the problem of fake news with unreliable images or information that could be faked.

Jankovitz explained that since computers are not used on Shabbat at the synagogue, there will be a preparatory session on Oct. 29, dubbed “Artificial Intelligence. What Is it? How Does it Work?”

Jan. 6 will feature: “Spirituality, Health and Technology,” while the Feb. 3 topic is “Shared Decision Making.”

Dr. Susan Levy, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said she will discuss how we reach conclusions on the third Saturday.

“I will be talking about something close to my heart — shared decision-making,” she said. “In my research, I’ve looked at how people with conflicting opinions discuss things and, after listening, can come to some consensus, or agreement.”

This could be useful in explaining political discussion, whether one should go watch “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” or even if Jalen Hurts and the Eagles will be able to hold off Dak Prescott and the Cowboys this season.

Beverly Emanuel. Courtesy of CBENT

The final event will be run by Beverly Emanuel, a renowned geneticist and former chief of the Division of Human Genetics at CHOP.

The Charles E.H. Upham Endowed Chair in Pediatric Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at The University of Pennsylvania will be the scholar-in-residence on April 6 with an additional program on April 7. Emanuel once worked with Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, in San Diego.

“It is very exciting that we got the grant,” Emanuel said. “New technology presents challenges, and there is both excitement and fear as to what it might bring. There are many discussions and debates to be had.”

Emanuel recalled a Nature magazine cover that showed God reaching out his finger to Adam’s with them almost touching that celebrated the power of DNA sequencing. She said some scientists were upset and didn’t think biblical images should be included in what was a scientific breakthrough.

“If you believe in a divine power, as I do, I don’t think that science and the synagogue diverge or are so different like some might think,” she said. “Some might take the story of Genesis as literal, while some might interpret it as an allegory. As many questions as there are to ask in both science and religion, and it is great to ask questions, there are still many answers that we do not have.”

The Saturday events will take place at 10 a.m. and be followed by luncheons.

The grant was provided by the John Templeton Foundation.

Jankovitz noted that the Mensch Making Academy — the school for children that meets on Sundays — will have J-Stem events on Saturday for these weeks.

“We are all really excited,” Jankovitz said. “We are a small synagogue, but this is a big opportunity to engage people in a time where people are looking to see different ways in which Judaism has relevance to different aspects of their lives and the community at large.
“I think we will have some fascinating moments and we won’t know the answer to every question as science is rapidly evolving. This is something very timely that is greatly appreciated as we tackle new challenges. I expect that there will be some ’aha’ moments.”

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Alan Zeitlin is a freelance writer.


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