On Nov. 2 and 3, Clal — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — hosted the inaugural LEAP Fellowship at the Katz Center.
Each year, a group of the world’s leading Judaic studies scholars gather at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania to study a topic that has the potential to shape not only their chosen field, but also contemporary Jewish culture.
This year, on Nov. 2 and 3, Clal — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — hosted the inaugural LEAP Fellowship at the Katz Center, which is devoted to post-doctoral research on Jewish civilization. (LEAP stands for leverage, expand and popularize.) Clal builds bridges across communities, encourages pluralism and promotes rabbinic leaders to help see new ways of Jewish life.
Steven Weitzman, director of the Katz Center, said the group discussed new religious movements in Israel, which gave the rabbis a chance to explore a number of questions of relevance for contemporary Jewish religious life, including: “How is Judaism being influenced by new age religion and other contemporary religious trends? What are Jews seeking spiritually these days, in Israel and the United States? Why is authenticity so important in contemporary Jewish religious life and what is authenticity?” “The rabbis participating in the program are all important community leaders committed to engaging scholarship and we see this program as an effort to enlist them as a bridge between academic Jewish studies and the community,” Weitzman said.
“Inspired by the field of translational medicine, which translates research science into usable medicine and healthcare, the LEAP fellowship pioneers translational Judaic studies and doing what might be thought of as Jewish wisdom care,” said Clal’s president, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. “It’s about leveraging great ideas so that they reach and serve the widest possible audience.
“I hope that we see otherwise less used, but truly brilliant, ideas ‘brought to market’ in increasingly accessible, usable, meaningful and impactful ways. This is how a big idea can start making a big difference.”
The fellows are rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum. They included Rabbis Aaron Alexander, associate dean of the Ziegler School and lecturer in rabbinics and Jewish law; Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis; Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, N.J.; Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga.; Ayelet Cohen, director of the Center for Jewish Living in New York City; Joshua Davidson of Congregation Emanu-El of New York City; Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Mass.; Tully Harcsztark, principal at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y.; Beth Kalisch of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne;
Irwin Kula of Clal; and Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah in Needham, Mass.
Meeting three times during the year, the LEAP fellows will explore the Katz Center’s theme for the 2015-2016 academic year: “Soul Searching: New Perspectives on the Jewish Inner Life.”
“We are already funded for a second year, and look forward to making this a long-term opportunity to network and leverage great academics and great rabbis,” Hirschfield said. “For as long as there have been rabbis, a profound piece of their work has been translating the complex insights of the tradition into usable accessible wisdom for the greater public.”
On Monday, Rachel Werczberger of Tel Aviv University discussed contemporary spiritual revival, the Jewish renewal movement and spirituality. On Tuesday, Professor Eva Moraczek of Indiana University, spoke about individual experience and emotion in ancient Jewish prayer practices.
Werczberger, who is on a six-month fellowship at the center, felt her presentation sparked a lively discussion amongst the rabbis.
“This is an opportunity to really do something that was at the core of what I think of being a rabbi,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein told the Jewish Exponent the conference taught him how to connect his congregants to Judaism and showed new ways of seeing spirituality. After spending 20 years working at Hillel at Northwestern University, Balinsky said Werczberger’s presentation related to him very much.
“This subject has been an interest of mine for a long time,” he said. “Being friends with Jewish academics and trying to navigate between traditional ways of study and how academia can reward it to make that study richer — to try to be able to integrate academic knowledge with traditional knowledge and use it as a vehicle for teaching folks.”
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