Where Academic Research Meets Spiritual Growth

This is part of series of posts by recipients of the 2020 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Leah Lerner, COL ’23

After getting word that I would be unable to intern and study Torah in Israel this summer, as I had intended prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, I was determined to secure an educational and meaningful alternative use of my free time. Thanks to Professor Steven Weitzman, I was able to find a research position at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies that satisfied both my personal passion and academic curiosity. As I reflect on the summer, it becomes clear that this work allowed me to connect better with Judaism and strengthened my religious identity on the intellectual level, for which I am incredibly grateful. This past summer certainly didn’t go as planned for anyone, but this remote work brought normalcy and fulfillment to me in a time when it was needed the most.

My research was split into two main components, the first focusing on the Katz Center’s initiative to develop Jewish Philanthropy into a more robust field of research. The majority of my role was centered around creating a “recommended readings” section for the initiative website, J-Phil. This entailed breaking Jewish Philanthropy down into a variety of sections like social science approaches, premodern/modern history, and ethical perspectives, and doing extensive reading of academic journals, paper, and books to find sources that were fitting. After accumulating a solid base of sources, I would sort them into more specific subsections (for example, Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism within premodern history). I found this work to be enormously rewarding, as I was able to enrich my knowledge of Jewish values and laws through the study of charity. The final product of this research was a bibliography which scholars, students, or anyone who simply has an intellectual curiosity for the subject are now able to turn to in order to supplement their own studies.

Towards the end of the summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing several scholars on J-Phil’s Advisory Council, whose writing I had read while developing the bibliography. I found it fascinating to hear their personal motivations for doing research in the field, as well as their thoughts on how it can progress moving forward. Despite sharing interest in this relatively niche subject, all of the interviewees differed so greatly in their backgrounds and academic journeys. These interviews will be used as blog posts over the course of a few weeks, in order to further enhance the J-Phil website as a resource.

The second part of my role involved preparing for the Katz Center’s world-renowned fellowship program by finding photos and materials related to the scholars’ research and this year’s theme: America’s Jewish Questions. Though I was unable to access the vast resources of the Katz Center library, I sorted through countless virtual photo archives and found quite a few treasures along the way! Even pictures that weren’t particularly relevant for this year’s fellowship told a story of great value, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Though I would have felt fortunate to secure any job at all during such an unpredictable time, and this experience was undoubtedly educational, the role truly exceeded my expectations in terms of how much I gained from it. I feel so much more informed about and connected to Judaism due to my readings on the concept of Jewish charity, and it has motivated me to continue developing my religious identity by means of academics. I will now be pursuing a minor in Judaic Studies, and I am beyond excited to continue working with the Katz Center in the fall and beyond!

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