Meet Some of the Very Accomplished Faculty of Yeshiva University
Vice Provost Lawrence Schiffman is a busy man, with a full complement of administrative responsibilities, but he doesn’t allow his academic interests to slide. Dr. Schiffman is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls—he’s the author of nine books and about 150 scholarly articles on the subject—and with a scrolls exhibit currently underway in Times Square for which he was a primary consultant, and numerous academic presentations and speaking engagements coming up around the country, he’s busier than ever.
While there have been many exhibits related to the scrolls around the world, the display at the Discovery Museum in Times Square is unusual and important, Schiffman said, “because it goes back to the First Temple times, a period in Jewish history that is currently being challenged as having never taken place.”
Faculty and students conduct research together
While Yeshiva University can take pride in the vice provost’s scrolls expertise, recognized in part by extensive media coverage across the United States, a similar point of pride is the work of four YU professors—Dr. Lea Santos, Dr. Margarita Vigodner, Dr. Chaya Rapp and Dr. Emil Prodan—who together have been awarded federal grants totaling more than $1.6 million to pursue cutting-edge research at Stern College for Women.
“The accomplishments of these faculty members are particularly remarkable in these uncertain times, when U.S. science agencies are targeted for budget cuts,” said Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, chair of the division of natural sciences and mathematics at YU, noting that the professors were competing with colleagues from larger groups that included graduate students and post-doctoral students. “By winning these awards, they are helping other YU science faculty by raising YU’s name recognition with science agencies.”
Santos was the recipient in mid-December of a Career Award from the National Science Foundation. Her five-year grant totaling $475,000 will allow her and a post-doctoral researcher to conduct “Studies of Dynamics and Control of Quantum Many-Body Systems Far from Equilibrium.”
Vigodner’s $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will facilitate laboratory studies of the process of sperm formation, a process that Vigodner explains is crucial for the achievement of normal male fertility and the prevention of birth defects. “Our studies will lead to a better understanding of possible causes of previously unexplained cases of male infertility and the development of novel safe contraceptives,” she said.
Vigodner has been funded twice before by the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, for a total of close to $500,000, for conducting research on the effects of secondhand smoke.
Rapp’s NIH grant allots $250,000 to support research in the field of computational chemistry, with a particular focus on the molecular mechanisms of disease. “We model small molecular changes on the computer and ask, ‘What is the connection between these structural changes and downstream physiological effects?’” said Rapp. Some of these effects include whether an HIV virus is allowed to enter a cell or whether cancer will spread.
Prodan was granted $425,000 to study the developing field of topological insulators, a new class of materials that may be useful in future technologies in the fields of electronics, computers and clean energy generation, under the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program. This marks Prodan’s second NSF grant in two months. His first, awarded in July 2011, focuses on problems in quantum physics that have the potential to significantly impact the fields of nanoscience, solar cells and energy conversion and storage.
For three of the professors, student involvement will be a key component of their work. Rapp and Vigodner’s grants both support three years of summer fellowships for undergraduate students, with student-professor research collaboration throughout the year. In addition, Prodan’s grant includes scholarships for three undergraduate students for five years and features a series of workshops called “Condensed Matter Blackboard Lectures,” which will bring together accomplished scientists and students to share research.
An unusual accomplishment
In the world of academic Bible study, interdisciplinary analysis of scriptural interpretation in the three Abrahamic faiths is a rarity, and the ability to convene scholars in these fields for an extended period of time is uncommon as well. But Dr. Mordechai Cohen spent much of last year in Jerusalem leading an international team of 14 scholars who gathered for a six-month collaborative research project to study Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretation and its relation to literature, literary theory and legal interpretation.
With two books and dozens of articles to his name, Cohen is a renowned expert on Jewish Bible interpretation, a Bible professor at Yeshiva University for over two decades and associate dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies since 2008.
His group’s work was not of a religious or interfaith nature, and its purpose was to engage in a close comparative analysis of shifting cultural encounters with sacred scripture—the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Qur’an—in the three overlapping faith communities. The scholars, hailing from the United States, Israel and Europe, convened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies from September 2010 through February 2011.
“It takes many years to become proficient in the tradition of scriptural interpretation in any one faith community, requiring mastery of old languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin and Arabic, and complex hermeneutical traditions,” Cohen explained. “Our group had the benefit of the presence of top scholars in all of these fields, enabling us to compare and exchange views at the highest academic levels.”
The project, titled “Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies of Reading and Their Contemporary Implications,” along with its interdisciplinary findings, will be presented in a volume consisting of a chapter from each scholar. The ultimate goal of the project is more far-reaching: to enrich the way in which scriptural interpretation is perceived and studied in the academic world at large, as group members share the broadened perspectives they gained with colleagues and students.
You’re in shul, things are looking up
Dr. Eliezer Schnall, clinical associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, recently made headlines across the world with a study indicating that
attending religious services regularly can mean a more optimistic, less depressed and less cynical outlook on life. This was a follow-up on his 2008 investigation, which was also noted by thousands of media outlets worldwide for its finding that attending services was associated with decreased risk of mortality during the study period. Schnall and his research team again examined data from more than 92,000 post-menopausal women, drawing his national sample from the ethnically, religiously and socioeconomically diverse participants of the Women’s Health Initiative.
According to the new report, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health, those who attend services frequently were 56 percent more likely to have an optimistic life outlook than those who don’t, and were 27 percent less likely to be depressed. Furthermore, those who attended services weekly were less likely to be characterized by cynical hostility, compared with those who did not report any religious service attendance.
“We looked at a number of psychological and social factors,” said Schnall. “Religious activity seems to be associated with better mental health, greater social support and reduced social strain.” The link between religious activity and health is most evident in women, specifically older women, he added, citing further evidence from previous studies suggesting that religious involvement might be particularly important in enhancing social interaction.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, funded the study.
Advancing the Jewish Story
The Jewish Daily Forward publishes an annual list of 50 Jewish-Americans who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year. The “Forward-50” for 2011 included not one, but two members of the Yeshiva University faculty, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, instructor of Bible and philosophy at the Isaac Breuer College and the James Striar School of Yeshiva University, who is the new president of the Rabbinical Council of America; and Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Telling the Jewish Story
Professional storytellers, students, academics and members of the public gathered at the Yeshiva University Museum in November 2011 to share tales rich with tradition, personal meaning and religious discovery during “Folktales of Israel: A Festival of Jewish Storytelling Honoring Professor Peninnah Schram,” organized by YU’s Center for Israel Studies.
In addition to keynote lectures that highlighted the role of storytelling in Jewish education and tradition, performances explored tales that ran the gamut from a legend about the staff of Elijah to a young woman’s emotional first journey to the Western Wall.
The festival culminated with a heartfelt performance from Schram herself, as she shared the complex relationship that she, her grandparents, parents and children have with Israel in a piece called “Five Generations Rooted in Israel.” She was also presented with an honorary volume of collected folktales—Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. Published by Reclaiming Judaism Press and dedicated to Schram, the book contains 60 original stories by professional storytellers, members of the rabbinate, and others.
“This is better than an Oscar,” said Schram, who is a recipient of the Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Education and the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “An Oscar stays behind glass, but this book is a living document with never-before-told stories centered around mitzvot—you can dive right in.”
“So much of the story of the Jewish people is feeling and sharing the warmth of our tradition,” said YU President Richard M. Joel. “People like Peninnah Schram—who has been here with us at Stern College for 42 years—work to ensure that true communication does not become a lost art, but continues to involve words, heart and soul.”