Straus Center Goes to Washington

D.C. Retreat Capstones Jewish Ideas and American Democracy Course

While most students were recovering from three days of Yom Tov, moving out of their dorms and beginning their summer vacations, a group of students from Stern College for Women and Yeshiva College departed the Wilf Campus on May 29 to begin their journey to Washington, D.C. The trip, an intellectual retreat sponsored by YU’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, served as the capstone seminar of the “Jewish Ideas and American Democracy” class that most of the trip participants had taken in pervious semesters. Students prepared for the trip with supplemental readings and essay questions designed to evoke reflections on the major themes of the class, such as the interplay between religion and state in America, as well as important issues facing the United States today.

Students meet with Leon Wieseltier (above), literary editor of The New Republic. The retreat also included visits with nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard.

The retreat combined tours of the nation’s capital with lectures and seminars with prominent intellectuals and political thinkers. Students had the opportunity to discuss the nation’s most pressing concerns such as health care and the coming election in the halls of think tanks such as the Hudson Institute and at publications like The New Republic. Views presented covered the spread of the political spectrum. Students also participated in seminars that addressed seminal American texts such as the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address and analyzed the role that religious convictions and ideology played in shaping their language and ideas.

Joshua Joseph Freundel, a senior at Yeshiva College, described the retreat as “an incredible experience” adding that he appreciated the opportunity to “see the insider’s perspective on what drives decisions in D.C., and specifically the significance of the theory and philosophy that drives those decisions.” Other students agreed, adding that it was refreshing to realize that contrary to common jaded assumptions about politics, disagreements in American politics really are motivated by genuine ideological disagreements rather than petty concerns over power.

Ahuva Yagod, a junior at Stern College, added that the premise of the course—the uniqueness—hit home during a moment of extracurricular activity, when a spontaneous Frisbee game that the YU students began a few blocks away from the National Mall. “Seeing the boys running with their tzitzit flying out behind them in the middle of the nation’s capital really represented what America has been for the Jews and for religious groups in general,” said Yagod. “It really concretized everything we studied about the unique interplay between religious groups and politics in this country, and how grateful we should be for that special relationship.”

The author, Tali Adler of Cedarhurst, NY, is a senior at Stern College for Women double-majoring in political science and Jewish Studies.

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