The Straus Center’s Inaugural High School Summer Program Blends the Traditions and Texts of Judaism and the West

On June 24, 2021, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted its inaugural summer seminar for high school students, Jewish and Western Texts in Conversation. Held in Manhattan over the course of two days, 43 students participated in unique interdisciplinary seminars and exclusive tours, learning at the collegiate level and engaging with the YU Straus Center’s renowned faculty.

“The Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University was founded with the aim of more fully realizing YU’s mission: to create truly educated Jews by bridging Torah and the West and teaching them how Yahadut has so deeply shaped some of the best ideas of the Western world,” explained Straus Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. “This exciting new program allowed us to immerse ourselves in a conversation between Torah and the great works of Western thought, literature, and history.”

Rabbi Soloveichik greets the high school students.

“Our inaugural Straus summer seminar drew a diverse group of motivated and knowledge-seeking students from Modern Orthodox day schools across the tri-state area,” explained Sarah Wapner, impact and recruitment officer at the Straus Center. “The program facilitated meaningful networking between like-minded students, exposed them to the Straus Scholars Program and opened their eyes to the prestigious academic and impact opportunities we provide at the Straus Center.”

The seminars covered a variety of topics, texts, and questions. In her seminar entitled “Torah and Shakespeare: Hosts and Hostages,” Straus Center Resident Scholar Dr. Shaina Trapedo explored the Biblical influences on Shakespeare and the themes of hospitality and violence in both Tanakh and the works of the Elizabethan playwright. Straus Center Associate Director and Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Neil Rogachevsky led a seminar titled “Torah and the Founding of Modern Israel,” exploring early Zionistic thought. Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg taught “Torah and Material Culture: Judaism in the New World,” offering students the opportunity to examine seforim recovered from the 18th and 19th centuries. “I incorporate [the seforim] into my teaching so students can hold history in their hands and physically see how tradition was brought from one country to the next to perpetuate Judaism,” Koenigsberg said.

Dr. Trapedo and the high school students study Shakespeare and the Bible.

The first day of the seminar also included men’s and women’s curated tours of Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), led by Rabbi Soloveichik. Students explored the synagogue and learned about the rich Jewish-American history associated with America’s oldest Jewish congregation.

The program concluded with a closing seminar co-taught by Rabbi Soloveichik and Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner, professor at the Straus Center. Entitled “Torah and Leadership: The Teachings of Rabbi Lamm and Rabbi Sacks,” Rabbi Lerner and Rabbi Soloveichik explored the lasting legacy of these two intellectual giants and their impact on Modern Orthodoxy.

The high school students enjoy a tour of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue with Rabbi Soloevichik.

Recent Ramaz graduate Rebecca Massel summed up her experiences in the seminar: “In an amazing two-day program, I discovered Abraham’s hospitality in Shakespeare’s writing, contrasted Dante’s belief of the afterlife with the Torah’s view, unpacked the rights and freedoms in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, imbibed Rabbi Sacks’ and Rabbi Lamm’s teachings on progress and innovation, found poetry in Tanakh, and explored Judaism in America through the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Insightful and thoughtful rabbis and college professors taught me what it means to be Jewish and American through primary texts and engaging discussions.”

“The Straus summer seminar provided thought-provoking and insightful classes, engaging on both an intellectual and religious level. Identifying the Torah’s immeasurable impact on Western thought and literature allowed me to truly experience ‘הפוך בה הפוך בה דכולה בה’ (Turn it, turn it, for all is in it),” explained Fayga Pinczower, a rising junior at Manhattan High School.

The high school students examine 18th- and 19th-century seforim (religious books).

“The Straus Center allowed me to explore a plethora of Western texts through a uniquely Jewish lens while connecting with like-minded students from many different schools,” said Shoshi Cantor, a rising senior at Bruriah High School. “We had the pleasure to hear from giants in the field and really benefited from the open discussions that were highly encouraged.”

“This program has inspired me to try and synthesize the works of the West with Jewish thought and ideas,” commented Shlomo Zauderer, a rising senior at Heichal HaTorah.

Rabbi Lerner and the high school students study the thought of Rabbi Lamm.

Information regarding Jewish and Western Texts in Conversation—offered by the Straus Center with the generous support of the Paul E. Singer Foundation—including updates on the summer 2022 application, can be found here.

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