On Monday, May 31, 2021, 14 Straus Scholars from the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought embarked on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., led by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik (Straus Center director), Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern (Straus senior program officer) and Sarah Wapner (Straus impact and recruitment officer).
One of the central goals of the trip was to ponder the impact of Biblical ideas on America and its founding. “This is a subject of enormous importance at the present moment,” explained Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik, “as we are experiencing great political division and debate in America. At the heart of many of these arguments are very different understandings of the nature and goals of the American founding. In our two days in Washington, we considered the nature of the American polity—and the biblical impact upon it—in a short but incredibly substantive trip.”
Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., the Straus Scholars enjoyed a tour of the Museum of the Bible, led by Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik. The group was also accompanied by Dr. Jeff Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer and a close friend of the Straus Center. Over the course of the tour, the Straus Scholars explored exhibits on the Hebrew Bible and its relationship to ancient Israel, early Jews in America, the Founding Fathers and the abolitionist movement.
After the Museum of the Bible, the Straus Scholars were hosted by Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Jeremy Brown at their home in Silver Spring, Maryland. During dinner, the Straus Scholars had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Tevi Troy, President George W. Bush’s former deputy secretary of health and human services and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In conversation with Rabbi Dr. Halpern, Dr. Troy discussed the intersection between faith and the American presidency. “America is a covenantal nation founded on an idea,” Troy argued, “one that marries Athens and Jerusalem. The Torah informed America and provided America with a sense of greater purpose.” When asked how he navigated halachic [Jewish law] observance while working for the president, Troy simply replied, “People respect you more as an identifiably religious Jew.”
On the second day of the trip, the Straus Scholars spent the morning touring the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall before arriving at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the most important and influential think tanks in the country.
At AEI, the Straus Scholars were treated to a tour of the building with Mr. Chris Scalia, director of AEI’s academic programs, and participated in several seminars with AEI Scholars and Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik on the role of Torah values in American history, modern society and contemporary political discourse.
The first seminar, with Tim Carney, focused on the problems of social cohesion in America and the values that can counteract the current disintegration of communities across the country. Carney, resident fellow at AEI and senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner, discussed his recent book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. “Traditional values of Jews and Catholics are now adopted as best practices by the educated elite,” Carney explained. “Build your communities [as if] for an eruv [enclosure]; you should be able to walk through the neighborhood, worship and be involved in the public square. By being immersed in our institutions, we are being countercultural.” Carney also emphasized Jeremiah 29:7 as a lesson for Americans today from Tanach [Hebrew Bible]: “And seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its shalom you shall prosper.” Translating “shalom” as “well-being” (as opposed to the more common “peace”), Carney concluded, “The well-being of your city is your own well-being.”
The second seminar, with Dr. Yuval Levin, considered Dr. Levin’s book, The Great Debate, which focuses on how the arguments of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine are reflected in contemporary American political discourse.
Dr. Levin, the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the AEI, argued that the current political culture in America suffers from an absence of engagement, one that can be rectified with strong institutions. “Long-term institutions deserve to be defended,” he explained. “We expect to maintain our institutions, that they will rise and flourish for our generation. We have a lot of work, and protecting institutions is hard but worth it.” When asked what he thinks the political future of America looks like, Levin concluded, “I’m not losing hope. There is a lot of good [in America], and we can work to ensure a liberal society that has room for both order and freedom.”
The last seminar, with well-known writer and columnist Jonah Goldberg, focused on Goldberg’s bestselling book, The Suicide of the West, an analysis of the political foundation of modernity after the Enlightenment.
Goldberg highlighted the centrality of the “miracle” of the Lockean Revolution that led the world into its most prosperous period in human history. “We need gratitude for the incredible prosperity of the West,” Goldberg argued, “and this has become a significant problem among those who think they are smarter than the miracle.” To reignite this gratitude, individuals must stand up for “the best version of the American founding and the Founding Fathers,” even when it’s unpopular. “This is American patriotism,” he added. Like Tim Carney, Goldberg concluded with a vision for America tethered to the family and institutions: “Virtue must be taught close to home, locally. People will derive a feeling of earned success and accomplishment from the meaningful contributions they make in life.”
Although the trip was brief, the Straus Scholars emerged with a deeper understanding of America and the ideas that inspired it. They enjoyed the opportunity to forge connections with influential writers and thinkers in the public policy realm—and received some free books along the way. This trip captured the essential goal of the Straus Scholars Program: to enable our scholars to become intellectual Modern Orthodox leaders, well-versed in both the Jewish and Western canons and engaged with the questions and issues of contemporary American discourse.
As we move into the upcoming post-COVID semester, the Straus Center looks forward to running several more immersive trips and educational experiences to further its mission.