Advancing Learning Through the Straus Center
The Zahava and Moshael Straus Center For Torah and Western Thought, headed by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, offers classes and extracurricular opportunities for students at Yeshiva University who wish to participate.
The Center’s mission statement is “to help develop Jewish thinkers and future communal pillars by deepening their education in the richness of the Jewish tradition, exposing them to the richness of human knowledge and insight from across the ages, and confronting them with the great moral, philosophical and theological questions of our age.” Ben Atwood, a student at YC who is involved in the Center through the Straus Scholars program, explained the center’s belief that, “it is critical to keep the Biblical values underlying American culture and history alive and strong. The Center intends to teach that message and help people see that modern Western culture derives from the Bible.”
The Center offers classes in Stern and Yeshiva College’s political science departments as well as its art and philosophy departments. The courses tend to focus on interdisciplinary studies, combining Torah and halachic ideals with Western philosophy and politics.
While the classes are open to all students, the Straus Center offers a selective Scholars Program for male students who are already in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program. However, while The Commentator was told by multiple sources that the program is only for current YC Honors students, the application does not specify this exclusion. The first year of the program was in 2016, with three YC students being selected.
The recipients of the scholarship receive $25,000 a year towards their YU tuition, a personalized independent study with Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, and multiple trips and events. The scholars are also required to take eight Straus Center classes over the course of their time at YU, in place of the honors courses required by the Honors program. Though at the moment, this honors program is only offered for YC students, Rabbi Aryeh Czarka, Assistant Director of Operations at Straus Center, assured The Commentator that “we have plans to expand the Straus Scholars program to Stern College as well.”
Another job of the Straus Center Scholars is “to promote the Straus Center to the student body,” stated Atwood. However, their current best mode of advertisement is through students already enrolled in the classes. “It’s usually a diverse crowd [in the classes], so that’s how people know about them,”explained Atwood.
Not all Straus Center courses are taught by Straus faculty, namely Rabbi Soloveichik or Dr. Rogachevsky. There are regular YC classes that are used to fulfill Straus requirements, generally involving philosophy. “Last semester, I took a class ‘Ethics with Daniel Reynold’ which was a normal philosophy class for YC, that was designated for my fulfillment,” explained Atwood. Atwood has also taken classes at the Center, including Rembrandt and the Jews and Athens and Jerusalem.
Trips with the Straus center include tours to historical Jewish communities, pertaining to the various classes given. Last year, the Center visited Philadelphia to tour the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. This past fall, students flew to Charleston to learn about Jewish life during the Civil War period. The Commentator was unable to determine what the precise guidelines are for who is allowed to attend the trips, but they are sometimes offered to Stern students who have been involved in the Straus Center through Stern College courses or outside programming.
It is onerous to conduct a program that seeks to merge the ideas of Torah study and Western thought while being intellectually open-minded and honest. However, Atwood explained how seamlessly the two concepts work in tandem in the classroom. He described the Straus Center as a place that encourages debate, “[Rabbi Soloveichik], in no way, attempts to hide his opinions, but always opens the floor to discussion and seriously pays attention to students who may disagree. As a result, the Straus center has a clear agenda but also supports intellectual growth in its openness to debate and question.”
Talia Edelman, a Junior at Stern majoring in Neuroscience, registered for a Straus Center course titled Bible and Democracy during her first semester on campus.The course, taught by Professor Matthew Holbreich, a Straus Resident Scholar, focused on the Hebraic foundations of the American founding ideals. When asked what made this class different from other classes she has taken at Stern, Edelman replied, “our professor was an expert in the field we were studying, and the course was structured around a book that he was co-writing with Rabbi Soloveichik.” Additionally, the students in her class attended the trip to Philadelphia, organized by the Straus Center, to see the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, as was discussed in the class.
Professor Joseph Luders, the Chair and interim Chair of the Stern and YC Political Science department respectively, feels that the Straus Center adds a crucial piece to his department. Professor Luders described how the Straus Center tends to focus its classes around “political philosophy,” thus “rounding out the political science department since [it] often runs light in this subfield of political science.” Additionally, the Straus Center offers unparalleled programming and speakers. “For instance, last year, the Straus Center brought a very well regarded Lincoln scholar to Stern for a course on leadership,” elaborated Professor Luders.
The Center offers programs for graduate students, as well, specifically a fellowship for students in Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, all of whom seem to be hand-picked by Rabbi Soloveichik. Jonah Sieger, a current RIETS student and Straus Center fellow explained that, “A bunch of us got an email and we came in to have a meeting with [Rabbi Soloveichik].” However, RIETS fellow and senior at YC, Eli Weinstein, explained that he heard about the program from Sieger and emailed the staff directly to get into the program. The Commentator is unclear on how the fellows were chosen and for how long the fellowship runs.
The fellows are required to attend seminars twice a month and eventually to publish an article on a topic relating to Jewish and Western traditions under the guidance of Rabbi Soloveichik. Once the article is published, the author receives a stipend. Sieger would not reveal how much the stipend is, but it is dependant on the publication of the article.
The current theme of the RIETS seminars for this semester is “Rabbis, the Bible, and the American Civil War.” For example, one such lesson focused on the different views of Jews regarding slavery during the Civil War era. Sieger spoke about how “we kind of tried to figure out how the Southern Jews reacted wholeheartedly supporting slavery and had their take on how to square that away in [Jewish] texts. And then you had the North, spearheaded by Rabbi Sabato Morais, a prominent pulpit Rabbi in the North who had his own take on how their view on abolishing slavery aligned with the Torah.”
Sieger explained the type of writing that Rabbi Soloveichik expects from the fellows. “He wants us to put something out that is worthy of publishing and on a topic that we are passionate about. However, since we are Rabbinical students and Orthodox Jews who have been raised learning texts, he wants us to bring that to the floor and incorporate Rabbinic texts into the article.”
Similar to the Straus Scholars, the RIETS fellows are privy to multiple trips. Sieger confirmed that Rabbi Soloveichik announced a trip to Virginia that will most likely include Gettysburg. The locations are chosen due to their relevance to the theme of the fellowship. The tour will focus on various locations and battlefields that were important during the Civil War. The location of the second trip has not been announced, but Rabbi Czarka did confirm that “plans for another trip on American Jewish history for this June are underway.”
Additionally, the Straus Center holds multiple speakers and events every year that are open to the public. Last semester, Christopher Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, spoke to Rabbi Soloveitchik on his father’s legacy and, at a later event, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia discussed the concept of “founding” in the thought of James Madison. For Yom Hazikaron this year, the Center will be holding an event hosting Dr. Leon Kass and discussing his book, “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.”