Science and Judaism intersect at B’nai Israel Congregation

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Ella Gorodetzky | WJW Intern

Do science and religion intersect? B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville has received a $5,000 grant to plan a series of programs to explore the intersection of science and Judaism.

Sinai and Synapses, a nonprofit that works to bridge the religious and scientific worlds, awarded the funds to B’nai Israel and 11 other congregations from across the Jewish world.

B’nai Israel’s application was put together by Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz and a group of scientists who are members of the congregation.

“I reached out to a group of individuals, some of whom I just knew worked in the field, others were recommended to me by other staff members and clergy,” Berkowitz said. “The group helped construct the grant proposals.”

After submitting the application, Berkowitz and congregant Marni Hall, a research scientist and public policy expert, attended an interview with Sinai and Synapses Founding Director Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman.

On June 29, Berkowitz and Hall were scheduled to take part in a workshop in New York City along with representatives from each synagogue that received the grant.

“The workshop is an opportunity to learn more about the program overall and to collaborate with the other synagogues, but each of us will maintain our own programming. It’s sort of a network that’s built with everybody who’s participating so we can share ideas with one another and talk about best practices, things like that,” Berkowitz said.

B’nai Israel’s series of programs, focusing on a wide range of scientific topics, are scheduled to begin in 2022 and continue through the spring of 2023, Berkowitz said.

“We are hoping that our kickoff program will be a panel discussion. The panelists will include some of our B’nai Israel clergy as well as scientists from the community to have an opening conversation about the general topic ‘religion and science,’” Berkowitz explained. “Throughout the year, we’re hoping to have three or four additional programs. Some of them will be lectures, some of them will be other learning opportunities, perhaps in small groups or text-based learning or, in some cases, more traditional lecture-format learning with different scholars, both on the science side and also on the Jewish side.”

Berkowitz has also been in conversation with David DeSteno, author of “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion,” who the rabbi hopes will be a speaker for one of the programs.

One of Berkowitz’s objectives for B’nai Israel’s programs is to engage the wider Washington Jewish community on a topic that many might not otherwise have the chance to learn about, he said. He added that many B’nai Israel members work or have experience in the sciences, but have not yet explored the intersection of science and Judaism.

Berkowitz’s interest in the program is also personal. “As a rabbi, I feel that anytime we can think about Judaism beyond the four walls of the synagogue, and also Judaism beyond specifically religious segments of our life, we can find ways to put our Judaism in conversation with other aspects of who we are, things that we believe and things that we know to be true,” Berkowitz said. “I think that only strengthens our own convictions as religious individuals, and also shows us how Judaism has transformed over the years, has evolved and the way our thinking about these things has changed.”

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