Montclair student who plans on becoming a rabbi was selected as one of 32 Rhodes scholars for 2010.
Zohar Atkins, a senior at Brown University, will study at Oxford University in England under the scholarship, awarded to students based on scholastic achievement, character, and leadership potential.
Atkins is studying toward an undergraduate degree at Brown with a major in classics and Jewish studies; he is simultaneously earning a master’s degree in history. He was previously awarded the prestigious Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, and won first place in the 2009 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Being named a Rhodes scholar “was pretty unexpected,” said Atkins in a telephone interview. “I was happy just to go through the process and talk about my vision with both judges and finalists. I’m happy for the opportunity to study at Oxford.”
Atkins attended public schools in Montclair and said he was “blessed” to grow up at Montclair’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, where his mother now serves on the board.
He cites the rabbis who led the congregation during his youth, Michael Monson and E. Noach Shapiro, as important influences on him.
“I owe a huge chunk of my identity to the rabbis at Shomrei Emunah who taught me and engaged me in a one-on-one relationship,” he said. “That community was a big part of my life, especially Friday night and Saturday morning services.”
He also credits the five summers he spent at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires and the Passaic rabbis with whom he studied Talmud privately for eight years. His parents, Angie and Norman, encouraged their son to engage in rigorous text study with private tutors, although he did attend the synagogue religious school for several years.
As a participant in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Atkins deepened his interest in serious text study, he said.
He is writing his Brown honors thesis on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Jewish theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. In his academic work he juxtaposes the Greek ideal represented by the polis, or city, with the spiritual ideal represented by Jerusalem.
“I’m fascinated by the motif of Athens and Jerusalem,” he said. “It tells us that Athens is not enough, that the polis is a temporary solution and Jerusalem is the ideal.”
At Oxford, he will study for his doctorate, focusing on “the dichotomy between God and humanity.”
He plans to go into the rabbinate because he is inspired by religious texts, and also “because I see the power of religious language to effect social change,” he said.
He is not the first Rhodes scholar to express the desire to become a Jewish religious leader. Rabbi Chaim Straucheler of Westport, Conn., is a former Rhodes scholar, as is Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago. “There have been at least several others in the last 10 years,” according to Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary for the Rhodes Trust.