Taylor Winfield, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton University, was one of 150 young Jewish change-makers from 29 countries selected to participate in the 2016 ROI Global Summit, which ran June 26-30 in Jerusalem. The ROI Community — “an international network of activists…who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation” — is an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“I think it is an amazing opportunity to bring movers and shakers together,” Winfield told NJJN. “I see it as a way to really make connections to people thinking about the same topics you are thinking about and working together to implement them,” she said. She would like to “develop a tool kit we can use to engage Jews of different backgrounds” around areas of common interest, be it religion, Yiddish, Jewish history, or social justice.
For Winfield, born Jewish to two Jewish parents, the path to making an initially tenuous Jewish identity a salient part of her life has been long and circuitous.
She lived in four states before the age of 10, eventually settling with her family in California. Except for grandparents who sent Hanukka cards, she grew up in a completely secular household, “celebrating Christmas and Easter as American holidays,” she said.
When she got to Stanford University, she said, people would tell her she looked Jewish, so she turned to Google to try to figure out what that meant. She did go to occasional Hillel events, but the fall of her freshman year she had an existential crisis. “I realized that I had been working my whole life to get into Stanford, working for the A and to be a perfect student,” she said. “I noticed I was doing the same pattern in the academic rat race.” So she asked herself, “Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of my life?”
Deciding that she didn’t want to live that way, Winfield started doing yoga and meditation, studied positive psychology, and got interested in wellness and promoting it on campus. She then spent six or seven weeks in India visiting ashrams and monasteries, where she did research on whether people engaging in spiritual practice for the first time were also experiencing emotional benefits similar to her own.
The next year, while studying in Madrid for three months, Winfield learned about El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a 500-mile Catholic pilgrimage across northern Spain. She interviewed pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela and found their responses similar to those of seekers in India who had completed a 10-day silent meditation retreat. “They felt better; they felt connected to each other and more peaceful,” Winfield said.
Next in her journey was co-teaching a course on Jewish spirituality and well-being with Rabbi Mychal Copeland at Stanford’s Hillel; Winfield presented her research findings, and Copeland taught mostly Hasidut, focusing on mindfulness, how to be happy, and oneness in the world. “It felt very similar to the parts I had loved when learning about Hinduism and Buddhism — but this was my own,” Winfield said.
After this “aha!” moment, Winfield wanted to apply to Judaism the discipline she had used in her Asian spiritual practice. Little by little, she tried resting on Shabbat and observing kashrut during her senior year at Stanford. Not even knowing the Hebrew alef-bet, she also sought out Jewish learning and leadership experiences.
After graduation she spent a year in Israel, funded by a Dorot Fellowship. She studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and did research exploring the experience of newly ultra-Orthodox women, focusing in particular on the Breslov hasidim.
Describing her findings about the way that women and people in general become more religious, she said, “It is not as much about changing beliefs at first; it is more about changing your bodily rituals.… That way of changing your body leads to changes in identity and how you think and how you feel. Changing the way you dress, only wearing skirts, or only eating kosher food or moving your body in a certain way while praying will lead to changes in how you see yourself and the world,” she said.
Winfield spent her free time in Jerusalem exploring art and Torah, including inscribing biblical verses on pottery as well as taking dance and singing lessons. “That experience of understanding God through art was extremely powerful for me and has been a basic tenet around much of my teaching around Torah,” she said.
On her return from Israel, Winfield studied at Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian institution on the Upper West Side of New York. She is also a newly minted Wexner Graduate Fellow.
Although still interested in her “Breslov women,” today Winfield is also looking at the “supply and demand” side of religion. She said, “We have seen the incredible success of outreach organizations [religion suppliers], most famously Chabad, at making people religious or bringing them closer to religion.” What she is exploring is “how people are getting interested in Chabad and how is Chabad shaping their Jewish journey.”
Her goal is to learn from successful outreach organizations like Chabad and Aish, which uses different modes of recruitment, so that “Hillel and other pluralistic Jewish organizations can use these tools as well to bring students closer to Judaism in a way that isn’t necessarily religious.”