PRINCETON — When Ayelet Wenger heard about a conference for undergraduate classics students at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, her immediate thought was: “Why doesn’t such a thing exist in Judaic studies?”
The Princeton University junior from Columbus, Ohio, e-mailed religion professor Martha Himmelfarb to pitch the prospect of hosting such a conference, where undergraduate students would present original research in Judaic studies. The two met last March, Wenger told NJJN, and shared excitement at the idea.
Several months of planning later, the inaugural Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference met on Feb. 14 in Princeton’s Fine Hall. Over 50 students from across the country and beyond came to hear 11 undergraduates present on topics ranging from Second Temple literature, to demonology of Nahmanides, to messianism and Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.
The UJSC was organized by a committee of Princeton students, consisting of Wenger; sophomores Carolyn Beard and Matthew Kritz; juniors Yossi Quint, Maya Rosen, and Elliot Salinger; and senior Joshua Stadlan. Quint and Stadlan were also among the 11 presenters.
The 11 presenters had submitted research papers that were selected from a pool of approximately 40 entries, a turnout that both Wenger and Himmelfarb, the conference’s faculty advisor, said astounded them.
Wenger said she had initially been concerned that not enough people would submit. “[I was] sort of expecting that we would have to write our own papers in order to fill in the gaps,” Wenger joked.
The conference had four successive sessions: Literary Languages, Rabbinic Ritual, Modern Movements, and Medieval Text and Context. During each session, two or three students presented their research.
Following the sessions, conference keynote speaker Christine Hayes of Yale University spoke on Law and Virtue in Ancient Jewish Sources. She focused on the talmudic phrase, “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels,” exploring diverse Jewish conceptions of the nature of human perfection and whether or not humans can or should aspire to be like angels, in contradistinction to Greek thought.
The conference drew participants from more than 15 different universities, including strong contingents from Columbia and Yale, according to Quint. Students from Yeshiva University also attended, including two presenters.
Over the months leading up to the event, the committee selected papers for presentation via a blind review process of the submissions.
The papers were anonymized by Baru Saul, Princeton’s Judaic Studies Program manager, who oversaw logistics for the conference. Then, said Quint, each paper was read and ranked on a number of features by two committee members.
The selection process was student-run, though the committee consulted with Himmelfarb on broad questions such as how to define “Jewish” in the case of papers whose subjects were not obviously so, according to Wenger.
Quint, whose paper was on Torah as prayer in the Second Temple period and in a Greek context, said sharing research is important, both to increase knowledge of the field as well as to gain experience presenting.
“When you’re writing a paper, you can be dense, you can have complex sentences, you can have footnotes and much more argumentation,” Quint said. “But when you’re presenting a paper, it really needs to be something that people can perceive and understand.”
The presenters came from across the United States, Canada, and Israel. They included Jonathan Howard, a student at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem who offered his research on Medieval Hebrew linguistics through the lens of Greek philosophy. Among his arguments was that the relationship between vowels and consonants is seen as analogous to that between soul and body.
For Emily Goldberg, a junior studying religion and anthropology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., part of her research process was interactive. She spoke about the significance of the “Rebbe’s Ohel,” the resting place of the last two Lubavitcher rebbes. In her work, she said, in addition to researching major theorists like Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, and Thomas Tweed, she conducted in-person interviews with Chabad couples across the Northeast.
UJSC was funded by several Princeton University divisions: the Program in Judaic Studies, the Department of Religion, the Office of Undergraduate Research, the Center for the Study of Religion, and the Department of Comparative Literature. The program included meals at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, and travel subsidies were available for presenters.
Adam Chanes, who flew in from Northwestern University in Illinois to share his research on the poetry of the Marranos — Jews living in Spain and Portugal who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity. He analyzed 17th-century Portuguese poet João Pinto Delgado’s poem “Ester,” showing via literary trends, poetic imagery, and historical background that Delgado deliberately shed light on the historical context of the Jews of his time in the Iberian peninsula.
Chanes said he was hugely impressed by the scholarship and analysis of the presenters at the conference. “I was proud to have been part of this inaugural conference,” he said. “It brought together brilliant minds, a diversity of fields, and myriad modes of thinking.”
Goldberg agreed. “I thought the conference was groundbreaking, exciting, and filled with opportunities to engage in research and learning,” she said.
“More importantly, however, this conference was humbling; I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to share my research with thinkers who are as passionate about religious studies as I am,” Goldberg added.
Wenger said discussion has begun on the possibility of a second conference next year.
“My huge impression from this experience has been amazement at the amount of enthusiasm and interest that the conference generated,” Wenger said. “I think there’s a real need for intercollegiate Judaic Studies programs.”