What is “Scientists in Synagogues?”

Scientists in Synagogues is a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Its aim is to share how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work so that they can be role models and ambassadors for productive conversations surrounding Judaism and science.

This project is organized by Sinai and Synapses  (which is incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, as well as other individual donors.

How did it arise? What are its goals?

It is rarely a challenge to get Jews to embrace science. However, it is often much harder to get Jews excited about Judaism. Indeed, a common refrain in liberal Jewish circles is, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science and in nature.” And in the national survey fielded by Rice University and AAAS as part of the “Perceptions Project,” data showed just how prevalent that perspective is.

When the Perceptions Project asked people how they perceived the relationship between science and religion, several potential responses were offered. One was “in collaboration,” one was “independent,” and two were “in conflict” — one “on the side of religion” and the other “on the side of science.”

About 25% of the American populace chose one of the two conflict options, which, interestingly, was the same percentage as the Jewish population. But while most of the Christians who saw religion and science in opposition viewed themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who saw science and religion in conflict came down on the side of science — and by a huge margin. For the “conflicted Christians,” three out of four opted for religion, and one out of four chose science. But for the 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16 saw themselves on the side of science, and therefore, anti-religion.

This finding clearly implies that it’s often less of a challenge to get Jews to embrace science than it is to get them to embrace Judaism. Perhaps because Judaism has long embraced questioning and challenging authority, or perhaps because theology is rarely emphasized in the more liberal branches of Judaism, many Jews erroneously think that if they accept science, then they need to reject their Judaism. Thus one goal of Scientists in Synagogues will be to show that science and Judaism need not be in conflict, and that Jews do not need to reject their Judaism in order to celebrate science.

Yet there is an even more important goal of Scientists in Synagogues, and that comes from a slightly more subtle finding from the Perceptions Project. For the 75% of the populace who did not see science and religion in conflict, respondents were allowed to choose either “in collaboration” or “independent.” Jews were lower than any other religious group in viewing religion and science as “collaborative,” meaning that many Jews did not see science and religion as supporting each other. Instead, Jews were higher than any other group in viewing religion and science as “independent.”

Yet it is challenging, and often unproductive and unhealthy, to consciously separate different parts of one’s sense of self. Rather than bifurcating identity, it is more constructive to explore how people can combine disparate parts of themselves at the same time.

This then presents a great opportunity for both scientists and the Jewish community to rethink the relationship between Judaism and science. Scientists in Synagogues will move people towards a more integrated perspective, both for their own individual sense of self and for the larger conversation surrounding Judaism and science.

What impact has it had?

Scientists in Synagogues began in 2016, and has run two previous rounds. Each iteration reached over 5000 people through classes or lectures, 96% of attendees called the programming “good” or “excellent,” and over 90% said they wanted more. Several congregations saw over twice as many people as usual coming to learn, and these were a few of the comments from rabbis, scientists and educators:

“Even my most popular adult ed programs in the past haven’t broken 20 people in class. We’ve had 40 people at the last two programs, and not all exactly the same people, so we’ve probably involved closer to 50 in these past two weeks. Three people came up to me and asked if we might find a way to continue the series into next year with a monthly ‘Scientists in Synagogues Salon’ where different congregants could take a topic to present a short thought-piece on, that leads into conversation.”

“We assembled a team that represented a wide range of engagement in our congregation, from a medical ethicist who was a past president of our congregation to a geneticist whose involvement in the congregation had previously been relatively limited. And — perhaps even more meaningful for these leaders and for the congregation — none of these individuals had ever been asked to share their professional experience in any congregational programming.”

“I usually have to pull teeth to get people involved. Here, three different people asked how I could be involved. And so many people have come and been so engaged, we are now rethinking how we do adult education.”

For this round, we do understand that there is a difference between in-person and online attendance, but we believe that the goals and its impact — deep conversations, rich explorations of crucial topics, and richer relationships — will remain.

What are we looking for?

We are looking for communities that have members who are dedicated scientists in their midst. These can be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated, or independent, and the scientists can be professors, researchers, bench scientists, science educators, or even science journalists, but the most crucial piece is that these scientists need to have a willingness and a desire to explore how their scientific work can integrate with their Jewish life.

We are also defining “synagogue” very broadly for this initiative, and will entertain applications from independent minyanim, start-up congregations, or other forms of Jewish communities where there are already relationships among stake-holders. If you would not call yourself a “synagogue” and would like to apply, please contact us to discuss further.

We are also looking for a diverse group of scientists, both in terms of their area of expertise, as well as a good mix of both male and female scientists.

What are the expectations of the synagogue?

  1. To attend a virtual workshop in early 2021, and, if COVID-19 restrictions allow, an in-person culmination (very heavily subsidized) at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City for the rabbi (or other senior professional) and one scientist.   
  2. To run at least two programs in their community. Given the nature of COVID-19, these programs may be a combination of in-person and online programs
  3. To create two written blogposts and/or videos to help personalize the relationship between Judaism and science
  4. To provide qualitative and quantitative data throughout this process, such as pre- and post-program surveys, interviews, attendance numbers and stories, which will help guide future programming and a potential expansion of this program
  5. Willingness to have a member of Sinai and Synapses and/or AAAS DoSER at at least one event either physically or virtually

What will the synagogues receive?

The synagogues that are selected for Scientists in Synagogues will receive two main benefits.

First, they will receive up to $3600 use during the grant period for publicity, honoraria or other expenses as they see fit.

Second, they will receive an opportunity for mentorship and connection from both the Jewish world through Sinai and Synapses and the scientific world through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jennifer Wiseman 2At the  virtual workshop, they will have an opportunity to cross-collaborate, and hear remarks from:

What are potential programs synagogues might run?


Synagogues are expected to run a minimum of two programs by the end of 2021, with an understanding that they will most likely begin online, with a hope of in-person meetings in 2021. These programs for the synagogues can take a variety of forms, and can be run through whatever methodology is most appropriate for that community. Events may be designed to be flexible for being in person or remote, subject to social distancing advice/regulations in your area.

We expect the crux of the programming to involve the scientists who are members of these synagogues, and be led and run in partnership between the rabbi and the scientists.

Some synagogues used the funding for field trips, such as to the Lick Observatory or The National Center for Atmospheric Research. (In the time of COVID-19, these field trips can be designed as adaptable so that they can be virtual). Others have invited guest speakers as a “capstone” event, and have involved Dr. Roald Hoffmann, recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; CNN Correspondent Dana Bash; Professor Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds and the University of Wisconsin – Madison; Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER); and Dr. Jeremy England, Associate Professor of Physics at MIT.

You can see some of the other past events and the content that came out of them.

The ideas below are simply designed to spark creativity, but we are very open to different methodologies for reaching audiences.

Teachings and dialogue during Shabbat services

By inviting a scientist to speak at Shabbat services or having the rabbi be in conversation with a scientist (either in-person, online, or some combination thereof), the congregation will be able to discover integrated lessons from both Judaism and science.

Adult education and family education programs

With options that range from a one-time major presentation to a semester-long course, adult education programs allow for relationship-building and deep explorations. Additionally, family education programs are another option, where parents and children can have the opportunity to explore together the relationship between Judaism and science.

Children’s education

By creating curricula, offering “guest speakers” in a classroom, and providing resources to students on their way to becoming bar or bat mitzvah, the next generation will be able to see how science and Judaism can come together.

What are some potential topics and themes?

As Scientists in Synagogues is designed to be grass-roots, many of the topics will arise from the interests and expertise of the specific scientists and clergy.

Previous synagogues have run programs such as “How Do We Think? Jewish and Scientific Perspectives on Consciousness“; “God(s) on Other Planets“; “Human Morality: Features and Bugs“; “The Billion-Year-Old Golden Rule of Symbiosis“; “Is God a Particle Physicist?” and “What Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Ourselves.” You can also see some of the past events and the content that came out of them for other ideas.

To generate thoughts and ideas, below are some potential themes or topics that may spark significant interest:

  • Spirituality and Health: What is the relationship between a sense of spirituality and medical health? What are we truly praying for when we “pray for health”? What is the relationship between “healing” and “curing”?
  • The Science of Virtue: Can we measure virtues? Are virtues associated with human flourishing? How can we ground Jewish teachings on subjects like gratitude, self-control, generosity, or forgiveness in the latest science?
  • Genesis and the Big Bang / Evolution: How do we read the Bible in light of Big Bang cosmology and the theory of natural selection?
  • Our sense of self: How do we tell the story of “who we are” based on the latest scientific findings? What is the connection among mind, brain and soul? As Judaism emphasizes “remembering” (such as remembering the Exodus from Egypt, or Shabbat, or the Holocaust), what does science say about how memory relates to identity?
  • Genetics: How has the increase in genetic knowledge changed our understanding of humanity? What’s the relationship between nature and nurture? How do new scientific findings change the idea of “b’tselem Elohim,” being created in God’s image?
  • Technology: How is technology changing the way we interact with others and our world? What are the limits and opportunities that technology creates for our relationships? How do we understand Shabbat in our 24/7, ever-connected world?

Please note: While all possible topics about Judaism and science will be considered, if you are planning to focus on topics such as environmental science, bio-ethics or abortion (many of which have been covered in other venues and forms), please reach out to us to discuss this further.

What will the ultimate impact be?

Ultimately, Scientists in Synagogues will use the power of relationships and personal stories to highlight people who effectively bring their science and Judaism together in their own personal lives. By doing so, it will increase the number of people who see science and Judaism as collaborative, and will examine not just religious questions, and not just scientific questions, but human questions.

What is the timeline?

The deadline for applications is November 16, 2020, 11:59 PM Eastern time. Finalists will be notified by November 23, 2020, and will be asked to submit a budget and tentative program timeline. They will then have a one-hour interview by Zoom between November 30th and December 9th. Selected synagogues will be notified by December 14th, 2020.

The selected congregations are expected to bring two people – one rabbi (one rabbi or other senior professional, and one scientist) for a virtual workshop in January or February 2021, and assuming COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, an in-person culmination in 2021, which will be heavily subsidized.  

If you have other questions, please contact us.

We are not currently accepting applications for Scientists in Synagogues, but please reach out to us if you have any questions, and future projects and opportunities!