Stephanie DeCross, 21, has a big weekend ahead of her. In addition to studying for two midterms she’ll take next week, the Dartmouth College junior will be hopping a plane from New Hampshire to Maryland to attend the Sinai Scholars Society’s fourth annual Student-and-Scholars Academic Symposium. Held this coming Sunday at Johns Hopkins University – it rotates campuses each year – the Chabad-Lubavitch run discussion and learning-based event will feature a day of lectures, debate, presentations and an award ceremony that recognizes research papers written by students like DeCross, who travel from home schools in the United States and Canada to present their work to their peers and a committee of rabbis and Jewish academics.

It all started, DeCross said, when she got an email through a course offered by way of her local Chabad House about an intensive Jewish learning opportunity the fall of her sophomore year. She participated in the Sinai Scholars program, a joint Chabad on Campus International Foundation and Rohr-Jewish Learning Institute initiative that includes an eight-week course offered on more than 64-affiliate campuses around the country; the course incorporates lectures, textual-based study, a field trip and Sabbath experience, and culminates in a research paper.

“My paper was on brain-stem death in Judaism,” she said, explaining how she researched Jewish viewpoints on defining the end of life and the medical implications of their approach, “and how medical and technological developments have informed our society today, and how Judaism as an ancient tradition still plays an active role and relates to that.”

DeCross and 13 other students whose papers were selected from more than 30 submitted, will present their findings in 20-minute blocks throughout the day on Sunday. They’ll then be able to defend their work and receive feedback from a five-person academic panel who will judge the papers based on original thought, research, and the coherent development of ideas as written and presented. The winner receives a $500 prize, and with the other participants, will see his or her paper printed in the Sinai Scholars Journal, which is sent out to universities across the country.

Rabbi Moshe Gray, chairman of the symposium and co-director of Chabad at Dartmouth, explained that the program is designed to offer students a look into the depth and breadth of Judaism. The symposium represents the culminating experience, he said, for participants who have spent time analyzing and researching a Jewish topic in depth.

“The symposium is putting forth the final product, but the important thing is really the lead up to it,” stated Gray, adding that the impetus for creating the event came from an interest in engaging today’s Jewish students “in a meaningful and academic manner.”

“This brings students to a new level in their Torah study and Jewish involvement through the research they conducted,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “The Torah subjects become their own. Without question, this immersion into Torah concepts will cause even greater Jewish growth and advancement.”

Since the program’s inception in 2007, the Sinai Scholars Society has seen almost 10,000 students come through, said Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov, director of the Brooklyn-based organization. It also hosts alumni events, creating learning communities through discussions and trips. Dubov hopes that Sunday’s event, titled “Ancient Ethics in a Postmodern World,” sends participants home with the knowledge that they too have a voice in the discussion of Jewish scholarship.

“It gives us an opportunity to validate and celebrate their learning, and to encourage them to do so as well,” he said.

Stanford University’s Daniel Slate delivers a paper titled “Sinai and the Principles of Highest Purpose” at the first-ever Sinai Scholars Society academic symposium, held at Princeton University in 2009. (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)
Stanford University’s Daniel Slate delivers a paper titled “Sinai and the Principles of Highest Purpose” at the first-ever Sinai Scholars Society academic symposium, held at Princeton University in 2009. (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)

Last year’s winner, Brandon Floch, 23, came away empowered by the experience. A two-time presenter at the conference, he came to the Sinai Scholars program as a college junior looking for a deeper understanding of Judaism and his relation to it. His exploration led him to the Holy Land on a Birthright-Israel trip, and also to write about divine revelation and whether Jews who didn’t believe the Torah was divinely revealed were obligated to follow its commandments.

He presented that paper several years ago at the conference at Dartmouth, and then went on to build on the feedback he received. He continued his studies and in April 2011, was ready to present on another important question he had researched, about intellect and faith and how intellect can be utilized in belief in G‑d.

“What I took away was that it is possible to grasp this concept of G‑d on an intellectual level,” said Floch, explaining that he sees the Tanya, the foundational work of Chasidic thought penned in the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, as a key component for establishing an intellectual base.

He said he was grateful for the feedback he received, especially from Rabbi Naftali Loewenthal, professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College of London and an author of secondary source material he had used to prepare his second paper.

“He was sitting right there,” recalled Floch. “He thanked me.”

Floch’s research has led him to see the world differently, he said. “I see the world through the eyes of someone who has grappled with these questions and continues to grapple with these questions.”