Jerusalem Science Contest winners at archaeological dig in Jerusalem
Jerusalem Science Contest winners at archaeological dig in JerusalemCourtesy of the Walder Science Center

Westerners talk of the divisions between religion and science more often than they do their intersections. But the Walder Science Center, founded by Dr. Joseph Walder of IDTDNA in Chicago, has initiated the annual Jerusalem Science Contest - or hidon hamada hayerushalmi - for the last 12 years.

The name of the contest was coined by Professor Yosef Bodenheimer, who cofounded the contest and former president of the Lev Academic Center (LAC - formerly the Jerusalem College of Technology, JCT).

The contest started off as a local Chicago affair that gave five or six budding science students in local Jewish high schools the chance to visit Israel and visit research centers across the country relevant to the focus topic of the year.

This year kept with the theme of the Jewish sabbatical year – the Shemittah – when the Torah orders Jews to let the land lie fallow every seven years.

"The first few contests focused on genetics, optics, forensics and archaeology," notes Rabbi Heschel Weiner, the Director of the Walder Science Center who manages the contest. "This year we are focused on agricultural science. Dr. Joseph Walder knew that this year being the Shemittah (Sabbatical year for agriculture) that he wanted the science to focus on issues of mitzvot tuliyyot ba'aretz (Jewish laws dependent on the Land of Israel) generally and on the laws of the Shemittah year specifically."

The Walder Science Center also focuses on programs in students in Chicago and a supplementary science program for kids in Holon. The contest is the Center’s major event of the year.

This year's winners are mostly girls, a major reversal of previous years and certainly a welcome one in the eyes of Rabbi Weiner.

Among this year's winning presentations will include scientific theories on the Biblical manna, plus the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and restrictions on kilayim in Jewish Law.

The winners get the opportunity to visit Israel, where this year's trip will focus on a number of research centers run by the Volcani Institute, including in Sderot, Kiryat Arba, Beit Dagan’s Institute for Plant Protection and Gilat’s Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research.

"We've had lectures from the likes of Dr. Joshua Klein of the Department of Jewish Law and Agriculture for the Ministry of Agriculture. We've also heard from Dr. Julia Chesler on entomology and pesticides, plus Dr. Jonathan Gorlick on medicinal plants in Kiryat Arba."

The lectures have brought agricultural issues in Israel into focus for the high school juniors and seniors, who Rabbi Weiner notes do not get a lot of exposure to issues like Shemittah living in the United States where even Orthodox Jews are more often disconnected from the issues that come up every seven years in Israel.

The focus of the trip though is more to instill a message that Torah and science are the opposite of inseparable. 

"The message of the Jerusalem Science Contest is that Judaism fully embraces research and scientific careers. There's no dichotomy between science and Torah. A person can be a dedicated Jew and a world-class researcher."

Along with that, there is a special objective to highlight involvement with the State of Israel.

"I see it that a Jew's responsibilities are his or her Judaism and if he or she is a scientist to do his or her very best in their area of scientific research,” says Rabbi Weiner. “There is nothing in scientific research that is curtailed by religious observance. Finally, the support of the State of Israel in particular is integral to Jewish life."

"For me the concept of 'From Zion will come forth Torah' is not just the Torah itself. The word Torah means 'teaching,' as in everything. It includes the moral, ethical and religious section. But it also means teaching in every aspect of life: economics, science, etc. The Jewish State should be a light unto the nations, and science is a pretty good place to start."

The Lev Academic Center is also a primary partner of the contest, which offers the 1st place winner a full tuition scholarship should they decide to attend the school. When asked what drew the Lev Academic Center (formerly Jerusalem College of Technology) to cosponsor, he highlighted the common interests.

"Lev has everything that the contest is about. They're dedicated to powerful Torah study, dedicated to powerful scientific research and study with their academic programs and are powerfully involved in strengthening the State of Israel. They understand what we are trying to deliver."