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Straus Scholar Spotlight: Ayelet Brown

Ayelet Brown

Born in Israel but raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Ayelet Brown looks back on her childhood as one that pointed her in the direction of leadership within the Jewish community—and to the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought in particular. "I grew up in a home in which the values of the Straus program were deeply rooted in me and my family," she recalls. At Berman Hebrew Academy in suburban Washington, D.C., and as a high school youth director of the shul board at Kemp Mill Synagogue, Brown was constantly engaged in community service, devoting time to tzedaka projects through Friendship CircleChai Lifeline and more, all while finding some time for what she calls her "fun hobby," the engineering club in school. “All of these activities allowed for my creativity to burst, through coming up with out-of-the-box activities for, for example, a child stuck in the hospital,” Brown notes, recalling with special affection the time she constructed a cannon out of toilet paper rolls to shoot Hershey Kisses through a school’s hallways. “This love of chesed and construction has helped me through my college career in finding my passion for helping others through my love of creating something from nothing, all while infusing those acts with spirituality,” says Brown. She quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as inspiration: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Now, as a Straus Scholar, Brown has combined her passion for community leadership with rigorous study of the human mind and well-being. She is majoring in psychology and minoring in public health, focusing especially on positive psychology, or the scientific study and application of insights into what helps people flourish. “Throughout my time studying psychology at Stern College for Women, I have studied countless psychologists who have spent their time focusing on disease, anxiety and depression, yet something seemed to be missing,” Brown explains. There was more to be done. Brown readily quotes the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman: “Psychology has done very well in working out how to understand and treat disease. But I think that is literally half-baked. If all you do is work to fix problems, to alleviate suffering, then by definition, you are working to get people to zero, to neutral… Positive psychology is another arrow in the quiver of public policy and psychology through which we can raise well-being above zero.” It’s only fitting, then, that Brown has given so many hours and so much energy to Project Sunshine, a non-profit organization that brings joy through play and positivity to children with a variety of medical needs. As director of TelePlay and YU’s chapter president for Project Sunshine, she helps run events, packages activity kits for hospitals, coordinates hospital visits and fundraises for the YU Project Sunshine chapter.

With a tenacious spirit for helping children in difficult situations flourish, Brown has also played the role of vice president of Project IncludED at YU, which aims to educate and raise awareness of medically and developmentally challenged persons, whether students or in the general population. In that role, Brown ran educational events in the university, coordinated visits to public schools in Washington Heights to familiarize students with the tenets of inclusion and encouraged the practice of including all people in organizations across campus.  Brown sees the Straus Scholars program as a natural bridge between psychology, human flourishing and the Jewish tradition. “Tal Ben Shachar [the Israeli-American behaviorist] notes that positive psychology is unique because it is itself the synthesis of many fields, including philosophy, psychology and sociology, among others,” Brown explains. “Psychology can explain so much of the way humans engage in their everyday activities, from politics to daily interactions, and learning about how humans flourish. Synthesizing these ideas with the way in which the Torah discusses these topics is exactly what the Straus program has helped me navigate.”

To advance that goal, Brown played a significant role in bringing classes synthesizing psychology and Torah to Stern College. “Four semesters ago, I noticed the lack of a ‘psychology-and-Torah’ course,” she recalls. “When doing research, I came upon a course given years ago, and felt that this important blend of ideas would enhance academic and social life on Beren Campus.”

Building on this background, the Straus Center set Brown up with Rabbi Dr. Mordechai (Mark) Schiffman, a practicing psychologist who teaches at several YU graduate schools and recently published Psyched for Torah: Cultivating Character and Well-Being Through the Weekly Parsha. “During my mentorship, Rabbi Dr. Schiffman and I studied Pirkei Avos through a positive psychology lens, in addition to reading about character virtues and the place of positive psychology within a Jewish framework,” says Brown. “We have also begun our next project—writing my Straus thesis together.” Brown describes her attitude towards this ambitious research and analysis project simply but enthusiastically: “Very excited!”  Not content to spend her time on a rigorous Torah U’madda education, and significant psychology and development-related extracurricular activities, Brown has taken on much more beyond campus. She has served as program director of the Maryland/D.C. Friendship Circle for two years while at YU and spent her summer working with kids at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes for Health. Her commitment to putting ideas into practice speaks to her mission of making a difference in people’s lives based on the principles of human flourishing she picked up at home and now in college.

Brown credits the Straus Center with allowing her to develop intellectually and academically while challenging her to broaden her horizons and draw connections between seemingly unrelated topics. “Being a part of the Straus Scholars Program has allowed me to develop my love of psychology and Torah while learning about so many other important works of western thought and Torah,” Brown enthuses. “The opportunities it has given me have shaped my college experience, and I look forward to all that there is to come before I graduate.” To learn more about the Straus Scholars program, click here.

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