• The welcoming atmosphere at Leading Jewish Minds has everyone smiling. Rabbi Michelle Fisher SM '97, left, speaks with John Klensin ‘66, PhD ’79 and Danny Watt, right, director of development for Hillel.

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  • At the Oct. 15 event, Professor Christine Ortiz, the dean for graduate education, presented on the MIT-Israel Program, part of MISTI — the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives. MISTI matches hundreds of MIT students annually with all-expenses-paid internships and research abroad.

    Photo: Stephanie Keeler

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  • Willie Kantrowitz SM ’63, left, and Arnie Kramer ‘52, have a chance to catch up before the presentation begins. One of the benefits of Leading Jewish Minds is that it offers community and fellowship for alumni, faculty and staff.

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A spiritual path away from MIT leads one grad back to the Institute

Rabbi Michelle Fisher returns to head up Hillel and prompts a new lecture series


In 1997, after passing her oral exams at MIT as a PhD student in chemistry, Michelle Fisher informed her advisor that she had changed her plans. She would continue to study, but not in the sciences: she was going to attend rabbinical school.

“Did you say medical school?” her confused advisor asked.

But Fisher was confident, not confused. She wrote up her research as a thesis paper, received her diploma in June, and headed off to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, armed with a master’s degree in chemistry. Twelve years later, this unusual path led Fisher back to MIT, this time as executive director of Hillel, a campus organization for MIT’s Jewish community.

Last year, to introduce Rabbi Fisher to MIT, Institute Professor and MIT Hillel member Joel Moses PhD ’67 suggested a speaker series sponsored by Hillel and open to the MIT community.

The “Leading Jewish Minds @ MIT” series launched in fall 2009, bringing together faculty, staff and alumni to hear some of the Institute’s most prominent thinkers. For $10, participants get lunch and a lecture from distinguished MIT faculty and alumni about ground-breaking research in their field. Rabbi Fisher introduces each talk by relating the topic of the session to core Jewish principles. At the end of the talk, participants converse and mingle — or “schmooze,” as Fisher says, using the Yiddish term.

“We wanted to build a sense of connection on campus among the Jewish community,” says Fisher. “Not everyone lives close to MIT, and most are involved in their religion where they live, not necessarily at MIT.”

Danny Watt, development director of Hillel, said it helps people connect to more than just their professional life on campus. “This is a casual atmosphere that gives people a chance to interact and meet people they might not otherwise know,” Watt says.

The 2009 series was very popular, thanks to prominent speakers and timely topics. Robert Weinberg ’64, PhD ’69 spoke about “What Our DNA Tells Us About Our Origins: Origins of Humanity and Origins of Ashkenazi Jews.” Jonathan Gruber ’87, professor of economics and director of the Health Care Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, spoke about the health reform. Other speakers included Institute Professor Mildred (Millie) Dresselhaus, one of the first women faculty at MIT; Jay Keyser, linguistics and philosophy professor emeritus, and his wife, Nancy Kelly, former administrative officer in the Office of the President at MIT; and Institute Professor John Deutch ’61, PhD ’66, former director of the CIA.

“We have a phenomenal resource of leading minds here at MIT,” Fisher says. “The series really fits in with who we are as Hillel and what MIT is about.”

This first year of the program garnered such a positive response that there are plans to expand the program in the future and possibly take it on the road, she says. With MIT’s wealth of brilliant minds, Fisher says that running out of speakers isn’t an issue.

Leading Jewish Minds @ MIT has two more lectures scheduled for this fall. See the complete lineup below

  • Nov. 5: “Human and Machine in Air, Sea, and Space” by David Mindell PhD ’96, Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing; director, Program in Science, Technology, and Society
  • Dec. 10: Robert Langer ScD ’74, Institute Professor

For more information about Leading Jewish Minds @ MIT, e-mail hillel@mit.edu.


Topics: Alumni/ae, Community, Religion, Special events and guest speakers, Student life

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