Research

1. American JUBU: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change in the United States

I am working on a book manuscript (under contract with Princeton University Press) about the encounter between Judaism and Buddhism in America.  Back in 1994, Rodger Kamenetz published the best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus, drawing widespread attention to the relationship between Judaism and Buddhism in America.  The book is now on its 37th reprint and even inspired a PBS documentary of the same name featured in film festivals around the world. The book also introduced the term “JUBU”­– a moniker for a Jewish Buddhist– to a wide audience. Since the publishing of The Jew in the Lotus, countless popular articles, memoirs, books, and blog posts have asked questions about the relationship between Judaism and Buddhism. These writings and films demonstrate a popular curiosity in the seemingly distinctive relationship between Judaism and Buddhism in America.

Despite this curiosity, scholars know very little empirically about the relationship between Judaism and Buddhism in America. My research, the first academic study of the relationship between these two traditions, contributes new knowledge to fill this gap. I ask how Jewish Buddhists experience and narrate their multi-religious identities;  how, based on these identities, they have built institutions and staked claims in their communities; and what broad social factors explain how they came to develop these identities in the first place. At its most general, though, American JUBU is a book about religious syncretism in America– about the social factors that produce it and the way individuals experience it in daily life. Threaded through each chapter of the book is an argument that the distinctive social position of American Jews, or what I call the Jewish social location, led American Jews to their engagement with Buddhism and fundamentally shaped the character of it. 

This project received generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.  I conducted the first wave of research for this project with Wendy Cadge (Brandeis University) and Sara Shostak (Brandeis University).  We prepared a series of teaching guides and curricular materials designed to assist faculty in teaching about religious blending and multiple-religious belonging. 

2.  Evaluating Risk and Choice among BRCA Carriers in Israel and America

I am working with a team of American and Israeli researchers, including Ephrat Levy-Lahad (Shaare Zedek Medical Center/Hebrew University Medical School), Aviad Raz (Ben-Gurion University), Sari Lieberman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and Lisa Soleymani Lehmann (Brigham and Women's Hospital/Harvard Medical School), that asks how Ashkenazi Jewish women in the United States who carry a BRCA gene mutation understand the risks associated with their carrier status and make decisions about their health similarly to or differently from Israeli Jewish carriers.  Past research has shown that Israeli BRCA carriers have significantly different attitudes towards preventative surgeries than do women in the United States. In particular, Israeli carriers rarely undergo prophylactic mastectomies while American carriers are much more likely to view them as an acceptable risk- reducing strategy (Metcalfe et al. 2008; Singh et al. 2013; Kram 2006). This pattern is surprising in light of the different health care systems in Israel and America. We would expect that Israeli BRCA carriers would use more health interventions– in this case, prophylactic mastectomies– than American carriers because Israel has a socialized health care system while the American health system relies on managed care. We seek to understand the causes and consequences of the different decisions that Jewish women in Israel and America make about their bodies, reproduction, and health.