An Orthodox Jew at a Catholic university

Journey deepens his religion

When looking for graduate schools in aerospace engineering, Jonathan Silver hadn’t even considered Notre Dame as an option until a friend suggested it.

“It didn’t matter that I wasn’t religious,” Silver says. “Why would a Jewish person go to a school with such a strong Catholic religious identity?”

But he decided to apply after becoming interested in the work of Scott Morris, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, who conducts experimental research on turbomachinery and acoustics as part of the Institute for Flow Physics and Control, in the University’s Hessert Laboratory for Aerospace Research. “Notre Dame seemed like the best fit,” Silver says.

In May, Silver completed his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, focusing his research in the area of acoustics and unsteady surface pressures — research applying to anything that moves through a fluid, including airplanes and ships.

His life is very different now than when he began graduate studies in 2008. When he arrived at Notre Dame, he didn’t consider himself particularly religious, although he’d had a traditional upbringing. But soon after he arrived in South Bend, he connected with the Jewish Federation and the Midwest Torah Center ( “I was on my own journey,” he says. “And as I made that progression, I became more religious.”

His religious beliefs, Silver says, “definitely give a purpose to life. When you’re walking around without any religion — without any image of God — then you wonder why we’re here, and why things behave the way they do.”

People find it hard to reconcile his religious beliefs with his work as a scientist, he notes. “One is based on things natural, concrete, repeatable. The other definitely allows for more open, unnatural or supernatural things that don’t necessarily have to repeat themselves.”

Completing a Ph.D. at Notre Dame has been a very positive experience, he says. “I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but that’s the case with most things.” One positive aspect was the support he received from his adviser and the University for his life “outside the lab.”

When he began his graduate studies, he was single. The Midwest Torah Center, where he immediately felt at home, was a big influence, Silver says. “It’s not a synagogue. It has a team of rabbis that direct it, but it’s an entity within the larger orthodox community. It’s an open environment that welcomes people of all ages, all walks of life. It’s about growing your Judaism in a no-pressure environment.” The center holds classes daily, as well as services on Shabbat and holidays. Anyone interested in learning more about Judaism is welcome.

His wife, Chava Ester, “was also a huge influence in getting me through graduate school. I don’t try and hide the fact that it was challenging. My own interests, views and long-term goals shifted. Some want to suggest that it was my involvement in religion. The religious aspect of my life gave a meaning to things. It gave me the guidance and motivation to keep going when it was challenging.”

During the final seven months of his Ph.D., while writing his dissertation, he also played the role of stay-at-home dad to his son, who will be 2 in September.

“In many ways I’m a different person than when I walked in the door,” he says. The important thing to remember, he adds, is that “there’s more to life than just academics. Don’t get so lost in academics that you forget there’s a greater purpose, and everything is interrelated.

“The scholarly study of secular subjects has to be done in order to further appreciate the handiwork of God — that’s the way to approach life as we move further and further from the creation and the giving of the Torah to the Jews. These days we have to look harder for God.”

This story was originally published in NDWorks.