Math & Judaism

EXECUTIVE SUMMARYOn connections between Judaism and math, Professor Lesser wrote several articles and co-led an international funded speaker series (for which he gave the opening talk and moderated the others). His journey spans nearly every stream of Judaism, helping him engage diverse attendees at talks/concerts, and yielding an award-winning Jewish album.

speaker series

An award-winning Professor at UT-El Paso (same 31.76oN latitude as Jerusalem!), Dr. Lesser conducts research in statistics/math education.  He served as a supporting faculty member throughout the respective periods of existence of the UTEP Inter-American Jewish Studies Program (2005-2018) and Jewish Education El Paso (2009-2012), and several of his 125+ scholarly papers connect math/statistics with Judaism. This led to being the lead scientist and co-grantwriter for a competitively-selected proposal for the international speaker series “Higher Meanings: Exploring Connections Between Religion and Mathematics“, for the national Scientists in Synagogues program funded by Sinai and Synapses (supported by CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the John Templeton Foundation, and individual donors, in consultation with the DoSER program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society). Lesser gave the opening presentation (on infinity, viewable here or here, and later reprised for U. of Maryland’s KEDMA and for the Bay Area’s New Lehrhaus) and moderated all subsequent presentations (with transcripts and speaker papers) for this series, which yielded coverage on TV (e.g., ABC-affiliate KVIA), radio (e.g., NPR station KTEP-FM), print media, blogposts/e-blasts, a podcast, newsletter blurb, and a 2022 piece in an international, peer-reviewed journal.

papers

In May 2006, he published in Journal of Mathematics and Culture (JMC) the first juried comprehensive classroom-oriented article on Jewish mathematics, based on his curriculum integration as a full-time math teacher at a pluralistic community Jewish high school.  The article offers scholarly background and diverse classroom-tested examples of not just the obvious area of gematria, but also quotations, mathematical firsts, counting, infinity, pi, mathematical modeling, geometry, logic, and connections to Jewish text/customs.  These enhancements connected to school culture/activities and helped motivate some students towards broader appreciation and deeper engagement. Lesser published a second paper (with a randomized experiment) and both JMC papers are also in the book Culture that Counts. Other publications include a short Pi Day piece in The Jewish Educator, a 2015 paper in Teaching for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics that explored language/culture parallels between math education and Judaism, a contribution to the 2015 ethics module commissioned by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, and the 2022 piece about the speaker series mentioned above.

presentations/projects

As mentioned above, Lesser co-led an international funded 2021 speaker series on math-and-religion (for which he gave the opening talk and moderated the rest) and gave related talks for New Lehrhaus and University of Maryland KEDMA. Drawing from multiple intersecting identities, Lesser makes material engaging and accessible for audiences of varied (religious or mathematical) backgrounds. He has also given presentations for the UTEP Religious Studies program on his songs based on Jewish text/culture and his album SPARKS was a Finalist for Best Album in the 2021 New Mexico Music Awards, with its approach yielding articles in NewCAJE The Jewish Educator and The Israeli Journal of Humor Research. These experiences led to his being named (one of 46 from well over 200 applications worldwide) a Hadar 2021 Jewish Wisdom Fellow (see related subsequent talk).

Since 1997, Lesser has used his award-winning pedagogical skills to give (for varied multi-congregational settings, audiences, and formats) engaging interactive math-and-Judaism presentations for the International ALEPH Kallah, citywide Yom Limmud or Tikkun Leil Shavuot events (e.g., Houston, El Paso), individual congregations (from Modern Orthodox to post-denominational; for example, here), pluralistic day schools or Sunday schools (e.g., Ft. Collins, El Paso, Houston, Albuquerque, Austin). Talks have included:  “How We Count” (how Jewish values are embedded in the very way Jews mark time, count in holy texts, and count themselves), “Lots and Lotteries” (Jewish texts and views on chance — from ancient to modern), and “Who is Wise?” (secular and Jewish perspectives on wisdom). After a talk at El Paso’s Temple Mount SInai, Rabbi Ben Zeidman wrote: “His talk was both meaningful and accessible. All who were present had an uplifting and thought-provoking opportunity to learn. And on top of that, we all laughed with Dr. Lesser a great deal.”  He’s also made many local contributions, including board service and writing dozens of columns in his community’s newspaper.