The science of spirit

Roberta G. Sands '63, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, received a $150,000 grant from The Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science to study the spiritual transformation of baalei teshuvah (BTs), Jewish adults who have become Orthodox.

Sands will build a dynamic model of the "soul work" that BTs undertake as they struggle with internal and external changes. "Our study seeks to hear the voices of 'embedded reporters' on the frontiers of spiritual transformation within Judaism," she says. Her team will conduct in-depth interviews with BTs, rabbis, therapists, outreach workers and a focus group. She hopes to uncover the stages of BTs' spiritual transformation; how they integrate changes in their identity, lifestyle and relationships; how their spiritual development intersects with their psychosocial development; what soul work requires; and how it is expressed.

The process of spiritual transformation for BTs, Sands hypothesizes, is gradual, as opposed to the momentary epiphany typically described by Christians. "I expect that for some, their experience of connection to God and the sacred deepens over time," she says. "I am interested in learning about struggles over time and the extent to which they are integrated into regular Orthodox communities."

Sands' previous research on grandparents raising their grandchildren and, in particular, mother-daughter relationships affected by a daughter's becoming Orthodox, became the impetus for her research on spiritual transformation and provides context for understanding intergenerational continuities and discontinuities. "My study of grandparents raising grandchildren highlighted the importance of the relationship between the older and younger generation," she says. "In the mother and daughter study, the grandchildren provided an incentive for the families to bridge their differences. The mother-daughter study indicates that families strive to be in sync with each other, strengthening their relationship with each other, with parents increasing their knowledge, if not practice of, Judaism. Both mothers and daughters try to accommodate each other's differences. Daughters take the Biblical dictum, 'Honor your mother and your father,' very seriously." Sands draws from her own experience, her daughter having become Orthodox and moved to a community in Israel with other observant Jews.

At Penn, Sands teaches courses in social work practice, human behavior theory, qualitative research, and women's issues. She taught previously at the Ohio State University College of Social Work, Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, and Spalding University's Department of Social Work Studies, and was a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Paul Baerwald School of Social Work. She received her MSW from Hunter College in 1965 and her PhD in interdisciplinary studies (social work and English) from the University of Louisville in 1979.

"I was a student at Bryn Mawr during the early '60s and was inspired by the civil rights movement of that time," she says. "I wanted to change the world and saw social work as a means to do that. Some of my friends at Bryn Mawr were involved in civil rights activities, such as voter registration. My Bryn Mawr friend's mother was the one who pointed me in the direction of social work. At our 40th Reunion, which I recently attended, I was struck by how liberal my classmates still are!

"I was a history major, which was a good preparation for academic life, which came after I practiced social work a number of years. At Bryn Mawr I learned how to dig deeply into my subject matter. I took a social work course from Dr. Bernard Lewis at Bryn Mawr College School of Social Work, which reinforced my choice to be a social worker. I was not particularly interested in intergenerational family issues at that time. If there had been a course in Judaism when I was at Bryn Mawr I probably would have taken it, but nothing like that existed."

The Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science has awarded more than $2.5 million to 24 researchers-anthropologists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and scholars of theology and religion-as part of its Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program. Although spiritual transformations profoundly affect persons, groups and societies, very few studies account for the nature of the various biological, psychosocial, and cultural conditions and factors that underlie spiritual transformations. Award recipients will be conducting the first multidisciplinary, scientific investigation of this phenomenon, with the aim of understanding the dramatic changes in the beliefs and behaviors of people who claim to have been spirituality transformed. The program will help establish an interdisciplinary field in the human sciences: the rigorous examination of diverse religious and spiritual phenomena, using new methodologies and experimental designs.

The Metanexus Institute advances research, education and outreach on the constructive engagement of science and religion. Its mission is to create an enduring intellectual and social movement by collaborating with persons and communities from diverse religious traditions and scientific disciplines. Those participating in its Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program were chosen from 60 finalists, who were chosen from a pool of 470 applicants representing many prominent research institutions from 22 nations. The program is supported by the John Templeton Foundation. For more information, see and

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