By Laurel Leff
Northeastern Political Science Professor Daniel Aldrich and his family spent the university’s most recent winter break in Israel. The highlight of Aldrich’s trip wasn’t Tel Aviv’s brilliant beaches or Jerusalem’s
sacred sites; it was Sderot’s bomb shelters. As director of Northeastern’s Security and Resilience Studies program, Aldrich relished the opportunity to learn how the small Negev city copes with a barrage of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Under the auspices of the Israel Trauma Coalition, Aldrich talked to Sderot’s
residents about his research on resiliency and engaged with them about their
experiences — all in a bomb shelter that also functioned as a community hall. “It was fantastic,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich learned that the community had made tremendous efforts to build
cohesion: by starting biking clubs for children and running clubs for adults; by developing community gardens and sponsoring regular outings; by giving
everyone a task in times of trauma including children who comfort frightened animals or play games with younger children. It has paid off, Aldrich said, noting that 3,000 people have moved into the area in recent years despite the rocket attacks. Sderot “focuses all efforts on bringing people together,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich’s time in Sderot is also a sign of how his life as an observant Jew is increasingly intersecting with his academic pursuits. “There is tremendous overlap between the academic work I do and Judaism,” the 43-year-old Aldrich said. Over the last decade, Aldrich’s research has explored how social ties and community cohesion determine the recovery process in the wake of tragedy and trauma. “If you go into communities and measure cohesion and trust in the community, you can get a pretty fair indicator what is going to happen if there is an earthquake, tsunami or mudslides like in California,” Aldrich said. There are obvious links to how Judaism has survived 2,000 years of exile and persecution. “Everything we do in Judaism is so much about community and social ties,” he said, noting the life cycle rituals from
birth to death that require communal participation. “Even the most antisocial among us — and I think of myself as fairly antisocial — are pushed to build these ties and maintain them,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich didn’t set out to study resiliency or even to be an observant Jew. His parents are both academics: his father in sociology and business, his mother in English-as-a-Second Language and communication. Aldrich was raised with Jewish consciousness but little Jewish observance. His parents were members of the Jewish community. “They do book drives, raise money for Chernobyl orphans, things like that, but there was not a lot of daily ritual,” Aldrich said. The family also moved around a lot. When he was young, they lived for stretches in Germany and England, and for shorter stays in Istanbul and Yugoslavia. The family returned to the States, first to Ithaca, where his father taught at Cornell, and then, when Aldrich was in middle school, to Chapel Hill, where his father became Chair of the University of North Carolina’s sociology department.
Aldrich decided to attend UNC when he was named a Morehead Scholar, which provided full tuition, an annual stipend, and summertime internships in the public and private sectors and abroad. As a UNC undergraduate, Aldrich developed two passions: Japan and Judaism. Aldrich’s interest in Japan began when he was a child watching a television show called, “This Week in Japan.” It strengthened in high school when he was selected to represent North Carolina on a trip for students nationwide to spend a month in Japan. It solidified at UNC, where he studied Japanese and majored in Asian Studies.
During this time, his interest in Judaism grew as well through encounters with a rabbi visiting from UNC’s arch rival, Duke University. “It’s rare to find someone who has combined actual religious
observance, keeping kosher, keeping the Shabbat, learning Torah on daily basis, with a strong academic background,” Aldrich said of Rabbi Cary (Avraham) Friedman. Aldrich also met his future wife, Yael, who started UNC as a biology major and graduated with a degree in comparative religion. Yael “met Rabbi Friedman first,” Aldrich recalled. “Her involvement really drew me in.”
The couple married in December 1996 and moved to Berkeley, California, where Aldrich studied at UC Berkeley, receiving an M.A. in Asian Studies and Yael was program director for Chabad. “Our observance was growing stronger,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich still felt as if his understanding of Judaism didn’t match his understanding of his academic pursuits. “I wanted to bring up my Jewish knowledge to where my professional knowledge was,” Aldrich explained. He recalled a doctor friend from Berkeley saying, “Most American Jews can nail a profession but they couldn’t tell you the name of Moses’ mom.” “You know, I couldn’t name Moses’ mom either and that was kind of a shock to me.”
So before moving to Boston to pursue further graduate studies, he and Yael spent a year at the David Shapell College of Jewish Studies/Yeshiva Darche Noam in Jerusalem. “That year in Israel really accelerated my knowledge,” Aldrich said. “We both studied text full time. We came back to Boston fully observant.”
Aldrich received a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard and his wife received an M.B.A. and an M.A. in Jewish Community Studies, both from Brandeis University. “We also really got involved in the Jewish community,” joining Congregation Chai Odom in Brighton, which Aldrich describes as “very warm, a very cozy feeling.” They also traveled during this time as Aldrich received a series of fellowships that took them to France and Japan and had the first of what would be four children, now aged eight to sixteen.
Aldrich expected to have an academic career focused on Japanese politics, particularly energy policies,
and a personal life devoted to Jewish observance and study. Then he received his first tenure-track position, which was at Tulane University in New Orleans. He and his family arrived in August 2005 to begin his first semester. They had just moved into a house a block from the synagogue they had joined when Hurricane Katrina hit. They dashed out of their house with only the clothes on their backs and their ketubah, the very heavy marriage contract his wife insisted on taking. Along with their two young children and two boys who were staying with them as part of an Orthodox program, they piled into their car and headed west with hundreds of thousands of others on the highway to Houston. A four-hour
drive took 14 hours.
The family never returned to New Orleans to live. Thirteen feet of water had destroyed their house. They had no insurance. The synagogue, which had no disaster plan, was destroyed, the building plundered for its copper wiring. The synagogue community fell apart.
The Aldrich family stayed in Houston for a while, warmly welcomed by the Orthodox community there, and then returned to Boston. Aldrich spent time at Harvard and then at Tokyo University before becoming an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University in the fall of 2008.
His experience in New Orleans transformed his academic interests. “I began to think about: What does it mean to go through a disaster? What does it mean to recover as a family, as a block, as a neighborhood, as a city,” Aldrich said. Neither the government nor the private market provided his family with much help to recover from the disaster. Instead, friends and colleagues reached out to house them, to help them get started again.
Aldrich decided to begin studying empirically “how social ties determine the recovery process.” Tragically, his area of specialty, Japan, provided him with many examples, from the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 through the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power leakage in 2011. He has since produced numerous articles and several books on Japan’s process of recovery. The most recent, Black Wave: How Connections and Governance Shaped Recovery from Japan’s 3/11 Disasters, will be published by the University of Chicago Press next year. His interest in how communities recover has gone beyond Japan. He has studied communities in Indiana and Pakistan.
He moved to Northeastern in 2015, just after receiving tenure at Purdue. Northeastern offered not only a full professorship but also the chance to direct a security and resiliency program. The program provides “a lot of fantastic overlap to bring scholars together,” Aldrich said.
In addition, the move meant a return to Boston. The family had moved 17 times in 25 years. “Boston was the closest we had to a home,” Aldrich said. The family is again part of the Chai Odom community. Aldrich even managed to be ordained as a rabbi five years ago. Having had friends at Harvard who earned both a Ph.D. and a J.D., Aldrich recalled that he had asked his wife, jokingly, whether he could pursue a J.D. “She said `no, no, no absolutely not’,” Aldrich recalled. “I said, what about some other kind of degree? She said, ‘you can get smicha,’ (ordination). She was kidding but I said, ‘okay, fine.’ So I went through the 10-hour written test in Jerusalem. I’m an ordained rabbi.”
Aldrich said that when he visits communities in Chicago, in Calgary, in New Mexico, he often finds himself speaking about the connections between his religious life and his academic work.
Aldrich is now thinking about bringing the two together in a Northeastern course and in a book on Judaism and resilience. “For 2,000 years, Jews didn’t have a place to call home,” Aldrich said. “Everything about rabbinic Judaism and about our rituals is in the absence of what defines nationhood for most places.” The Jewish community “addresses what do you do when you want to have a culture but don’t have a place to call home.”
After much wandering, Aldrich has found a home in the study of Japan and other traumatized regions, in Jewish life, and at Northeastern.
Read the rest of the Spring 2018 Haverim newsletter here: