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Meet Elliot Kaufman

A Canadian debate champ shares insights on religion and relationships.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

Elliot Kaufman, who grew up in Toronto, says he started reading the newspaper by age 7 — the sports section, at least. By 9 or 10 he was on to the hard news and commentary. Now a junior at Stanford, Kaufman has made his mark as an astute observer of politics, society and campus culture. His op-eds and letters to the editor have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, National Review and Canada’s National Post, as well as in the Stanford Daily and the Stanford Review, where he recently held the position of managing editor. “Looking back on it,” Kaufman says, “I don’t think I had any choice in the matter — this was all predetermined. I think of my family, and at the dinner table every night we would discuss the big news of the day, which we had all read in the newspaper.”

Kaufman is set to graduate next year with a degree in political science, with a political theory concentration. As a freshman, after a rocky start on the debate team, he spent a year as manager of the varsity basketball team. Now, he’s active in the Jewish fraternity on campus, Alpha Epsilon Pi. In a recent interview, Kaufman told Stanford about dealing with a stutter as an internationally competitive debate champ, making the shift from secular to religious Judaism during a summer fellowship, and learning a lesson in love his first year on the Farm.

“My dad has strong opinions. My older brother does as well. It’s very difficult to get a word in. But . . . because I had a stuttering problem, I think my family was particularly attuned to when I was trying to speak. They would give me a little bit of space to get in there and express whatever opinions I had at the age of 9.

Debating took me all over Canada and all over the world, actually. My partner and I ended up coming in second in Canada in the national championships. I was second individually, and I was on the Canadian National Team.

“But the story doesn’t exactly end well, as it happens. Toward the end of 12th grade, I don’t know what it was — whether it was the stress of university applications, all these tournaments heating up — my stutter really returned with a vengeance during public speaking. . . . Gradually it became a real roadblock, where I just could not say what I wanted to say a lot of times.

“I thought, ‘If I can’t speak, at least I can write.’ . . . I think in some ways [the Stanford Review] replaced my family dinner table. It was a community of people who knew we were all on the same side, and we really felt comfortable. We weren’t limited by trying to win the argument against the other side, so we could really explore ideas and search for what was right.

“I have long thought that I would like to join the U.S. military — which is easy for me to say, because I’m not allowed to. I’ve always felt very ideologically committed [to it], and I’ve thought it would be a great thing for me personally in my development and some aspects of my character that I think it could improve. Discipline and focus, for one, but I think it would also be nice to learn self-sacrifice. I think it’s something that gets lost [at Stanford]. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-advancement.

“Being at Stanford and not being a technology person has really made me think about technology a lot — it’s all around you. And if there’s such thing as the technological mindset, I’m sure I’ve seen it. . . . I’m very critical of it. I think it’s just another sort of hammer, and — what’s the expression? When you’re holding a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail?

“People get in a mindset of, ‘Let us define a goal and program a means of accomplishing that goal.’ And while that attitude can enable huge advancements once we agree on the goal, it’s probably my most fundamental conviction that it can never replace the necessity of having to decide and debate what that goal actually is.

“I have a whole story with faith. The summer after my sophomore year, I did a fellowship with a group called the Tikvah Fund — it was a fellowship in Jewish thought. . . . In this program, there were four secular students and 11 religious students — modern Orthodox Jews, to varying degrees.

“I got to meet all these people and kept on asking questions, constantly asking questions, trying to learn whatever I could about the topic, and there was so much knowledge about my own faith and the customs of my people that I just had no idea about and I really loved learning. . . . I was respectful of religion and believed in God myself but never had any real practice, but I just got immersed in it over the summer, and they literally taught me how to pray. I mean that in two ways: There are specific prayers in Hebrew and specific ways of doing things, and how those things go. And I can read Hebrew, which helps. But the other, which I didn’t think about, is: How do you actually pray in a way that is meaningful to you? . . . I found a way to have conversational prayer with God. And it was this crazy new experience for me that I found so rewarding, and I really committed to it. I came back home at the end of that summer and scared the shit out of my family. . . . I began going to synagogue every night in Toronto.

“My first girlfriend at Stanford, freshman year, who happened to be my next-door neighbor as well — that was probably more influential on me than any of this! First of all, dating the person who lives next door to you may not be the best idea. I actually don’t regret it. Second, I learned that self-centeredness just will not do. It’s just untenable. . . . I certainly don’t think it will lead to happiness.”

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