Hidden in the hills of Simi Valley, 71 Jewish youths from around the world gathered this summer, as such groups do each year, at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus at American Jewish University for a three-week retreat at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI).
Founded by Judge Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Shlomo Bardin 69 years ago, BCI set out to discover why so many successful young Jews weren’t identifying with Judaism. For the program, participants ages 18 to 26 temporarily leave their universities and careers behind to find out where they fit in.
Bardin strongly believed that in order to teach someone, you first must touch them. Thus, in addition to daily services, Avodah (community service), Beit Midrash (group learning and discussions) and arts programs are also emphasized, making this, as one participant described it, “summer camp fun with an adult educational level.”
BCI encourages participants to step out of their comfort zones through the arts: be it drawing, dancing, creative writing, music or acting. Tal Tahar, from Ramla, Israel, works in the engineering department of a communications company and decided to challenge himself with dance, while some of the dancers chose to experiment with photography. The idea is that when people leave their comfort zones, they are also more willing to open themselves up to new people and ideas.
Lara Walklet, who came here from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she is working on a master’s degree in Jewish education, said she believes today’s youths are more accepting of Judaism on a cultural level than a spiritual one. She likened the blossoming sense of spirituality throughout the group to her experience making art.
“I’ve never drawn or been interested in drawing, but the first class, I came in and was told to draw with my left hand with a blindfold on, and what came out was just so awesome, and I didn’t know that that was there,” Walklet said. “And when you open that barrier, you see, wow, there is a part of me that is artistic, but there’s also room for a part of me that’s spiritual. There are all these different dimensions that have been frozen off and left out, and here they are incorporating everything, your whole person.”
“There is nothing Jewish in the art itself,” said Shay Zilberman, the art teacher, who traveled here from Tel Aviv. It’s just that “they are all Jewish and come from around the world, and art is something that can relate to us all. That is the glue.”
Gady Levy, vice president of AJU and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, called the program “truly pluralistic.”
“We don’t have an agenda; we present all sides of the topics we discuss,” he said.
Rabbis, counselors and a variety of speakers, along with the BCI participants, represent all forms of Judaism, from secular to Orthodox.
Sapir Ransom, 25, works as a full-time nanny in Israel and is completing her bachelor’s in psychology from Washington State University online.
“I had been living a very religious lifestyle in Jerusalem, and I have always been at odds with it,” Ransom said. “Here it has been such a different experience, just meeting girls from all different levels ... it makes it very easy to find your own place and know that you don’t have to fit into any specific mold, but you can make your own. BCI gives you confidence to do that.” Ransom said she is wearing pants for the first time in two years.
For her part, Ransom introduced many of her roommates to the rituals of Shabbat, and as a result, some said they have now decided to light candles on Friday nights when they get home.
Diversity in nationality, age and degree of observance is key to the BCI experience. Participants come not only from America and Israel, but also from Ukraine, Russia, Argentina and India. Transportation, whether from Baltimore or Buenos Aires, is subsidized by the program.
Shamir Rohekar is 23 and from Mumbai. When asked if there are many Jews in India, he nodded his head emphatically. “A lot,” he said. “There are about 2,000 families ... but if you compare it with the population of India I guess it is just 0.008 percent.
“I never faced any problems being a Jew [in India],” he said. “It’s a democratic country and anyone can be any religion.” But he said that in November when the Chabad House in Mumbai was attacked by terrorists, he was right outside itwith friends. “That was the only time when I felt bad being a Jew. Because, being a Jew, I couldn’t do anything for the community out there. There were 20 terrorists, and we were three Jewish boys outside the Chabad House, and I was one of them,” he said.
Rohekar said it is a meaningful experience to be in an entirely Jewish environment, and he is amazed by the “family” he built in just 22 days.
Over its history, the institute has inspired many to become leaders in the Jewish community. Its strongest competition comes from the many internships students feel compelled to pursue. “As a college student, you feel like you need to have more education ... you still need to be preparing for grad school or law school, and I was feeling a lot of pressure to have an internship or job to get accepted into a good grad school or get hired,” said Mollie Feldman, 20, a student at Carleton College in Minnesota.
“Now, after coming here, this has given me so much more than having an internship somewhere.”
BCI offers college credit to students in the program; it also holds an “opportunities fair” during which representatives from Jewish organizations and schools come to discuss options for future programming. And because BCI invites guests ranging from musicians to vegan dessert chefs, rabbis to actors, participants leave with a broader notion of what Jewish leadership can mean.
Feldman said the program has helped her in her career search, and she now wants to do Jewish communal work.
Ransom said BCI has bolstered her self-confidence. “I’m studying psychology, so being open and being a good listener, being able to just talk to someone is going to be very helpful.”
Lizzie Heydemann, who teaches Beit Midrash, said the creativity and openness fostered at BCI allows participants to find their own way: “We are purposely having this experience be warm and connected, as opposed to a leadership conference or seminar,” she said. “That is exactly why it is possible for Jewish leaders to grow organically from BCI.”
For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 556 or visit bci.ajula.edu.