In 1975, Sandy Feld spent the summer as a counselor-in-training at Camp Alonim. This summer, his daughter, Shana, will follow in her father's footsteps, and Feld hopes that her experience will be as positive as his was 28 summers ago.
"It was a magical time in my life," said Feld, wearing a name tag bearing the years he attended camp (1971-1976). "When I see my friends here it's like it was yesterday."
Feld did see friends at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) on June 8 at Alonim's 50th reunion. Approximately 800 people attended the event to share rememberances of the Jewish retreat center where they spent many childhood summers, grew up and a number met their significant others -- and where they are now sending their children and grandchildren in the hope that they, too, will develop their own Jewish identities.
"Things are frozen in time here," said Arthur Pinchev, past director of Alonim. "It's a constant for people. It's a clear snapshot of life."
Located on 3,000 acres in the Santa Susana Mountains -- the largest piece of land owned by a Jewish institution outside of Israel -- BBI, the pluralistic Jewish retreat center, has established a dedicated following since it acquired its first piece of property in 1947. Alonim, which has served as the institute's summer residence camp since its early years, has seen approximately 40,000 campers pass through its gates.
But even as certain aspects of BBI remain constant, the institution, like so many Jewish organizations these days, is in the midst of major challenges and changes. Historically criticized for remaining insular from other Jewish institutions and programming targeting a limited audience, BBI's leaders have been working in recent years to change its image.
While BBI has come a long way -- becoming more affordable, more accessible and more appealing to a greater diversity of people -- its current leaders hope to institute programming that will extend its reach even further across the religious, economic, geographic and generational spectrums.
The institute recently brought in a consultant to help BBI move in a new direction. One recommendation was not to renew the contract of Rabbi Lee T. Bycel, president of the institute for the past three years, said Helen Zukin, BBI board chair.
Board member Richard Gunther said that the decision was not made as a result of financial difficulties or because of a single incident.
"There were fundamental differences, after the report was prepared, about how the situation could be dealt with in order to move the institution forward, and we could not agree with Lee on how to do that, so we decided we should go our separate ways," Gunther said.
Bycel, who served as dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for 10 years, came to BBI in 2000 as a result of a unanimous vote by its board of directors after a 14-month search that followed the departure of nine-year veteran Alvin Mars. Bycel could not be reached for comment.
As a search for a new president begins, BBI's board is also making changes. Plans include expanding Camp Alonim, establishing a new arts campus and creating more diverse programming.
"We are very focused on expanding Brandeis, partnering with others in order to broaden our ability to touch life in a Jewish community that desperately needs positive healing experiences," Zukin said.
On this sunny June afternoon, hundreds of alumni -- both young and old -- danced to Israeli music led by BBI dance director David Dassa or caught up with old friends as they toured their old stomping grounds during the reunion.
At the event, organizers launched a $5 million capital campaign to expand the camp. Over the next few years, BBI's board hopes to expand Alonim by 30 percent, to include more bunks, staff housing, a new dance pavilion and dining hall. Last year, the camp spent $250,000 to renovate bunks and added several recreational structures, including two rope courses and two climbing towers.
Expansion plans are not limited to Alonim. Groundbreaking will occur shortly for a 6,000-square-foot arts building, laying the foundation for a larger arts campus, which BBI hopes will ultimately lead to a separate national Jewish arts camp.
Leaders hope that the building, which will include studios for photography, graphic design, sculpting and textiles, will enable the institute to offer more programs that are similar to Bezalel -- a weekend currently hosted by BBI that is dedicated to the arts. The building will be located on a 1974 gift of 900 acres given to Brandeis by its non-Jewish neighbor, Jim Arness.
Currently underway are plans to convert one of the canyons on BBI's property into a self-contained learning environment. The project, which will be carried out in partnership with the National Center for Jewish Environmental and Nature Education, will include a mitzvah garden, a biblical farm, meditation points, Torah points, hiking trails and campgrounds.
The learning environment will enable BBI to create a curriculum for everything from a four-hour to a four-day outdoor experience. Scott Aaron, BBI education director, hopes that the concept will imitate an experience in Israel.
"Imagine a kid from Manhattan spending part of their day immersed in the caring and pruning of etrog trees," Aaron said. "If you're standing there in the middle of what the Bible is describing, it takes on a different significance."
In order to appeal to a more diverse Jewish population and provide something for every stage of life, recent years have seen an increase in BBI's year-round niche programming. It currently offers everything from weekends for young adults to elder hostels. In addition, BBI is also the site of the Cotsen Institute for Newly Married Couples.
Currently, the largest growth at BBI is youth and family programming.
"We did a survey, and the overwhelming demand is for family programming," Aaron said.
Last year, they added a weekend for young families, and this year, the institute included a weekend for single-parent families.
"The demand is for programs that engage children, but that also challenge and stimulate adults," Aaron said.
The institute has begun child care during all of its programs, and its day camp, Gan Alonim, offers extended day care.
While BBI's weekend programs for families are a more recent addition, one of its most successful and longest-running programs is aimed at young adults. Since the early 1940s, the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI), which is a 26-day program for 18 to 26-year-olds, has hosted 7,500 participants. The program is part kibbutz, part university and part experiential arts.
Recent years have seen the addition of BCI's young artists program -- a part of the BCI program that focuses on a select group of individuals who explore Judaism through the arts. The program, which began only with musicians, has recently been expanded. Under the direction of Danny Maseng, BCI's artistic director and world-renown playwright, actor and composer, it now includes artists and writers.
This summer BCI is including participants from across the United States, as well as from 10 foreign countries. It will also mark the first time that the program is open to deaf students -- an addition made possible by a grant from the Ziegler Family Trust.
"We don't want to turn away any Jewish child," Zukin said, adding that this summer, with 957 participants, will mark the highest enrollment in Alonim's history. "We know Jewish camping has a profound impact on one's identity and in promoting feelings of being Jewish."
The institute's leaders hope that BBI will continue to expand and inspire the same loyalty as it has among those who attended the June reunion. They hope that more people will have an opportunity to develop a personal connection to BBI, like the one that Denver resident Scott Kantrowitz has.
"It's the land," said Kantrowitz, who met his wife at Alonim 29 years ago and watched his two daughters bat mitzvahed at the House of the Book -- the multipurpose building overlooking the property. "Many of us came here year after year, and you become very attached."