When Misha Zilbermint was 11 years old, he was stunned to learn from his parents that he was Jewish. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, Jews, such as the Zilbermint family, could not openly embrace their religion or culture.
"In the Soviet Union, everyone was the same," recalls Zilbermint, 23, who hails from Moldova.
Twelve years later, Zilbermint has come to Simi Valley, where, among his peers, he wears a kippah and freely partakes in Jewish traditions.
Zilbermint -- who, since embracing his Jewish roots, became a Hillel coordinator and a guitarist in the Jewish rock band King David -- is one of nearly two dozen international students on full scholarships enrolled in a Jewish summer program at Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI). The August Aliyah, part of BBI's Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI), is one of two summer sessions integrating these visitors, ranging in age from 18-26, with their American peers. The international group comprises about one-third of the 61 BCI students.
"We've always had students from different countries," says Joseph Wapner, also known as Judge Wapner of "People's Court" fame, who served as BBI's president from 1993-1999 and, with wife, Mickey, is a longtime supporter and advocate of the institute.
The program, now in its 55th year, has always had international students. But this year, the 20 young adults -- from Israel, Canada, Switzerland, Portugal, Slovakia, Uzbekistan, Russia, Germany, Argentina and Switzerland -- are coming from a radically changed environment: post-Sept. 11, with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments raging.
"We've energized them, giving them a new perspective on their Judaism," BBI Director Dr. Lee Bycel says. "Some of them are very observant, some have never been to a synagogue before. At the same time, we're letting the Americans know that there is Jewish life [abroad]."
The experience is not meant to make them want to move to America, he said, but to reinforce and expand their Jewish identity. The idea is for participants to take their experience back to their respective countries and engage other Jews in a Jewish experience, as well as bring new students to the BCI program.
"They're proud of the countries they live in," Bycel says, "but they're yearning for the kind of community they find at BBI."
Rabbi Scott Aaron, BBI's director of education, adds: "It's important to note we're a gateway program; you can only attend once. It's not like camp."
But on this sunny Thursday afternoon it does seem like camp. The BCI students -- who for weeks have been involved in daily workshops concentrating on fine arts, creative writing, music, drama and dance -- are readying to perform in the evening's multitiered arts festival. These workshops give the students the structure to incorporate lessons gleaned from Jewish study and cultural activities into self-expression.
One of the creative writing participants, Gregor Wettberg, is a tall, intense young man with reddish hair, who wears a kippah. Wettberg is a proud Jew from Hanover, Germany. In a city with only 350 Jews left, he has started a progressive Jewish organization.
"As anti-Semitism rises, I think it's no better or worse [than in other countries]," Wettberg says about Germany. "It's better than in other countries, because there is no right-wing movement. The younger generations have a more forward-thinking attitude. I feel that a lot of Germans are very sensitive -- too sensitive -- regarding the Jews."
"It kind of surprised me," Israeli Eliraz Shor says. "I always thought that every Jew in the world dreams to go to Israel. But it's not that way. A lot of Jews around the world are happy where they live."
"I come from a place where everyone is Jewish," she adds. "I don't have any non-Jewish friends. This [program] has really opened a window for the rest of the world."
Julia Mozesova of Slovakia realized something about the religion itself.
"If I don't practice, don't go to synagogue, don't pray, it doesn't mean I'm a bad Jew," says the 21-year-old, who came to BCI courtesy of B'nai B'rith of England.
The international students are not the only ones learning. Their presence has been illuminating for the Americans as well.
Monica Glatt from Baltimore made friends with her roommate, Anna Berezina from Siberia.
"I didn't know there were going to be so many international students," Glatt, 23, says, "but living with them has opened my mind."
Many of the U.S. BCIers echoed the sentiments of 19-year-old Rachel Rabinovich of Newton, Mass. -- that living among the international contingent has revitalized their appreciation of Judaism.
"I've learned that I'm blessed to be in a country that allows me to be a Jew," Rabinovich says -- a feeling that was reinforced by the July 31 bombing at Hebrew University, which occurred during their July 17-Aug. 11 session.
For three and a half weeks, under the guidance of writer-in-residence Stephen Hazan Arnoff, Wettberg has spent 90 minutes a day in intensive creative writing workshops, writing in what for him is a foreign language. He has learned to craft and hone his verse in English.
Finally, the moment in the hour-long program arrives when it is Wettberg's turn to read his writing before a room of 100 people. He stands tall and, despite a technical interruption, delivers his verse in a confident, flawless English:
And God looked at mankind.
She observed them.
He watched them.
It gazed upon them.
And for the first time in eternity remained silent in shame.
Later, on the way to watch Zilbermint and others perform the dance presentation, Wettberg reflects on his reading.
"It was a challenge to speak in another language other than my mother tongue," Wettberg says, adding that he is satisfied with the way things went. Then he breaks into a smile. "My next goal is to read something in Hebrew, which I wrote," he says.