One of the wonderful things about the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), the Jewish retreat center nestled in the mountains of Simi Valley, is the devotion it attracts from those who have stayed there. It is not unusual to meet someone on a Grandparents Weekend at BBI who has been visiting since the early 1950s and can quote by heart from founder Shlomo Bardin's speeches.
But what remains Brandeis' most positive quality can also work to its detriment, causing the retreat center to become increasingly insular over the course of the past two decades. Sure, the day camp and away camps are full to bursting every summer, and BBI still attracts a legion of college students from across the country to spend six weeks getting in touch with their Jewish side. Institute leaders even introduced a new program in 1997, the Cotsen Institute for Newly Married Couples, a free retreat for qualifying newlyweds. But until recently one still had the sense, talking to some longtime BBI devotees, that unless you'd been visiting semiannually since 1975 or belonged to a family with at least two generations of BBI'ers, your credentials were suspect.
Enter Dr. Lee T. Bycel. The new president, who took over as director of BBI in May, recognizes the need to extend the institute's reach further into the Los Angeles Jewish community and beyond. His aim is to continue BBI's reputation for attracting the crème de la crème of the Jewish world as guest lecturers while also making the institute more accessible, more affordable and more in tune with today's diverse Jewish culture and lifestyles.
"We have a challenging agenda ahead of us here at Brandeis," Bycel told visitors during a recent Shabbaton. "We are going to offer more family programs and more activities where there will be simultaneous children's activities. We are going to reach out to all Jews. I want to see a Brandeis where Jews from the former Soviet Union and from Israel and Iran, where men and women from our community who may be gay or lesbian, [or] are divorced or widowed, where people who are lonely or alienated can find a way back into Jewish life by being a part of one of our programs."
The new state of affairs was highlighted at the recent Open House Weekend held Nov. 18 and 19. The event was free to daytime visitors; overnight guests paid a special rate of $180 for the weekend (about 35 percent less than a typical BBI retreat).
Speakers were carefully selected to represent not only some of the best that Los Angeles has to offer but also to reach out to the Jewish community on both sides of the hill. On Saturday, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom gave a spirited talk linking the names of the five books of the Torah with the current period in American history. The discussion was followed by a Melaveh Malkah evening program featuring renowned Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple. On Sunday, painter and art historian Ruth Weisberg, a professor at the University of Southern California, spoke about her life as a Jewish artist; Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple then wrapped up the weekend with readings from his acclaimed book, "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things."
Leder said it was "a delight" to speak at BBI.
"Whenever you're invited to speak here, you always know you're going to find a knowledgeable, open-minded, serious but friendly audience," he said, adding that it was the perfect place to get across the idea of Jewish education as not only approachable but essential. "If the Torah does not lead to an examination of one's own life, then you've missed the point of Torah," Leder said. "Torah is not about our ancestors, it's about us. It's a uniting force, and Brandeis is one of those places where everyone can feel comfortable learning."
The weekend showcased several new additions to BBI designed to further attract young families. Attendees were taken on a hike of the new trail designed by Mickey Bergman, summer staffer and Israeli commando, and John Varble, the institute's ranch manager. In typical BBI "makes you think" fashion, there are signs along the trail with quotes to ponder, such as: "The Torah begins with the creation of heaven and earth. Why were human beings created last in the order of creation?"
There were also multiple activities for the children, designed not only to keep kids occupied while parents enjoyed the lectures but also to boost their Judaica quotient as well. The theme for the Shabbaton was tzedakah and the children were given the opportunity to make their own pushkes. There was also a storytelling hour that attracted a record crowd of 50 families.
It is this type of multigenerational programming that staffers hope will increase the presence of young couples and families.
"The purpose of the weekend is not only to have fun and make friends but to learn how to bring Judaism into the home and keep it there," said Richard Glicksman, who traveled with his wife, Cynthia, from their home in Yorba Linda to attend the opening weekend. "Ultimately with Brandeis you can have a greater sense of being Jewish in a world that doesn't always want you to be Jewish. The journey begins here," he said.
Richard and Cynthia first visited BBI through the Cotsen program in October 1999. Since then, they have returned three times for weekend retreats to recharge their spiritual batteries.
"Like Rabbi Bycel said in his opening speech, this [experience] is real, and we need to bring that reality into the world of facades," Cynthia said. "If we can keep this feeling with us and bring it into the world of our work and our friends and family, it's going to make us feel more at peace and like we are fulfilling our purpose. I really feel like I'm the best I can be when I'm at Brandeis."
The Glicksmans, like many interviewed at the close of this first weekend, said one of the main reasons they keep coming back is the warmth and enthusiasm of Bycel. Even BBI board members who have met a long line of distinguished figures in the Jewish community said they were impressed by Bycel's ability to bring together people of all ages and denominations into a close-knit group.
"He's a great dreamer and visionary but also very practical," said Mickey Wapner, wife of former BBI president Judge Joseph A. Wapner. "He has a graciousness to people that is very inclusive."
Leder, who as a rabbi at a major Los Angeles synagogue knows the potential for dissension within the Jewish community, also credited Bycel for his inclusiveness.
"One of the first things Dr. Bycel did [as director] was reach out to the rabbis of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and that was an important and well-received gesture," Leder said. "He understands how beneficial congregational life is to Brandeis and how beneficial Brandeis is to congregational life, and I couldn't be happier."
Bycel himself will be the main attraction for this year's first scholar-in-residence weekend at BBI Dec. 8-10. The rabbi, who also holds a doctoral degree from the Claremont School of Theology, has strong ties to the L.A. community, including 15 years as dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. In addition to strengthening BBI's connections locally, Bycel said that he hoped the institute would be at the forefront of the movement toward Jewish renewal across the nation.
"There is a Jewish renaissance going on in America and throughout the world," he said. "Indeed, there is a renaissance going on right here. This gift of 3,000 acres is one where we can be recharged, where our spirits can be enlivened, where our souls can be enriched. It is here that we can become more devoted in our quest to bring the ancient, multilayered insights of our tradition into daily practice."
For more information on upcoming weekends or House of the Book lectures at BBI, call (805) 582-4450.
What to Do With Your Kids
A selection of this week's Jewish events for children:
Sunday, Dec. 3:
The Shpieler Troupe performs their musical theater adventure "Mac and the Bees," capturing the joys and traditions of Chanukah. Two performances today: 12:30 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Call (818) 788-6000. Also, 4:30 p.m. at Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. Call (310) 316-8444.
Diana Shmiana promotes awareness of Jewish multiculturalism in her show "The Book of Wonders." The show features Mizrahi and Sephardi stories and music, along with puppets, clowning and audience participation. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Dr., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.
Chad Attie helps workshop participants create multimedia collages in his family-centered class "Portraits: More Than Meets the Eye." 2 p.m. $5. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (310) 440-4636.