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At summer programs, teens get serious
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At summer programs, teens get serious

Jewish academic courses engage high schoolers on college campuses

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Isabel Levine of Montclair, third from right, with some friends at the National Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books program on the campus of Hampshire College last summer.
Isabel Levine of Montclair, third from right, with some friends at the National Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books program on the campus of Hampshire College last summer.

When Isabel Levine of Montclair, 16, was preparing to go to Hampshire College last summer for the National Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books program for high school students, she was a bit worried. She loves reading and discussing literature, and she is involved with the Jewish community at her synagogue, Bnai Keshet. Still, she said, “I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know anyone who would be there — I was nervous,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. In the end, she was grateful to her grandmother for finding the program. Her experience, Isabel said, exposed her to literature she might not have chosen on her own and she got to know peers from around the country with completely different viewpoints from her own. 

For one week, among 36 participants, Isabel read short works of fiction by writers as diverse as Amos Oz, Sholem Aleichem, Cynthia Ozick, and Ayelet Tsabari in small groups, and then discussed them, seminar-style, with professors and occasionally with the authors themselves. They read poetry, short stories, and a novella, and Isabel surprised herself at how much she enjoyed The Rabbi’s Cat, a graphic novel by Joann Sfar.

The “really cool part” of the program, Isabel said, “was that everyone was Jewish and entering 11th or 12th grade, but otherwise, people were very different.” 

That variety is by design, according to program director Josh Lambert. 

So while they are looking for “any kid who loves to read,” as applications are reviewed, he said, “We focus on a mix of people with geographic and experiential diversity who are committed and interested in coming to a program like this. We get everyone from Chabadniks and black hats to hard-core atheists and red diaper babies, Jews of color, transgender Jews — and they have every possible relationship to Judaism and Jewish history. 

“Many people come and say, ‘We’ve never met Jews like this,’” said Lambert. 

This summer will be the program’s third year. Starting with 18 students, it grew to 36 last year and this summer, two sessions of 36 students each will be offered. Since it is fully sponsored by private donors, the program is free (except for transportation to the campus in Amherst, Mass.).

Lambert’s recipe worked for Isabel, now a junior at Montclair High School. “We really got to know each other on a deep level,” she said. “Especially in the classroom, people had very different perspectives, but everyone was so respectful…everyone just wanted to hear what everyone had to say.” She added that that respect carried over to the dorms, where the students would stay up discussing political and social issues from different perspectives. By the end, Isabel said, “I was sad to leave.” 

Academic summer experiences on college campuses are not new for high school students, especially juniors polishing their college credentials. But those focusing on academic Jewish content date back just a few years. 

* * *

The newest, a leadership conference on Israel, open to students strictly by invitation (or nomination), will be launched this summer at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. 

An intensive five-day program, its goal is to raise the level of knowledge of high school students regarding Israel’s history, culture, and society. Its strictly academic perspective sets it apart from advocacy and hasbara initiatives. “Students will learn from leaders in the field without an advocacy angle,” said senior Jewish educator and director Charlie Schwartz. “Often what is missing in conversations about Israel is the knowledge base. People talk from emotion. Our purpose is to inject real content and knowledge into the conversation.”

Some 80-100 students are expected to take part in the inaugural program. What they are looking for, said Schwartz, are students who are “smart, inquisitive, looking to learn.” The participant should be “someone who might not have traveled to Israel but, through family or synagogue or formally through courses, is already engaged with Israel.” While they are expecting mostly Jewish students, Schwartz said, “We are very interested to get non-Jews as well as people with a variety of backgrounds.”

While Schwartz did not reveal the specific criteria for participation, he did point to SAT scores as a measure of ability. “We want to ensure the level is high. We are asking a lot regarding how much information we want participants to process and what we want them to do with it; we want them to become leaders in this area.” Invitations have already gone out. Applications are due April 1. 

Brandeis pioneered pluralistic Jewish academic summer programs with Genesis, established in 1997 with a grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. It has evolved from a one-track program focusing on world religions to a summer experience with six optional tracks: science, technology, business, gender/sexuality, and culinary arts and anthropology, in addition to world religions.

The two two-week sessions offer what Schwartz, who also directs Genesis and BIMA, its fine arts counterpart at Brandeis, calls “a pluralistic playground and lab” for young Jews. The goal of Genesis (and BIMA), he said, is “to understand that Jewish identity can animate every part of you, not just the part that goes to synagogue.” The extensive application process ensures that “anyone who finishes it really wants to be here.” Applications are due March 30. (Brandeis also offers high school programs without Jewish content.)

Mechon Hadar’s Young Leaders Fellowship for current high school juniors and seniors — which started in 2011 — is an opportunity to join the Yeshivat Hadar beit midrash community in New York City for a six-week intensive summer study experience. Mechon Hadar, founded in 2007 by a trio of rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement, offers religious study, community service, worship, discussion sessions, and informal programs in a traditional egalitarian — but unaffiliated — environment. Designed as a day program, residence can be arranged. Applications opened Jan. 15. 

‘Passion for study’

Two Jewish academic summer programs attract a mostly Orthodox crowd, but say they welcome non-day school or yeshiva students as well: The Dr. Beth Samuels High School Program at Drisha in New York City, for high school girls; and the Tikvah Institute for High School Students, on the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn. 

The Drisha program, begun in 1988, is by far the oldest of all of these opportunities. It offers five weeks of Jewish text study, beit midrash-style, focusing on Talmud but also including Bible, Jewish thought, and Halacha. “We work with students to develop their text-study skills and to challenge themselves to ask questions and engage in thought-provoking discussions,” said director Gila Hoch. The long-term goal, she added, is “to build a community of students united by a passion for Torah study.” Students are tracked according to their ability. Public school and secular private school students are welcome and usually part of the mix, but must be able to read and have a basic understanding of Hebrew, as well as some familiarity with Jewish practice and texts. “Beyond that, stronger students have an advantage,” said Hoch, “but we’re mostly looking for intelligent students with curiosity and passion to learn.”

The 25 students live in the Touro College dormitory on the Upper West Side. A full fellowship comes with each offer of admission; only transportation to and from New York City is not included. The priority application deadline was Jan. 15; applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until April 1.

The Tikvah Institute is a project of the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropy and think tank based in New York City and Jerusalem. Many of Tikvah’s initiatives reflect its conservative views, and senior director Rabbi Mark Gottlieb acknowledged that at the Tikvah Institute, participants can expect that the “subjects, texts, and questions that frame the discussion could be called traditional or conservative.” However, he added, the fund’s conservative viewpoint is “less prominent” for its teen audience. “All education should be deliberate and thoughtful, but we do not at a high school level think it wise to have a partisan view,” he said. “We are primarily concerned with exposing students to ideas with a wide lens.”

Begun in 2011, the Tikvah program’s topics change from year to year but generally, it’s an opportunity for participants, juniors and seniors, to “think about their Yiddishkeit from an intellectual, idea-oriented place, outside a yeshiva or day school to give a Jewish world view on contemporary politics, ethics, economic challenges,” said Gottlieb.

A typical student “loves reading and arguing about ideas and is engaged in the world,” and “can extrapolate from their own understanding of Jewish sources and apply those principles and values to political, social, cultural issues,” he said.

About 75 percent of the 30-40 participants are from yeshiva high schools, and the rest come from community day schools. The cost for the partially subsidized Tikvah summer program is $875. Applications are due Jan. 31.

Other new Jewish programs for high school students on college campuses are less focused on intensive academics, but are designed to offer hands-on, experiential learning in a Jewish environment. These include options like BBYO’s On-Campus Summer Experiences (UCLA Leadership and Entertainment Institute, University of Texas-Austin Sport Management Institute, and University of Michigan Business and Entrepreneurship); The Jewish Theological Seminary’s JustCity Leadership Institute, combining social justice fieldwork with college-type classes; and URJ’s Teen Leadership Program at Kutz Camp. Although held in a camp setting, the Kutz program offers leadership training with major and minor tracks of study. 

Finally, there are some programs that are essentially specialty camp experiences for wider and younger audiences that include an academic component and also may accept high school students. These include the Union for Reform Judaism’s 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a technology camp held on the campus of the Governor’s Academy boarding school outside of Boston; NJ Y’s Total Specialty Camps, offering everything from STEM studies to astronomy; and Camp Inc. Business Academy in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

As for Isabel Levine, who is currently considering her options for this coming summer, she said, “I wish I could go back to Great Jewish Books!” 

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