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Jewish Teen Fellows Visit Israel in Hope of Fostering Jewish Unity

Twenty-five Jewish teenagers from the United States and Canada headed for Israel Sunday courtesy of a fellowship granted by Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, who hopes to build bridges between Israeli and American Jews and between the different denominations of Judaism.

The Edgar Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a new program designed to develop Jewish leaders of America and Israel, draws together upcoming high school seniors from a variety of Jewish backgrounds — Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated — this year from 13 U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec provinces.

“The question that should be asked is not, ‘Who is a Jew?’ but ‘What is a Jew?'” said Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, at a news conference with the 25 fellows here Thursday.

“The key to the survival of Judaism is Jewish pride,” Bronfman said. “Sometimes going to Israel inspires them (young Jews) to learn even more.”

NOT THE USUAL TRIP

The smattering of the Jewish community’s “best and brightest,” selected from more than 400 applications, will not experience the usual Israeli youth program that attempts to teach a Jewish identity.

Instead, led by Jewish educators, they will explore the issues of Jewish identity and Jewish community in the context of Israel, according to Rabbi Michael Paley, director of the project and the first rabbi to be chosen as director of the Earl Hall Center for Religious Activities at Columbia University here. “Our hope is to create a cadre of young Jewish leaders — among them, perhaps, future figures of prominence in the Jewish community — who despite their different backgrounds and ideologies will know each other and know how to talk to each other,” Paley said.

“It’s not a tour,” explained Rabbi Avi Weinstein, programming director and the Orthodox chaplain at Harvard University. “A lot of them have been to Israel before. The point is to learn from each other in the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Each week of the month-long program, paid for in full by Bronfman’s endowment and distributed through a grant to the WJC, addresses a different theme.

The first week’s focus will be Israel as a state and its founders. The second week will cover the people of Israel, focusing on different immigrant cultures, and the next week will examine the religions of Israel. The final week will center on issues such as Israel’s security, the Arab-Israel conflict and religious tensions in Israel.

The schedule includes seminars with some of Israel’s most prominent political and literary figures. In addition, each fellow will make a presentation about a previously unknown topic.

ONGOING CONTACT SOUGHT

In years to come, according to Paley, the fellows will be invited to organized “alumni” activities and possibly participate in a journal.

Much of the learning will take place with each other. For instance, students had begun discussing and arguing issues and views the night before the press conference, but they also sang “Hinei Ma Tov” arm in arm.

“I never had exposure to such different points of view in Judaism,” said Sheila Jelen of Chicago. “I’ve taken for granted how easy my Jewish life has been.” She is anxious to study the Judaism outside of her Orthodox background.

Mark Reichman of Roslyn Harbor, NY, is eager to learn from the other fellows. He said his experience with most Jews at home leads him to believe they are not issue-oriented, but rather focussed on materialistic items. After speaking with the others he said he was “humbled by their knowledge.”

Some fellows were from a tiny minority in their hometowns. Daniel Jacobson comes from one of the two Orthodox families in Champaign, III. “It would have been nice to grow up in an Orthodox neighborhood,” he said, but he noted that keeping his tradition strengthened him.

Jeremy Halberstadt of Wilmington, Del., was bar mitzvah as an Orthodox Jew but later became Reform. He said he fears Orthodox domination in the Jewish identity debate in Israel. Since he is considering aliya, although this is his first trip to Israel, “I don’t want Israel to say we (Reform) can’t go there.”

Similarly, other fellows share the concern of a fragmented Judaism in America and Israel. “More than realizing our differences,” said Melissa Rubenzik of Phoenix, Jews should realize “how much we’re all alike. Jews everywhere need to learn.”

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