I was scared to go to BCI (Brandeis Collegiate Institute), a sixty-five-year-old summer program in California for young Jewish adults that combines arts, learning, nature, and community values. I thought I didn't know enough, that I wasn't ready, that I would be different from the other participants. Not only was I from an interfaith family, but I technically wasn't Jewish since I had just one Jewish, paternal grandparent and I was not raised in Judaism. While I felt--knew--I was Jewish, well before I entered those gates to BCI, I also knew that there were others who did not see me as Jewish. I had prepared myself for the debate on "Who is a Jew?" to come up, and it was constantly on my mind.
I spent nearly a month at BCI. During that 26-day session, I learned and argued Jewish issues, danced and sang Israeli songs, and walked and built in nature. I lived, breathed and co-existed with sixty other young Jewish adults. Some knew much more about Judaism than I did, and--surprisingly to me--some knew far less than I did. There were Jews who identified as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, and still others who didn't affiliate with any specific denomination. Some were shomer Shabbos (those who strictly observed Shabbat, the Sabbath), and some didn't even know what Shabbat was. Several knew they were Jewish but were trying to figure out what that meant, and a few knew that they were Jewish but had only known as much since their early adolescent years due to religious persecution in their home countries. Some were in interfaith relationships, some in homosexual relationships, and some in a relationship with the nice Jewish doctors that their moms had set them up with.
Participants who had never been in a synagogue experienced Friday night services sitting next to future rabbinical students. We were eighteen through twenty-six, but age rarely seemed to matter in those four weeks. We ranged from college freshmen to non-profit professionals, to grad students, to IDF (Israeli Defense Force) officers, to road-tripping hippies, to soon-to-be law students. We came from Argentina, Los Angeles, Germany, New York, the Former Soviet Union, Portugal, Israel, and even Iowa. What I had feared was true: I was different. But, as it turned out, we were all different.
In the first couple of weeks that I was at BCI, I told only a few people about my Jewish background. I worried about the reaction of my Jewish peers, about the chance of not being accepted as the Jew that I knew I was. I told those who I felt I could trust, those who I believed would support me. Then, at the end of the third week of BCI, I was given my chance to tell everyone my story. Throughout BCI, every participant got their five (or, in my case, ten) minutes to tell something about themselves. We were allowed to talk about anything--as long as it shared something about ourselves. This tradition still remains my favorite part of BCI. My time came. I had worked for hours upon hours on what I was going to say. I shared it with only one person beforehand--my BCI roommate. It was the only time I had ever written, or spoken about, or even allowed myself to fully think about, everything that was bothering me about my Jewish situation. And then, there it was--all of it--on no less than four sheets of typed paper: "My Glass House" --which later became my first of several articles for Interfaithfamily.com .
I remember standing on the gravel, in the dirt. It was late afternoon and it was right before we were to hike to a sunset concert. I read everything that I had written out. I spoke clearly and articulately. There were tears, but for once they were not shed by me. I still vividly remember a few personal conversations immediately after. I left those moments having received appreciation for sharing myself, strong emotional support from many of my peers, and even quiet respect from those who I knew had a complete difference of opinion on the matter. It was my hardest and favorite day as a BCIer. Beyond that day, BCI turned out to be perhaps the most personally difficult and most rewarding Jewish program I have ever participated in.
I returned to BCI as an advisor three years later, and I recently started my position as the BCI program director. (As my friend Yoshi said, that's "the best twist of faith/fate" he's ever heard.) As the program director, I don't intend to change how our program "deals with" interfaith participants. Rather, I will work to continue the BCI tradition of creating diverse, welcoming summer sessions comprised of young adults who identify themselves as being Jewish--regardless of whether one of their parents chooses to practice another religion.
BCI is a place for self-discovery and an exploration of Judaism in ways that many have never imagined. The program has the unique ability to create a diverse community environment that allows participants to feel safe in asking themselves --and each other--difficult questions. Through the arts and Jewish texts, nature hikes and working the land, BCIers get a short break from their regular working or student lives to envision their own Jewish life.
BCI was the place where, as a young adult from an interfaith family, I was finally able to begin to work out the issues that I had been grappling with, in a safe, more comfortable environment than most Jewish programs or real-life situations.
It's an amazing feeling to work for a program that you wholeheartedly believe in.