“A source of learning, joy, and power.” These are the words of Yoash Mayende, whose experience in an innovative international program designed for Jewish young adults has been so profound that it has changed his life.
Thanks to Kulanu’s cooperative efforts with the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) program, Jewish young people from remote and emerging Jewish communities around the world now have an opportunity to develop leadership skills as well as practical and Jewish ritual skills, and possibly even more important, to take these new skills home to strengthen Jewish life in Guatamala, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, to name just a few.
BCI’s website touts its remarkable history: Known today as the Marilyn and Sigi Ziering Brandeis Collegiate Institute, BCI is an intensive experience in Jewish learning, culture and community offered to young adults (18-26 years) from around the world. Originally founded by Dr. Shlomo Bardin in 1941 as Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI), it was named to honor our nation’s first Jewish United States Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis.
Now located outside Simi Valley, California, in the foothills of the Susana Mountains, the rolling hills are reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Judean Hills. Yet this pastoral venue belies a program that is intense in its initiative to combat the problem of Jewish flight and bring young adults back to Jewish learning–something that often ceases after the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
Naveh Becker is the Brandeis Collegiate Institute director and in a recent interview she explained how BCI began and how the inclusion of internationally-diverse participants has enhanced the Jewish experience for everyone from staff to participants. “For so many young people, God is frozen in time,” says Ms. Becker, who laments that for too many young people, the Jewish community gives up on them much too early. Ms. Becker goes on to say that thanks to BCI’s pluralistic approach, no particular Jewish movement is preferred, and the fact that BCI is not officially affiliated means that participants from all denominations of Judaism find a home at BCI.
From nearly 150 applicants each year, the young people who are selected hail from all across the United States and, thanks to Kulanu’s participation, from isolated and emerging international communities as well. One such international participant is Yoash Mayende from Uganda. Support from Kulanu brought Yoash to BCI. As a result of his participation, his home community has made enormous strides. Yoash explains:
BCI makes changes in the lives of the youth (who come), and BCI made me a visionary leader and a focused one. I was a BCI-er in 2013 and after camp I raised money that we used to repair two wells. Today my community members are having clean water. It was through what I learned at BCI that I was able to fundraise for the maintenance of the Namutumba Synagogue floor, and fixing of the windows. All these activities were completed in one year after my experience at BCI.
For the 65 to 70 BCI participants who work, play and learn together for one month each summer, the program that BCI offers is rich in creative and practical pursuits. Young men and women step outside their comfort zone to participate in music, dance, theater, art, creative writing and photography.
Ms. Becker emphasizes that in addition to artistic pursuits, each beit midrash team creates a curriculum that is applicable to the lives of their students.
Daily Jewish learning includes hands-on lectures and workshops with leading Jewish thinkers and scholars who engage students in applying Jewish tradition to daily life. Themes include God and spirituality, ecology, social justice, ethics, prayer, Jewish history and the Holocaust, Jewish theology and philosophy—all presented in a safe and pluralistic environment.
This open and accepting environment attracted Kulanu’s president, Harriet Bograd, to BCI and propelled her to explore adding students from the multi-cultural groups that Kulanu serves worldwide. “Four years ago we began our work together,” Director Naveh Becker says of her initial meetings with Harriet. “To date we’ve brought nearly a dozen young adults to BCI from areas as diverse as African countries, Guatemala, and China.” Thanks to Kulanu, these students, most of whom come from families of very limited means, are provided with travel costs, visa fees, and incidental expenses. And both BCI and Kulanu attest that it is money well spent:
Before going to BCI, I struggled with my faith and the traditions. I thought there were no answers but I guessed wrong. BCI helped me to see the beauty in Judaism and to see that it is not black or white but that it has all the colors that we can imagine. And what connected us as strangers was something really important, something that none can take away from us— our faith.
The first Shabbat after I got home, I had to speak in the synagogue about my adventures and my experience with BCI. I was happy to do so because it was a wonderful experience.
Shoshanna Nambi, Uganda
Ms. Becker is grateful for the partnership that now exists between BCI and Kulanu and she notes that the Kulanu students have had a profound effect upon everyone at BCI. Becker says, “To have people who have to work so hard to be Jewish in their home communities—it reminds us how blessed we are.”
And Uganda’s Yoash Mayende concurs when he emphasizes:
My piece of advice to those who are going to BCI is to go home and work with your communities. Draw up plans to work together with your communities and never take this chance for granted. It is a place of learning, joy, and a source of power.