It was not something American teens typically see on an Israel trip: thousands of Chassidic men, surrounding their aged rebbe at 1 a.m. on Shabbat, some dancing on the table while throwing challah to the crowd.
Seventeen-year-old Nathan Wexler of Brisbane caught some of that challah, sharing Shabbat with the Belz Chassidic community of Jerusalem. It was just one of many astonishing experiences he had in Israel as a Bronfman fellow.
Now in its 25th year, the Bronfman Youth Fellowship sends 26 North American Jewish teens to Israel for five weeks of intense study and travel. There they meet up with 20 Israeli counterparts and together explore Jewish culture, religion and diversity.
Wexler was one of two Bay Area teens selected for this year’s trip, which took place from July 6 to Aug. 11. The other, Marnina Wirtschafter of Berkeley, agrees with Wexler that the experience had a real impact.
“Our counselor said at the beginning that if you came away [from the Bronfman Fellowship] unchallenged, then we failed you,” said Wirtschafter, 17.
Wexler, who graduated from Brandeis Hillel Day School, now attends San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay, while Wirtschafter, an alumna of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, is a senior at Berkeley High and a regular in the East Bay Midrasha program.
Both thought they knew their stuff when it comes to Jews, Judaism and Israel. But both were bowled over by the program and their fellow fellows.
“Everybody was really engaged, and people really wanted to be there,” said Wirtschafter. “Everyone had something different to offer.”
The teens came from across America, representing a full spectrum, including some students who had little previous Jewish knowledge. What they shared was intelligence, curiosity and an interest in Jewish identity.
The program itinerary featured field trips in Jerusalem, the Negev and Tsfat, a meeting with Knesset members and presentations by A-list speakers. Those included Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Etgar Keret and A.B. Yehoshua.
All gave the Bronfman fellows plenty to think about.
Wirtschafter recalled Yehoshua telling the teens, “If you’re in the United States, you’re a partial Jew because you’re not living and breathing Judaism” in Israel.
Wexler’s take-away from the encounter: “In America, it’s much harder to be a passive Jew. If you stop being part of a Jewish community or stop celebrating the holidays, eventually [Judaism] is not sustainable, but in Israel you can be not religious, have no connection, and you can still live your life as a Jew.”
The trip wasn’t all highly structured. During their stay in the Negev, the fellows went out on their own one balmy night to contemplate the universe.
Said Wirtschafter: “We sat down just to silently take in the huge expanse of stars. We were apart from each other, yet really connected. The whole world seemed like a tiny thing.”
It was all a lot to take in, and Wirtschafter is still processing the experience.
“I was hoping to hear different opinions, come home and say I know where I stand on these issues,” she said. “I realized you can’t just know how you feel. You have to wrestle with [the issues] and be constantly questioning. I’m not done with that.”
The teens know their work is not over. They must now come up with a project that brings something of value to their communities, such as a school discussion group or social action project. Then, later this year, they will reconnect at a group reunion in New York.
The Bronfman Youth Fellowship may be ending soon, but the experience will endure for the two Bay Area teens.
“For the rest of our lives,” says Wexler, “we’re part of this alumni.”