Growing up in a family that asks a lot of questions, Mira Kittner looks at her Judaism as something that will evolve and change over the course of her life, not something static.
The Bronfman Fellowship has selected Kittner to participate in its next cohort of high school juniors. From a pool of 252 applicants, organizers selected just 26 teens from the United States and Canada, and the Berkeley 17-year-old is the only one from the Bay Area.
“We seek to compose a diverse, pluralistic group,” said Bronfman Fellowships executive director Becky Voorwinde. “[This cohort] has a diverse range of religious experiences, diverse interests — fellows who are passionate about science and the arts — a diversity of types of schools, and geography is important to us.”
For her part, Kittner, who attends Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, is excited about meeting the other fellows as well as the staff this summer. “It looks like an amazing program, with people from amazing backgrounds — more pluralistic than high school,” she said. “It’s going to be really interesting to hear so many different opinions. There are some amazing teachers on the program … poets and writers and thinkers.”
The five-week summer program, which started in 1987, revolves around travel and study in Israel, where participants meet with prominent Jewish thinkers, writers and politicians. Their time in Israel is followed by a year of study at home that focuses on pluralism, social responsibility and Jewish texts. There are more than 1,100 alumni in North America and Israel.
Kittner impressed the Bronfman people right away. “More than anything, what came across in our interview with her was a deep maturity, and a love of Judaism and Jewish life, and a passion for Jewish learning and life,” Voorwinde said. “She just lit up, the way she talked about teaching Torah and leading discussion with people younger than her. It’s very refreshing to talk to a young person who is not doing these things for their resume.”
Kittner heard about the Bronfman Fellowship through the community grapevine and got interested for several reasons — dialogue with the other students being an important one. Last summer, she participated in Seeds of Peace, a program that brings together teens from the Middle East and the U.S. for three weeks. “That sparked my interest in dialogue, and talking to people who are really different than me,” said Kittner. “Conversation can be a tool to build community.”
Kittner recalls one highlight being a teacher-led initiative that resulted in a weekend encounter between Jewish and Muslim students, who shared a meal and talked. “I made a lot of cool new friends,” she said.
Kittner and her family are members at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. She said she attends the Modern Orthodox synagogue on all the holidays and for occasional Shabbat services. “I don’t personally pray on my own time,” she said, adding that there are opportunities for prayer at her school.
Kittner is an alum of Oakland Hebrew Day School, which she credits, in part, for her understanding of Judaism, as well as her love for learning.
“My parents sent me to Hebrew Day, so my Jewish education has mostly been through school — learning and interest in deep thinking and dialogue,” she said.
The fellowship also will help Kittner further develop her Jewish identity in concert with her peers, something she puts up high on the list. “From a personal perspective, I’ve had an evolving journey with Judaism,” she said. “And I want to be around other people my age.”