What is a good Jew Bronfman fellow seeks answers

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Like many teens, Josh Kayman is a bit confused about religion.

"I wonder if I'm a good Jew," he said.

Kayman attends services at Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley but lives "a rather Reform life," he said. "We drive on Shabbat. We don't keep kosher. I don't wear a kippah. I don't pray daily."

Kayman, 17, and a student at Piedmont High School, doesn't expect an immediate answer to that question. But he believes a summer experience may thrust him in the right direction.

On July 9, Kayman will join 25 other hand-picked high-school seniors for six weeks in Israel as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. Participants will attend seminars and workshops on political, social and religious issues facing world Jewry — all expenses paid.

The program was launched in 1987 to develop young Jewish leaders from a variety of backgrounds. Some participants, like Kayman, consider themselves intellectual and spiritual Jews, but are not fully observant. Others attend Orthodox Jewish day schools.

During a phone interview last week, Kayman could hardly contain his excitement about meeting other "really, really smart kids who will just talk the whole time…I'll be able to deal with my questions about Judaism with others who are dealing with, or have dealt with, the same questions."

Of course, Kayman isn't always ruminating about his Judaism. He sings in the Oakland Youth Chorus and an a cappella group called the Troubadors. He plays piano, runs cross country for his school team and attends classes at the Berkeley Midrasha.

Until now, Kayman's singing has been secular. "But wouldn't it be great if I could do musaf [prayer service]?" he mused.

Kayman hopes his Hebrew will improve in Israel, but said he is anxious to return to Israel for a number of reasons. He visited there six years ago and remembers "the camels, the shuk [open-air market], the fresh pita, Jewish children playing in the streets. Judaism was the culture of the place."

He hopes to absorb more of the country this time. And while he expects he'll lead a more observant life in Israel, he isn't certain how his daily practice will change upon his return.

"What I'll determine [there] will probably not be permanent or all-encompassing," he said.

"I don't know if I'll lean toward more observance. I want to find a system of Judaism that [provides] a life structured around spirituality and morality, and not just following observances. I need to know what feels meaningful for me."

Kayman is certain other teens ask themselves similar questions. However, he believes his struggle may be greater since his family attends an Orthodox congregation but is not observant at home.

Kayman said his family chose the Orthodox congregation because they had friends there, enjoyed singing in the synagogue and respected the Rabbi, Eliezer Finkelman.

But because Kayman's level of observance is different from that of most members of his synagogue, "I question if I am a good Jew," he said.

"You can be a good Jew and be a Reconstructionist — if that's the community that supports you. But my community is Orthodox and I'm not Orthodox."

He added that the low level of observance in the Jewish community in the Bay Area may compound his confusion.

"I'm sure I'd have these questions anywhere I lived. But I don't have my Judaism reaffirmed everyday here either," he said.

"I don't go to day school. I don't pray daily. I was talking to one of the girls on the trip who goes to day school. She prays for 40 minutes every day in school.

"Here we live in a `question everything' environment. So it's easy to question my faith."

And perhaps it's appropriate to ask the tough questions, he added.

"What does it mean to be a good Jew? Do I want to be religious? How do we unite different types of Jewish communities? How do we all call ourselves Jews and still be different in our observances?" Kayman asked.

"There's a lot going on for me with my Judaism and belief in God."