2 local teens discover panoply of Judaism at Brandeis U.

"Jewish nerd camp."

That was Suzy Klein's reaction when she first heard about a teen summer program touted as the most innovative to come along in decades.

But the Alameda teen, who enrolled in the four-week program, quickly added it was anything but dweebish.

Genesis, which held its inaugural session on Brandeis University's campus in Massachusetts this summer, combined typical summer-camp activities like ceramics with university-level scholarship of secular topics from a Jewish vantage point.

Financed by a three-year grant for $1.6 million from director Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, the program's particular mix of play and academia is unique.

"This is a first. There is nothing like this model out there," said Simon Klarfeld, who headed the S.F.-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal before heading to the East Coast last year to become Genesis' first director.

Each of the 60 teens, including two from the Bay Area, selected either history, law, theater, journalism or film studies as a main subject. Taught by university professors, the courses incorporated Jewish values and topics.

In the theater course, for example, students wrote a play about assimilation. In the law course, they created a mock trial featuring a hospital nurse who refused to work on Shabbat.

In addition, teens ran optional Shabbat services. They visited Walden Pond and America's oldest synagogue. They took photographs and made pottery. They volunteered at a Boston food bank. And they stayed up late into the night arguing their perspectives on Jewish issues, such as women's roles in synagogues.

Genesis also sought to instill a deep sense of Jewish unity into the teens, who came from 22 states and Canada. The organizers purposely selected Jews from every affiliation — secular to Orthodox. However, no Chassidic teens applied.

At Genesis, the youths learned how to disagree with each other without becoming enemies.

"What we modeled here was clal Yisrael," Klarfeld said, using the phrase describing the inherent unity of the Jewish people.

Klein and Olga Fedin of Palo Alto returned home this month. Both consider themselves transformed by the experience.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Fedin immigrated to Israel in 1991 with her family. The Fedins then moved to the Bay Area about a year ago.

Fedin said the program awakened her desire to learn about the diversity of Jewish viewpoints.

"It made me more curious," said the 17-year-old, who will be a junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

Klein, who will be a sophomore at Head-Royce School in Oakland, discovered fellow teens who love intellectual pursuits.

"I've never been around so many intelligent teens in my whole life," Klein said. "We could talk about books and nobody would say, `I don't like to read.'"

Out of five course options, both Klein and Fedin chose one focusing on Jewish involvement in American history.

Klein called it an eye-opener.

"In Sunday school, we never learned about American history," said Klein, who belongs to Alameda's Temple Israel. "And when we learned about American history [in regular school], we didn't learn about Jews."

Fedin said "basically everything" was new to her.

The field trip to Newport, R.I.'s, historic Touro Synagogue was one of Fedin's favorite parts of the program. The synagogue, founded in the 1750s by Sephardic Jews, is still in use.

Genesis' focus on Jewish unity affected the two girls in different ways.

Klein, for example, acknowledged she had stereotypes about Orthodox Jews before attending Genesis. She believed they wouldn't respect her ideas or consider her a Jew.

"I had never known an Orthodox kid before," said Klein, who is considering a career as a rabbi and is planning to enroll in a Jerusalem high school for the second half of her sophomore year.

"I thought the women would be weak and oppressed. That's so far from true."

As for Orthodox males, "I thought they were going to be really, really sexist and overbearing. That's also far from true."

Klein wants to introduce others to her new outlook. She hopes to organize a conference for Bay Area teens and start a chain letter passing the word on Jewish unity.

Fedin, on the other hand, learned about differences among Jews that she didn't know existed.

"In Israel, there are just the Orthodox and nonobservant. It's not like here," said Fedin, whose family doesn't belong to a synagogue but is involved in the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Nonetheless, Fedin readily absorbed the concept of all Jews as one people.

"The whole idea was to create community with Jews coming from different backgrounds, but knowing we can all live together without creating major problems for each other," said Fedin, who works at bob & bob, a Jewish book and gift store in Palo Alto.

The program had a high price tag: $3,000. But Klarfeld said Genesis awarded many partial and full scholarships.

Though participation in the program was limited to 60, Klarfeld hopes to train other organizations to create programs like Genesis.

He also believes the teens themselves will become advocates for Jewish pride and unity.

Although Genesis isn't designed as a leadership program, Klarfeld said that given "the level of the kids we had this year," he believes "a significant number of them will take this message back to a much larger audience."