Award-winning California kid will make Israel her classroom

Growing up in California, Mia Bruch always thought of Judaism as existing somewhere else — available only through "strained visits to relatives back East."

Then she went to college and everything changed.

It was in college that the 23-year-old San Francisco resident, a budding scholar and recent graduate of Stanford University, began to view Judaism as a source of personal definition, not through religious revelation but through intellectual engagement.

Now, as winner of the annual Haas Koshland Memorial Award, a grant initiated and administered by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund, Bruch will head to Israel in an attempt to deepen her exploration of Judaism.

In college, "I found myself drawn to the field of Jewish studies," she wrote in an essay for the award application. "At first I was wary of provincialism: I did not want to study something merely because I could relate it to my own identity. But academic practice taught me that Jewish studies need not be a self-serving field.

"Since graduation, I have recognized that I need to go beyond texts and theories. I have never been to Israel, and my grasp of its place in the Jewish imagination is therefore incomplete," she wrote.

The award will enable Bruch to leave her books behind, allowing Israel to be her classroom. She departs later this year.

Established in 1982 in memory of Daniel E. Koshland and Walter A. Haas, the Haas Koshland Award provides outstanding students with funds for a year of study and enrichment in Israel.

While still unsure of her ultimate vocation, Bruch is committed to the study of Jewish culture. She'll be applying the grant toward a year that includes plans to work for the public education and outreach program of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Bruch said the nonpartisan organization appealed to her because it fights for the rights of all groups, including women, Arabs and Orthodox Jews.

Calling Israel an important component of American Jewish identity, Bruch said Israel's conflicts, including debates over non-Orthodox conversions, have far-reaching implications for the fate of the Jewish community. She hopes to gain a better understanding of Israel and its meaning for modern Jewry,

As a "California kid," Bruch said she never gave much thought to Israel or her Jewish heritage.

Her parents moved from New York to the Bay Area in 1969, becoming, she said, "the first members of their respective families to have a zip code west of the Mississippi.

"They could not reconcile their past upbringing with their present surroundings. As time passed, one set of kosher plates was sold at a garage sale and our synagogue membership lapsed," wrote Bruch, who now attends Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.

While completing her degree in modern thought and literature at Stanford, Bruch assisted in the creation of a course in Jewish cultural history and became co-founder and editor of a publication called "Arcade." The quarterly magazine now serves as a forum for controversy on serious issues of concern to some Stanford students.

Her undergraduate thesis on American cultural life and black-Jewish relations won two major university prizes, including the annual Kennedy Award as best essay of the year at Stanford in Jewish studies.

Bruch is currently working as a political writer for City Search, an online magazine that covers San Francisco happenings. In her spare time, she can be found volunteering as a development consultant for several local nonprofit organizations, and taking Hebrew classes at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.

She learned of the Haas Koshland Award through a Jewish studies professor at Stanford.

The Haas Koshland Award has for the past 14 years been funded with a grant from the JCEF. Last year, however, in an effort to ensure it continues in perpetuity, Frances Geballe and her family established a permanent Haas Koshland Endowment Fund, now totaling some $300,000. Geballe is chair of the Haas Koshland Award committee and a daughter of Daniel E. Koshland.

Geballe said that Bruch was chosen from a strong group of candidates. "Mia came across as extremely intelligent and very forthright. Going to Israel for the very first time will be a wonderful way to open her eyes."

Bruch wrote that she intends to use the award to "cultivate the skills needed to provide leadership within the American Jewish community in an era of division, and to determine the role Jewish writers and scholars can play in enhancing Jewish community life."