2 East Bay Bronfman fellows return to Holy Land

Two East Bay teens earned return trips to Israel this summer through the 1998 Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Jerushah Brock of Richmond and Bryan Hirsch of Walnut Creek have joined 24 other American teens for five weeks of intensive learning in a program led by rabbis and professors.

Brock, who turned 17 on July 7, the day she left for Israel, was excited about returning after being there last summer on a Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay youth trip.

"I fell in love with Israel. Even the smells in the air overtook me," she said. "The colors of Jerusalem make me want to return. I looked down at the Old City at dawn and saw the sun as reflective gold. I realized why it's called the City of Gold."

Hirsch, 17, who went to Israel two years ago on an East Bay federation trip, expected a more educational experience this time. The San Ramon Valley High School senior spent much of June reading books on the program's optional reading list, including "The Yellow Wind" by David Grossman, whom the fellows are scheduled to meet in Israel.

"It was hard to focus on finals with the books waiting for me on my desk," Hirsch said.

Brock and Hirsch know one another from Kesher retreats, weekends that bring teens together from East Bay Midrashot, high school programs.

Both have embraced Jewish-related activities and learning, but in different ways.

Hirsch, who was recently elected president of the National Honor Society, is also president of his youth group at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, where he is an assistant teacher for the b'nai mitzvah class. He will be a song leader at Isaiah's day camp later this summer.

"Bronfman takes people from the most diverse backgrounds they can," said Hirsch, who studied song-leading last summer at Kutz Leadership Academy in Warwick, N.Y. "What's unique about me is that I have a lot of involvement in the Reform movement."

Hirsch said his involvement in Jewish activities is more a result of his student-mentor relationship with Isaiah teacher and youth director Aaron Dorfman than parental prodding. "My parents were always happy to provide religious-related youth activities as an option, but it wasn't pushed.

"Aaron has been my inspiration in a lot of the major events in my life," Hirsch said. "He's just a great guy and one of the smartest people I've ever met. He made me more socially conscious. He taught me the significance of what one person can do."

Hirsch was also a member of his high school's varsity ski team as a freshman. His other interests include playing guitar, mountain biking and painting.

Brock, who is home-schooled, volunteers at the Humane Society in Berkeley and was the assistant director of a variety stage show for fifth- and sixth-graders.

She considered herself a model student in public school up until the fifth grade. "And then I got bored."

While she was at Cleveland Elementary Sxchool in Oakland, it didn't seem to bother her that she, her older brother and her fifth-grade teacher were the only Jews in the school.

"I used to just be completely out there and Judaism was just another way of being different," she said. "I liked having something exotic about me. I glamorized it."

But after earning a scholarship from the sixth through eighth grades at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, she felt that she didn't fit in.

"I grew up in primarily a black neighborhood and in a pretty secular household. All of a sudden I was in an all-white, very Jewish, very wealthy school," she said. "I wasn't too crazy about it at first.

"But I loved learning about Judaism. I was enthralled with the history and the people and the fact that I was connected to all of it. It awoke this thing in me."

Still, Brock was restless. She would not hesitate to question teachers, which didn't always sit well with them. As a result, her mother suggested home-schooling, although she did not take over the teaching duties. Brock initiates her own learning and schedules her own hours.

"The best part about home-schooling are the hours, which I can fill with whatever I need," she said. "The hardest part is I've got to pull my own weight. If I want to learn about something, I have to get up and go to a seminar or do research.

"Most of what I do is so hands-on, so driven by me that I don't think of it as work."

Brock, whose interests include feminism, theatrical arts and women's psychology, would like to spend a year in Israel after finishing high school. On this trip, she planned to check out a feminist yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The Bronfman Youth Fellowships, which are designed to develop future community leaders, were launched 12 years ago by Edgar M. Bronfman, chairman of the Seagram Co. and president of the World Jewish Congress.

Brock and Hirsch were chosen from more than 350 applicants on the basis of character, intellectual interests, special talents and leadership qualities.

This year, the Bronfman Foundation has created a parallel program for young Israeli high school students, called Amitei Bronfman. The Israelis will have a week-long summit with the American fellows.

Joshua Wnuk of Lynnwood, Wash., the grandson of Paul and Lorraine Lichtman of San Francisco, was also awarded a Bronfman Youth Fellowship.