Invincible teen bolsters Jewish identity with Israel trip

This summer, Rachel Finkelstein, 17, won't be working for minimum wage at Subway or Gap. Instead she'll be praying at the Western Wall and shopping on Dizengoff.

Finkelstein earned this trip to Israel.

The high school junior adores her family, excels at modern dance and hovers near the top of her class at Oakland's College Preparatory School. Add in the fact that the Berkeleyan is a fiercely proud Jew, and it's no wonder Finkelstein won a 2003 Bronfman Youth Fellowship.

That means she will represent the Bay Area and join 25 other Jewish American teens on a five-week trip to Israel this summer. While there, in addition to touring the country, Finkelstein and her fellow Fellows will study essential Judaic texts, participate in seminars led by members of the Bronfman Fellowship program educational staff and meet with prominent Israeli artists and politicians.

"When they called, I was very shocked," says Finkelstein. "I didn't know what to say, since I was not expecting it."

With hundreds of applicants from across the country vying for those 26 slots, she had reason to lowball expectations.

But for those who know Finkelstein, her selection comes as no surprise. A native of the East Bay and raised in an observant home, Finkelstein attended Tehiyah, a Jewish community day school in El Cerrito, from kindergarten through eighth grade. She is currently continuing her Jewish education at Berkeley Midrasha, where she studies Torah.

In addition to her academic and artistic pursuits, the teenager works through Midrasha as a youth counselor and homelessness advocate.

It's all in keeping with her tikkun olam mentality.

"Judaism is part of our family dynamic," she notes. "My parents tried to put a positive spin on every Jewish thing we've done. It was never 'You can't go out on Friday night,' but instead we always have a ton of people over."

Officials with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel make their selections based on character, intellectual interests, talent and leadership qualities. These criteria together usually weigh more heavily than grades alone, says Ava Charne, the organization's administrative director.

Launched in 1987 by philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman, the program has sought to build future leaders of the Jewish community by bringing them to Israel and then asking them to commit to follow-up organizational, volunteer and educational activities. It's been an unqualified success story for more than 400 alumni.

Finkelstein sealed her own acceptance into the program after a lengthy application process, a string of personal essays and a formal interview conducted by BYFI's executive director, Rabbi Shimon Felix. "I never had an experience like this," says Finkelstein of the selection process. "But there is so much related to Judaism and Israel that I don't know about. I want to be active, so this was time to learn."

This won't be Finkelstein's first visit to Israel. She toured the country on a six-week trip last summer. Her globetrotting itinerary then included a visit to Nazi death camps in Poland, which proved a shattering but highly instructive experience to the teen.

As for traveling to Israel during a time of ongoing terrorism, Finkelstein shows the bravado of youth. "I'm a teen," she says. "I feel invincible. Before last summer, I was a lot more anxious. But being there, I was exposed to everyday life: people in supermarkets, people swimming. No one writes about kids playing ball in the streets."

One of the most appealing aspects to the fellowship program for Finkelstein is its pluralistic character. "Last year I went on a trip sponsored by the Conservative movement. Now, I'll be with kids from all different denominations, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Also, this trip is more academically oriented."

Finkelstein expects her summer abroad to change her, but in strictly positive ways. It's all part of the plan for a vibrant young person dedicated to the Jewish faith and the Jewish people. "I don't take Judaism for granted," she says. "We have to build our own communities. I'm involved because I want to be."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.