Teens strengthen Jewish identity at fellowship in Israel

Until recently, Juliana Spector never reveled in the beauty that is Shabbat. But when observing the Holy Day while on her Bronfman fellowship in Israel this summer, she came to appreciate taking time out to relax on Shabbat, instead of hustling about with 50 errands to run and what feels like 49 seconds to run them.

Spector, a Piedmont resident and member of Reform Temple Sinai in Oakland, along with Alex Schatzberg, participated in the Bronfman fellowship, where they were part of a five-week program for future community leaders while forming Jewish bonds with others.

“At times it was awkward when the group first got together,” said Schatzberg, a San Rafael resident and member of a Reform synagogue, Congregation Rodef Sholom, in San Rafael. “It was cool to share other perspectives, not necessarily agreeing with them, but still hearing another point of view.”

The Bronfman fellows were selected from 13 states, and came from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds. Each applicant went through a rigorous application process, which included a personal essay written about the individual’s Jewish identity. The final 60 applicants went through an interview session to determine who would make it to the chosen 26. “I thought they thought my background was interesting,” noted Spector when asked why she felt she was chosen for the program. “My mom is Buddhist and my dad is Jewish. I think they liked the fact that I have such a diverse background.”

Making their way across the Israeli landscape, fellows participated in seminars and dialogues with a range of different rabbis. For example, “one class was on Israeli poetry, one on the Talmud, Jewish parables and modern Jewish thought,” Spector said. “After the classes, we would go to different places and hear from different speakers, authors and politicians.”

While Spector’s favorite lecturer was Israeli author Etgar Keret, Schatzberg enjoyed the political week of speakers. “It was really cool to hear Michael Oren, the CNN correspondent for the IDF. When you are in Israel you are constantly involved — everyone has a point of view. We were constantly inundated with information.”

In a summer filled with the political unrest from disengagement, the fellows definitely had fears to face when traveling around. “In the beginning of the trip, when a public bus would pull up along ours, I would fear that the bus was going to blow up,” Schatzberg said. “The fear subsided as the trip went on, however, and I felt less apprehensive.”

“[The rabbis and speakers] were also focusing more on the conflict and tried to make us understand it better,” said Spector. “We heard from soldiers who were moving people out. They were even torn about what to do. For them, it was, ‘Do I take my friends out, or not?'”

But for both Schatzberg and Spector, the most eye-opening part of their experiences in Israel were the dialogues between the fellows. “A lot of people got upset over the dialogue over interfaith marriage,” noted Spector. “The Orthodox felt that it should not happen, and the Reform felt differently. There was just no way people were going to change their opinions.”

Schatzberg ended up in a heated squabble of his own with a friend. “My Orthodox friend Judd thought that Reform Judaism was not legit because the Reform halachah wasn’t applicable anymore. But I believe that everyone has their own form of practicing Judaism. We would just discuss Judaism, and what it meant to each individual.”

And if there were just one goal of the Bronfman fellowship, it would be for its participants to walk away with a greater connection to Judaism and to Israel. Schatzberg, for one, was won over.

“The experience was incredible,” said Schatzberg. “I want to go back and either study abroad or just live in Israel for a while. The program just gave me a stronger Jewish identity.”

As for Spector, “I just learned a lot from the Modern Orthodox people. I also really enjoyed meeting Israelis our own age from our partner Amitei Bronfman program. It was interesting to hear what they had to say about the disengagement, and just experiencing a different way of Jewish thinking I had not really learned about before.”