Camps & Education | From Talmud to Teen Talk, Berkeley Midrasha finds right mix

Harry Potter is not Jewish and Hogwarts is no yeshiva. That doesn’t stop Midrasha instructor Noemi Hollander from teaching a course comparing the ethics of Judaism to those found in author J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world.

Her teenage students at Midrasha in Berkeley eat it up.

Now in its fourth decade, Midrasha in Berkeley is one of the East Bay’s most popular programs for post-b’nai mitzvah teens, grades eight to 12. More than 100 students are currently enrolled. The program’s mission statement, as with similar Midrashas in Oakland, Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley/Tri-Cities area, is to “engage Jewish teens through educational, social and spiritual programming.”

Seniors Rachel Graup and Harry Pollack meet with Rabbi Akiva Naiman in the library.

Throughout the school year, teens of all streams meet Sunday mornings at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El. The curriculum covers everything from Talmud, conversational Hebrew and Jewish identity to yoga, dance and Tarot cards.

For the percussion-inclined, there’s a Jewish drum circle. For the budding Torah scholars, there is an ongoing Talmud class, with 26 students enrolled this year. There’s the Girl Talk class for eighth- and ninth-graders, enabling girls to spend an hour talking about their concerns and stresses. Similarly, Teens Talk offers girls and boys a place to share their thoughts.

It’s all meant to be fun as well as intellectually stimulating.

“Kids don’t like their time wasted,” says Diane Bernbaum, now in her 33rd year as Midrasha’s director. “We’re not so much an information-delivery system as a place for teens to explore their identity. Kids say it’s their one safe spot, the place ‘I get to be me.’ ”

One of those teens is Berkeley High senior Savyon Sordean, 17, who joined Midrasha in ninth grade after gaining a solid Jewish education at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.

Among her favorite Midrasha classes so far are Jewish meditation, leadership and one on human relationships from a Jewish perspective. She also loved the Harry Potter class, which discussed friendship, secret keeping, snakes and ghosts.

Sordean says she has always appreciated Midrasha class discussions, which tend to go deep when it comes to Jewish issues.

“I get so much out of them,” she says. “They are not arguments, but [present] contradictory points of view, and to hear them all is so interesting to me. It opens my eyes.”

Diane Bernbaum

Board president Yossi Fendel is a former Midrasha student and teacher. He says the reason the program wins over teens is due to mutual respect between students and staff. That respect stems in part from the fact that students give up their Sundays to take part, as well as attend annual retreats. It’s their choice to be there.

“Midrasha is a Torah institute, youth group and teen havurah rolled into one,” he says. “Most of the teens I have encountered are hungry for sophisticated material. They want to be challenged. Midrasha has serious academic offerings for those who crave them. And for others, they feel closer to God on retreats than any other time in their lives.”

Bernbaum, 67, is especially happy about the new status of those retreats, usually held at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa or Walker Creek Ranch in west Marin. After 25 years of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay running the retreats, last spring Midrasha took the reins in retreat planning and organization.

A Wisconsin native and former public school teacher, Bernbaum took the Midrasha job in 1981. Today 10 East Bay synagogues co-sponsor the program, which is supported by tuition, federation grants and donations.

Bernbaum says Midrasha does a good job conveying Jewish ethics in practice. For example, eighth-grade students not only discuss in class the Jewish response to homelessness, they also volunteer as a group to cook meals at a local men’s shelter in Berkeley.

Savyon Sordean

The school also strives to meet students’ interests: In 2011, for example, Bernbaum surveyed kids to find out which classes they liked most (food and cooking topped the list), then relayed the information to teachers in the hopes they’d use the results in designing their next-semester classes.

Over the years, Bernbaum has seen the children of former students sign up, and other former students later became Midrasha teachers. Or rabbis.

“Two Emanu-El rabbis went to Midrasha,” she says, referring to Rabbis Jonathan Jaffe and Ryan Bauer of the San Francisco congregation. “I see [former students] active at synagogues, enrolling their children at Jewish day schools. I’ve been to weddings where the bride or groom is from Midrasha.”

As she approaches high school graduation and her final months at Midrasha, Sordean, for one, is already feeling wistful.

“It’s kind of scary,” she says of saying goodbye. “Midrasha has been a big part of my life these last four years. I know a lot of my beliefs will evolve, but many of them sprouted from the discussions and interactions I had at Midrasha.”

For more information about Midrasha in Berkeley, 1301 Oxford St., visit www.midrasha.org.

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.