This year, as every year, I got an email telling me that the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel has opened its applications for the coming year.
This year, as every year, I get misty-eyed as I think about what the fellowship did for my daughters, and then I get excited and hopeful as I think about the next crop of eleventh graders who can apply for the fellowship, and about the 26 incredibly lucky ones who will be chosen for it.
The Bronfman Youth Fellowship program is a microcosm of what North American Jewish life should be. It takes 13 young women and 13 young men, all high school students between their junior and senior years. They have much in common, those 26 kids. They’re all smart, intellectually curious, most likely a bit intellectually adversarial as well, at least when they’re challenged. They are all accomplished, some terrifyingly so, some, thankfully, more approachably. They’re all Jewish, although they’re not all Jewish according to the definition of all of the other students in their cohort, but by their own community’s definition they are. And they all are engaged with their Jewishness.
They also have much that divides them. They come from across the United States and Canada (although a disproportionate number of them come from New York and New Jersey, which is home to a disproportionate number of North American Jews). Some are urban, some suburban, some even are rural (as hard a trick as that sounds, because after all we’re talking about Jews). They come from across the religious spectrum, from Orthodox to Reform, and some come from outside that spectrum, as cultural, ethnic, or tikkun-olam Jews.
The Bronfman Foundation takes these 26 young people to Israel, where they are treated to a serious look at the country, its problems, and its glories. They learn to understand and even to accept each other. They learn to work out their differences, how to realize when differences are irreconcilable, how to work around those irreconcilable differences, and how to like each other nonetheless. It’s a leadership program that takes the time to teach budding leaders how to pay attention to each other for real.
It is a useful trip in practical ways; it is helpful practice for college applications, and it looks good on those applications. That is not in any way a reason to apply for this program, or to accept the trip if it is offered, but it bears saying nonetheless.
The trip is free. Parents don’t have to be able to pay for it. There aren’t any hidden costs. And it weaves participants into a network that will continue to hold them for as long as they want to be held — forever, if they chose, as so many do.
The best part of it, though, is that when your children come home from their Bronfman summer, they come home shiny. Their eyes gleam. Their voices boom. (Okay, I shouldn’t overstate that one. It does have downsides.) They have been intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally challenged and supported as they face and overcome the challenges. They have seen many ways of being Jewish, understand more about why their parents made their choices, and are either strengthened in their own ways of expressing Jewishness or pick new ones. And, of course, they have learned about Israel as they learn about American Judaism.
I hope that everyone who has a child in eleventh grade who might benefit from the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel at least talks to that child about it. IThe application deadline is January 4, and the trip is set for June 27 to August 3.