After years of hearing stories and cherished memories from her mother and grandmother, Adira Rosen finally had the opportunity to experience American Jewish University’s (AJU) Ziering Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) program. As the third generation in her family to attend BCI, held every summer at AJU’s sprawling 2,700-acre Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley, Calif., Adira felt decades of tradition being passed down to her.
“I am who I am because of BCI,” said Adira, a New York City resident and graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who attended the program last summer.
Inspired by the spirit of the Israeli kibbutz movement, pioneering educator Dr. Shlomo Bardin founded BCI in 1941 for young Jews ages 20 to 29 from around the world to explore their culture and their community. Today, BCI’ers use art, dance, music, theater, text study and spirituality to discover new traditions, create meaningful connections and chart their own course within Judaism.
For Myla and Eileen Wingard, Adira’s mother and grandmother, BCI left a lasting footprint on their lives that they still carry with them today.
Eileen, who attended BCI in 1951 precisely 70 years before her granddaughter, said that it inspired her to connect her Jewish identity with her love of music, which she turned into a rewarding career. She served as chair of the JCC Music Committee in San Diego, played in the San Diego Symphony for 37 years, writes a music column for the San Diego Jewish World, and still teaches private violin lessons today at 92.
Myla found similar inspiration during her summer at BCI in 1975, which she credits with also unlocking her passion for music and connecting her to her local Jewish community; she currently plays violin in her synagogue’s band. The deep connection she felt to BCI encouraged her to get more involved in the program. Myla, along with her husband Lou, would go on to serve in multiple roles at BCI—spending summers on campus as a family, which Adira joyously recalls.
“My experience at BCI transcended that one summer,” said Myla. “It became a part of my life, my Jewish identity and a family tradition. I feel fortunate that my daughter found the same welcoming community that I did years ago.”
The Wingard-Rosens are far from the only family changed by the special experience of BCI.
Elaine Asa joined a BCI aliyah by chance in 1959 when she took the spot of a friend who could no longer attend. That one month set the course of her life. She met her future husband there, who at the time was studying to become a rabbi. Elaine and Rabbi Haim realized that “we needed to figure out what being Jewish meant to us.” They moved to Argentina and founded one of the first Reform congregations in Buenos Aires, which still exists today, and later returned to California to lead Temple Beth Tikvah for more than 30 years.
Elaine’s daughter, Aviva, attended BCI in 1980. Today, she lives in Israel with her family, including her two daughters, Liel and Gavriella, who recently attended BCI as well. The highlight of Liel’s experience was spending time with the international contingent, which helped her connect to her own family’s Jewish heritage.
“The fact that I spent a whole summer with Jews from all over the world—that blew my mind,” shared Liel, a tour guide in Israel. “To me, that was the epitome of what it means to connect back to your roots.”
These days, BCI hosts participants from around the world, including recent participants from France, Brazil, Uganda, India, Ukraine, Australia and Israel. Rabbi Myra Meskin, who serves as BCI’s director and attended the program in 2013 (like her father and grandparents before her), attributes the increase in international participation to the program’s uniquely welcoming and inclusive spirit.
This distinct design, explained Rabbi Meskin, allows participants to discover who they are and what really matters to them. “Being open, vulnerable and experimental helps participants get a personalized, hands-on Jewish experience they cannot get anywhere else,” she said.
For the Wingard-Rosens, Zahavi-Asas and Meskins, BCI has become a tradition passed down from generation to generation. And with each successive generation, the Jewish connection grows stronger and shines brighter.
According to Liel, what set the program apart from other Jewish programs was the idea of “radical acceptance,” a major theme from her cohort.
“Educators and directors achieve this goal through open-minded and out-of-the-box thinking that allows for space to explore and let go,” she described. “I haven’t encountered other organizations that are using that methodology to help young people find a Jewish identity.”
Only eight months removed from her cohort, Adira called BCI an invitation for self-discovery. “At the end of the month, we walked away with a family and the foundation of the Jewish community we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
Applications are open for the 2022 session of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, which will take place from June 28 to July 24.
Max Rosenblum is a writer and communications professional based in San Francisco.