The young man bent intently over his intricate paper-cut picture. Whereas the other students' pictures bore traditional Jewish motifs, like a seven-branched candelabra or the Star of David, Tesfa Sintayehu Workneh's starkly simple picture with its palm fronds and a thatched hut evoked memories of his native Ethiopia.
Workneh, 25, escaped from Ethiopia five years ago on foot. The hazardous trek to the Sudan took nine days. He then emigrated to Israel, where he lived five years before joining relatives recently in Los Angeles.
Although Workneh's experiences as a Jew are far different from those of his religious peers in this country, Workneh spent July at a 3,200-acre summer camp in the Simi Valley exploring the thread that unifies them. Living with 61 other young Jewish adults--ages 19 to 26--Workneh discovered what it means to be a Jew.
The Brandeis-Bardin Institute was started in 1941 by the late Dr. Shlomo Bardin, a Ukrainian immigrant teacher who combined the ideas of an Israeli kibbutz, an American summer camp and Danish folk high schools, which are designed to preserve that country's culture. Bardin established the institute in response to a challenge by the late U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis to "do something about the young American Jew in flight" from his culture and religion.
Intensive 28-Day Experience
Each summer since then, two groups of 60 or 70 college-age men and women have spent an intensive 28 days with scholars, lecturers, artists and musicians--away from the world, from television--deciding what their religion and cultural heritage will mean in their lives.
"It is like a restaurant with a big menu where people can pick what they want," said Jay Sanderson, director of development and public relations for the institute. "It allows people to come and see what being a Jew means to them. Not what their grandmother said, but what it means to them."
Most are typical American college students and they come from all over the country. Some come because their parents, siblings or friends have gone there and encouraged them to go. Others hear of the program in their synagogue or school. Several come from England or Israel. With Workneh at the institute this month were a young girl and boy from Russia and a young man from Iran.
"You find a lot of young people who are going through struggles and questions of belief," said Deborah E. Lipstadt, director of the institute.
"I came here to sort things out, trying to get away from the real world for a bit," said Charles Benezra, 23, a UCLA graduate student from Northridge.
"I wanted to learn some Jewish values and apply them to daily life," said Benezra. "I've had some background before--I had the bar mitzvah, I did a little Hebrew high, but here it's much morebroad-minded. They try to cover all different facets of Judaism--singing, dancing, all the different types of religious movements.
"It's up to you, but they show you what is open to you, different ways you can use Judaism to lead your life."
Signs in Hebrew mark the dining hall, dorms and lecture-activity rooms in the modest camp bungalows along Peppertree Lane, which leads to the ranch and stables. Flower and vegetable gardens, tended by institute participants, flourish along the road.
Adapted From Kibbutz
Work is adapted from the tradition of the Israeli kibbutz: everyone cleans and serves in the dining room. All of them bake bread at least once for the kosher meals. Each session leaves behind a project that it develops, pays for and builds. The July group's project is a tree nursery for a reforestation project.
The participants rise early to attend the flag-raising ceremony and to observe and learn about prayer. After breakfast they work an hour before taking part in folk songs and dancing. Then they attend lectures by rabbis and scholars.
During the day, the men and women sit under trees, discussing such matters as whether God exists and what connection that has with their lives. In the evening, after lectures, art workshops and dinner, young Americans from New York, Oklahoma and North Carolina clasp hands with the Russians and join in a robust Israeli dance none of them knew a few short weeks before.
Friends for Life
On Shabbat, at sunset Friday evening, the new friends, some whose parents met in the same place on a similar evening decades before, link arms to sing, pray and rejoice.
The institute attracts participants from all branches of the Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform, to enable them to choose what is right for them, said Lipstadt.
"Although it is only one month, it sets the tone for a lifetime because it is at a crucial age that people are starting to think about life," said Pinchas Peli, professor at Ben Gurion University in Israel. Peli has been a scholar-in-residence at the institute off and on since 1957. "They come away from this month feeling that, in addition to a career, making money and getting a master's degree, there is also life to live."
Learning Outside the Classroom