Since 1996, over 2,000 Jewish teens from around the world have explored the relevance of Jewish tradition in the arts (Brandeis Institute for Music & Art, or BIMA) and in academic fields and matters of social importance (Genesis). BIMA and Genesis are, importantly, a laboratory for innovation in Jewish education and have been a training ground for more than 600 formal and informal educators who continue to push the limits of what Jewish education can be. This template of applying Jewish learning to diverse content areas is profoundly influential: coupled with Jewish texts and traditions, this broader system of teaching and learning creates more imaginative thinkers activated to Jewish living and leadership.
Students are asked to engage deeply in the intentional and dynamic pluralistic Jewish community of BIMA and Genesis. The learning at BIMA/Genesis lives at the nexus of the famous debate from Kiddushin 40b: Is learning or deed greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered that deed is greater while Rabbi Eliezer answered that learning is greater; after debate and reflection, they and the Elders concluded that learning is greater for it leads to action.
Students “go deep” into their own identity and beliefs and are put in charge of crafting their own Jewish experiences and explorations. In BIMA, participants examine themselves and their Jewishness through dance, music (choral and instrumental), visual arts, creative writing, and theater as connected to Jewish tradition, texts, and perspectives. The same complexity and rigor is brought to bear in the Genesis program. In subjects ranging from gender and science/technology to world religions and cultures, teens are nourished intellectually and spiritually.
Through this process, BIMA and Genesis students do the hard work of developing meaningful relationships that last beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the summer. By the end of a summer, participants understand that friendships are not superficial connections, but rather, as Pirke Avot suggests, deep bonds that must be acquired through hard work, trust, and love. Along with the substantive knowledge gained, participants take their experiences and learning back home with them with the commitment to continue to learn and transform their learning into action.
Notably, the BIMA/Genesis scale is balanced between learners and teachers. That participants engage in deep study (through projects, performances, and community building that result in real change) is only possible because of BIMA/Genesis faculty, who translate and enable teens to apply their learning to the world. In this way, BIMA/Genesis models the principle of Pirke Avot 1:6, "Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person as meritorious." BIMA/Genesis’ world class educators possess both expertise in their disciplines and a deep embodiment of Jewish tradition, making real the making of oneself a mentor.
These extraordinary educators explicitly integrate Jewish wisdom into BIMA/Genesis. For example, the Artist Beit Midrash (ABM) in BIMA utilizes Jewish text as the catalyst for artists inspiration and discovery. This year the ABM focused on The Tower of Babel narrative as an inspiration for artistic creation. Also in BIMA, the theater major uses Jewish text and wisdom to devise an original work. This year’s work, “In Our Image,” used the creation narratives from the Book of Genesis to explore gender identity, fluidity, and norms. An example of this integration from the Genesis program are the Expeditions— experiential courses that utilize Jewish texts, traditions, and understandings to explore an essential question relevant to the students. The Genesis Technology and Innovation course serves as another example of how Jewish wisdom is integrated into the academic offerings. In this course, students study Jewish ritual and ritual objects and then “hack” them, exploring ways technology might enhance Jewish ritual experience and meaning. Final projects from this course have included a mezuzah that sends meditations via text message when kissed, and a kiddush cup that automatically displays the correct blessing when filled.
In an age where the practice and observance of Judaism demands reinvention, teens must be excited about the vigor and vitality of Judaism and of Jewish learning. When technology, social justice, and Jewish content are skillfully blended, the outcomes can be mystical and magical. This generation—inclusive of the educators whom are essential to the formula and to the growth of Jewish education generally—must be empowered as engaged world citizens and as active participants in Jewish culture.
High school students can become catalysts of Jewish religious and communal life when they explore and understand the relevance of Jewish tradition in their lives. The learning process practiced in BIMA/Genesis—substantive, impassioned, and engaging interactions between diverse high school students and talented faculty—enhances creativity and intellectual and spiritual range. This is both an inside-out approach (participants’ interests and passions are channeled through an artistic or academic discipline) and an outside-in approach (when participants gain insights about Judaism and practice from their diverse peers and talented teachers). BIMA and Genesis, then, are portals for understanding and realizing participants’ potential as people and as Jews.
Further, BIMA and Genesis inspire creativity in young Jews, empowering participants to produce and experience diverse models of vibrant and pluralistic 21st century Judaism. Offered through the innovative Office of High School Programs, BIMA/Genesis showcase global Judaism that, coupled with intensive arts and academic experiences, puts a mirror to teens’ personal development. Central to the design are Jewish values, texts, and aspirations, which shape students’ passion for art (in the case of BIMA) and academic subjects (Genesis). Now in its second decade, BIMA brings motivated teens to campus for four summer weeks to learn from professionals about the visual and creative arts. Their commitment to Judaism and engagement with art are united in a dynamic, communal, and uplifting environment. Genesis, now in its eighteenth year, remains a pioneering and diverse learning laboratory. Besides being an incubator for Jewish education and a training ground for formal and informal educators, Genesis gives students exposure to how others practice Judaism and, again, how they view themselves.
Finally, a commitment to a maker model engages teens in ways that move beyond conceptualization and to real action. For example, participants redesign Shabbat every week, reflecting what the community wants; “hack” Hanukkah by repurposing or refining ancient traditions; or create a new, functional genizah for a nearby cemetery. This hacker mentality finds us excelling at failure: staff and participants experiment with teaching and learning, enabling a vibrant and ever-evolving community.
Taken together, then, BIMA and Genesis provide teens and emerging Jewish educators with the freedom to experiment and the opportunity to “fail forward.” They leave inspired about Judaism and self-discovery.
Students describe BIMA/Genesis as life-changing and as peak experiences in their Jewish journeys, transforming how they view themselves and their relationship to Jewish tradition and the Jewish world. BIMA/Genesis stand apart from teen programs, even those based in Israel, and our diversity is unique among Jewish youth experiential opportunities. We bring together students from a dozen countries and across the religious identity spectrum to delve deep into Jewish identity and through the lens of an artistic or academic disciple.
The same can be said about faculty and staff, who are provided the freedom to experiment with curricula and new pedagogies. The more than 600 faculty community educators are carrying the knowledge they gained at Brandeis to the larger Jewish world. They are influencing educational and communal settings and promoting a 21st century pluralistic Judaism. BIMA/Genesis staff alumni are now among the leaders in the Jewish educational world serving as rabbis and educators around across the globe while participant alumni are leaders of the secular and Jewish global community. The lessons of integrating their Jewish identities, the value of pluralism, and the impact of a global Jewish community is something they take with them.
BIMA/Genesis has shown us that teen programs can be more than about Jewish socialization. Instead, we have found that the Jewish tradition holds the key to leading meaningful and fulfilling lives. As educators, we are tasked with connecting the richness and depth of Jewish wisdom to the world. In our experience, teens crave deep, intensive real-world experiences. For them, social justice, equality, and Jewish values become “real” when they are capable of deliberating and acting on them. We have seen how Jewish wisdom provides young Jews with the tools to better understand themselves and the world around them—teens have immense capacities, emotional and intellectual alike, that give us confidence in the Jewish future. This penetrating method illuminates study and deed. These insights give meaning, direction, and joy. BIMA/Genesis, then, continues to empower youth and educators alike in using Jewish content as instructional and inspirational material.
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