October 22, 2018

Survivor, Shmurvivor

Day One. We split up into groups of six and share stories and tears: bad break-ups, childhood teasing, family tragedies. When it’s Beth’s turn to speak, she delivers a brief sentence or two, then clams up.

Day Two. Beth and her friend Amy, who have both been reticent about joining our discussions, say they want out. The gates to camp will allow anyone to leave, explains Rabbi Scott Meltzer, director of education, but they don’t let you back in. Goodbye means goodbye. Our group of 63 dwindles by two.

We are down to 61, with 26 days to go. My fear is not that I would go the way of Beth and Amy – I’ve been going to Jewish camps since 1985 and can lay bare my heart with the best of them. But I’ve never attended a camp as intense as BCI, and my expectations for an epiphany are high, perhaps ridiculously so. After a month of heart-to-hearts, prayer, study and intense bonding, my fear isn’t that I’ll feel weird. My fear is that I’ll feel nothing.

If the Los Angeles Jewish community has the equivalent of the hit CBS television show “Survivor,” this is it.

In “Survivor,” a group of diverse men and women were forced to create a community while stranded on a desert island, faced with the challenge of daily survival. By the end of the series, only one person remained and received $1 million.

At Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI), held every summer at the institution’s 3,100-acre site in the Santa Susana Mountains, a diverse group of young Jewish men and women from around the world must also create a community. We wrestle with spiritual issues, face personal demons and square off against fellow campers whose ideas or habits grate. The big differences between BCI and “Survivor”: we ate decent cafeteria food instead of larvae and we lived in cabins, not lean-tos. And at the end, BCI doesn’t reward you with money or a spread in People, but with a shot at learning and personal growth. Since 1941, Brandeis-Bardin has helped tens of thousands of campers, of all ages, explore the meaning of their Jewish-ness. That’s what I’m going for: not a guest shot on Letterman, but an epiphany.

“You have to step outside the safe boundaries that we create for ourselves,” Ben Cutter, BCI program administrator, explained to us when we arrived. “BCI and its participants are responsible for creating a comfortable and safe environment where we permit ourselves to be open and vulnerable.”

I thought the drum would help. Last summer I bought a darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum, in Jerusalem. One year later I remained afraid to play. Although I took a Middle Eastern drumming and belly dancing class in college, I couldn’t work up the guts to play in front of others. My fellow campers were a talented and game bunch. Those who never danced either sang, played an instrument or painted; all had the opportunity to try. They pushed me, and finally I performed. It was a release, but it was hardly The Big One. I wasn’t about to claim drum-banging as my greatest achievement of the summer of 2000.

Then there was my Israel awakening. Before BCI, I was always curious about Middle East politics, but from a distance. After 26 days with a group of gifted, intelligent people (six of whom were Israeli), I discovered a deeper interest in Israel. Mickey Bergman, an Israeli advisor on BCI, presented a documentary from his Israeli army unit. It showed tough paratroopers in Lebanon – soldiers reacting to the death of a comrade, soldiers on night patrol, soldiers partying and watching “The Simpsons.” The film left me speechless.

As did the time Hadas Shaharabani sort of stripped. Every day at BCI begins and ends with the raising and lowering of the American and Israeli flags. At “flag,” two BCI-ers share something personal and close to their hearts. Shaharabani, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier and education officer, began her flag by speaking about her role in the Israeli army. Then she asked us to close our eyes or turn around. During this time, she peeled off her uniform and asked us to open our eyes. Seeing Shaharabani in gym shorts and a T-shirt was an instant lesson in seeing beyond the uniforms, roles and masks we all wear in daily life. It forced me to confront who I am, without my “uniform.”

When we gathered for regular study sessions, called Beit Midrash, we argued over religious texts and Jewish issues, challenging one another’s beliefs and assumptions on everything from career goals to sexual abuse.

Debate was one thing, prayer was another. I never tend to feel spiritually connected during religious services. I know the prayers and the songs, sing along, but it all leaves me feeling drab and passionless. Every Friday evening we gathered, all dressed in white, to light the candles and welcome the Sabbath. The world itself seemed more peaceful. Our voices joined together in melodious, wordless nigunim. But I remained on my own little island: The spirit didn’t move me.

Until … the second week. Something happened with our group that week. Led by counselors and rabbis, we shared stories of sorrow, hope and laughter. By the second Sabbath, we connected. In the course of religious services, these stories surfaced to create a kind of spiritual bond. The passion I longed for finally emerged, and I felt it to my core. It wasn’t because I finally understood the prayers, or now have greater faith, but because now I could feel the spirit and strength in our voices as we sang together as a community. Chills raced through my body. I grabbed my friend’s hand next to me, exchanged smiles with my friends across the room, and sang my heart out. This moment brought tears of joy, for I never knew that I could experience such bliss from services.

It only got better from there. “I hope that you leave here feeling challenged, exhilarated, more knowledgeable and open to the rich tapestry of Jewish life,” Brandeis-Bardin Institute president Lee Bycel told us as our stay wound to a close. I had achieved something like that.

And it was worth at least a million.