It’s probably safe to assume that lots of Jewish high school kids have acted in a production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat—or at the very least, that they’ve seen some theatrical interpretation of the bible story on the stage of their school or summer camp. But it’s also probably safe to assume that most of them haven’t experienced the story of Joseph, the transgendered young man being bullied in high school. “It was an exploration of the gender binary, of the guy who doesn’t fit in, interspersed with deep themes of bullying and identity,” explains Charlie Schwartz, a Senior Jewish Educator and Director of BIMA and Genesis, two Brandeis University high school summer programs that offer intensive courses in the arts, sciences and technology, all within a Jewishly integrated communal campus experience.
Each summer, BIMA brings high school students from across the globe to the Brandeis University campus for a month to study dance, creative writing, music and theater. But BIMA is not regular old summer school. In fact, the Joseph theater project from last summer is just one example of the ways in which BIMA invites students to develop their artistic passions while simultaneously exploring their Jewish identity. Schwartz explains that in selecting participants for the program, he intentionally tries to create the most pluralistic community possible. “We have kids who identify as Jewish but do not practice any ritual at home, to kids whose first language is Yiddish. There’s a huge spectrum of observance and identity. They are coming to us from Long Island to Nashville to Kiev.”
Both the BIMA and Genesis programs are closely guided by principals of design thinking, which, as Schwartz explains, is a systematic approach to addressing challenges, to opening lines of dialogue within a community and to brainstorming the best ways to address communal needs. “While they’re taking these courses,” he adds, “the students also have to negotiate what it means to create a Jewish community here at BIMA and Genesis. They are not passive consumers, but rather, they use design thinking to consider how we approach sacred space.” For example, Schwartz explains, every Shabbat the community sits together and uses a design thinking process to decide what that particular Shabbat will look like. “Shabbat doesn’t happen to them, but rather, they design it, they craft it,” he says.
And students are supported in their design by a faculty comprised of experts in their respective fields. “We cast a wide net when looking for faculty,” Schwartz says. “We seek those with strong backgrounds in Judaism, in a textual or a cultural way, in addition to the emotional intelligence required to do good residential supervision, and the educational experience to teach intensive courses.” Schwartz speaks animatedly when describing the make-up of this summer’s BIMA faculty, which includes visual artist Batnadiv Hakarmi-Weinberg and Ellen Alt, writer Jon Papernick, collaborative theater maker Lynda Bachman, musicians Carroll Goldberg, Asia Meirovich, Jesse Regan Mann and Greg Wall and choreographer and dancer Mica Bernes.
“In general, since the way BIMA works is that there are Jewish elements in each of the majors, students get a high quality arts learning experience in a Jewish context,” Schwartz says. “More specifically, for example, Mica Barnes will work Jewish ideas into dance, tying larger Jewish ideas and questions and narrative aspects into the teaching of movement,” he explains.
In addition, every day at BIMA begins with an Artists’ Beit Midrash, where all the disciplines come together and focus on one central narrative for the length of their summer course. “The idea is that one narrative will be thought about and analyzed via the various artistic mediums,” Schwartz explains. “Text, dance, instrumental music, visual arts and creative writing—how might students from each of those genres consider something from the Adam and Eve narrative; what would it look like for a bunch of high school kids to interpret masechet chagigah?” he asks.
BIMA students also learn from community educators who live with the students in the residence halls. The community educators are generally in the midst of studying toward advanced degrees in Jewish education, and they come to BIMA with expertise in experiential education, too. “By coming on board for the summer, these community educators have an opportunity to learn and develop their own thinking on ways in which they might infuse Jewish education with arts education,” Schwartz says.
A typical day-in-the-life of a BIMA student might begin with morning yoga services, followed by breakfast and a trip to the Harvard University bookstore if you’re in the creative writing cohort or the Institute of Contemporary Art if you’re studying visual arts. For free time you might choose to swim, or read, or learn how to fix a flat tire (and why not?) In addition to time spent in more serious study with your instructor, you’ll likely be treated to an evening dance performance, film or discussion group.
Just one look at a sample schedule for a BIMA summer day is enough to make any would-be student—high school age or not—eager to pack their bags and head to Waltham, Massachusetts. And this summer, students from across the globe will do just that. “Our students are Jews from all over the world,” Schwartz explains, “the Former Soviet Union, Germany, Latin America, and many other places too. It’s a very level playing field,” he says. “Everyone is new, and everyone is experiencing what it means to be on a college campus for the first time.”
Being on a college campus for the first time can mean a myriad of things for new students. But for BIMA students, a few things are certain: they will encounter a community of artists, they will immerse in arts and culture, they will collaborate, and they will consider the “intersection of their identities: Jew and Artist.”
Not bad for a summer spent in school.
By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation