Jacob Grunberger will be taking his first trip to Israel this summer. But the 17-year-old will get to see the country as few young Americans do. He is one of ‘6 high school students chosen for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a prestigious program that aims to be a training ground for the next generation of Jewish leaders.
The heart of the fellowship is a five-week trip to Israel, where the students will participate in seminars and dialogues with diverse rabbinic faculty. They also will spend a week with a group of Israeli peers chosen through a parallel selection process in Israel.
"I’m really looking forward to seeing Israel," Jacob said. "I’m so excited and appreciative of the opportunity to learn about the country this way."
The program seems to be tailor-made for Jacob. As president of Cresskill High School’s Model U.N. program and a member of the school’s debate and academic decathlon teams, he’s had years of experience expressing himself. He’s looking forward to gaining firsthand knowledge of the country, its people, and its complex political and social situations.
"It would be hypocritical for me to comment on things going on [in Israel] without having been there," he said.
And while this is his first trip to Israel, Jacob is no stranger to travel. Two years ago he spent the summer in China, and last year he interned with a barrister in London.
"When I went to China, I learned so much from being there. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to Israel," he continued.
Jacob had no thoughts of going to Israel, and had never heard of the Bronfman Fellowship there, before his SAT tutor, Betty Faber, suggested it last year.
"We knew about Birthright Israel, but had never heard about this," Jacob’s mother, Julie Grunberger, explained.
Jacob was a little skeptical until he learned that the Bronfman program seeks out Jews from all ends of the religious spectrum. The family was affiliated with Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, but Jacob describes himself as "not religious." The fact that the Bronfman Fellowship is committed to Jewish pluralism and social responsibility sold him.
"[Jacob’s father] Ivan and I have been to Israel, but Jacob’s never gone," his mother said. "Israel is a complicated country. He’ll get to see the country firsthand, in depth. He’ll get so many different points of view. I think it will be a remarkable experience for Jacob. He’s got an incredible, inquiring mind."
This year’s participants in the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel come from 1′ U.S. states and Canada, and represent the diversity of Jews in the two countries. Jacob, who is one of three New Jersey participants, was chosen for his academic achievements, demonstrated leadership, and commitment to serving others. For several years he was involved in Save Darfur, the organization dedicated to calling attention to the suffering of Darfur’s people at the hands of a government-sponsored militia. As part of his bar mitzvah, he raised money for an orphanage in Ethiopia.
Now in its ”nd year, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel is designed to "educate and inspire young Jews from diverse backgrounds to become active participants in Jewish culture throughout their lives, and to contribute their talents and vision to the Jewish community and the world at large."
As part of its commitment to building leadership, the ‘6 participants will meet in New York after the summer for a follow-up seminar. Students will write theses based on journals they will keep during their trip, and will commit to at least 40 hours of volunteer service. They will meet again in December, where they will be joined by the Israeli students they met during the summer.
To Julie and Ivan Grunberger, the program is a perfect fit for their son.
"Both Jacob and his brother, Lucas, are very travel-oriented," their mother said. "They’ve always been adventurous. Jacob is the type of kid who takes initiatives. He’s very driven."
She added that while Jacob is already a leader in his school, he is still at the cusp of his potential.
"We’re really excited. He’s got a good contribution to make," she said.