This summer, Gideon Finck of Ridgewood will join the ranks of close to 500 other high school students from across the continent who have completed the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, an intensive program meant to strengthen Jewish identity and create new Jewish leaders.
Funded by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the fellowship takes students on a five-week program of study and travel in Israel. Upon returning, fellows are asked to perform 40 hours of community service. This year, ‘6 11th-grade students were chosen from 1’ states and Canada. Finck was the only student chosen from New Jersey.
The 17-year-old Gideon, who will begin his senior year at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union Counties in the fall, applied for the fellowship with the desire to expand his understanding of his Jewish identity and how he views being Jewish.
"That’s the reputation that [the fellowship] has," Gideon told The Jewish Standard. "Not even that it will strengthen the identity, it will change the identity."
Some of Gideon’s cousins had completed the fellowship program and their enthusiastic referrals encouraged him to apply.
"Everyone I know who has gone with the fellowship said it was a real life-changing experience and the best thing they’ve ever done and I wanted to be able to say that," he said.
Brought up in a Conservative home, Gideon has attended Schechter day schools since first grade. For the past two years, he interned as a teen docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, leading tours of the permanent exhibit for children’s groups and families. He is also the editor of the arts and entertainment section of his school newspaper, The Flame.
The Bronfman Fellowships received 300 applications this year from across the United States and Canada, of which only 60 were interviewed.
"It’s a very competitive application process," said Ava Charne, administrative director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. "We’re looking for students who identify as Jewish and who are outstanding."
Past fellows include Jonathan Tepperman, senior editor of Foreign Affairs; Noah Oppenheim, a producer of the "Today" show; Jonathan Safron Foer, the author of "Everything is Illuminated"; and Tali Farhadian, a Rhodes scholar and a former Supreme Court clerk.
"Our program is very selective," said Rabbi Shimon Felix, executive director of the fellowship program. "We are looking for the best and the brightest, and acceptance often is helpful in terms of college applications."
Gideon is not certain yet where he will end up after high school. However, he does have a strong interest in philosophy and the humanities, which he may study in college. One of his ambitions, though, according to his mother, Harriet Finck, is to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Gideon has been to Israel before with his parents to visit family, but this, he said, would be his first trip for "more intellectual pursuits." Although he considers the stay in Israel to be a large part of the fellowship, it is not his main interest in the program. Rather, the opportunity to get to know other fellows and hear their points of view is what really attracted him to the program.
"Part of the mission of the program is to take Jews from different backgrounds and that to me sounds like the best idea in the world," he said. "Judaism is like any other group: There are so many subdivisions and there isn’t enough communication."
Bridging that communication gap is a goal Gideon’s mother is very happy to see her son embracing, and she thanks the fellowship program for fostering that.
"I think it’s such an interesting opportunity because it’s post-denominational," said Harriet Finck, "even though he’s been raised as a Conservative and has a lot of Orthodox relatives. The future of Judaism is in what happens next, and this group is doing it. It’s trying to dig into what’s real in Judaism and doing it with kids who haven’t formed prejudices yet."
Edgar Bronfman Sr. created the fellowship in 1987 in order to create a leadership community of talented young North American Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds, Felix said. Those leaders would be committed to, and inspire others to a commitment to, pluralism, Jewish study, a relationship with Israel, and social action. In the past, fellowships have included study of contemporary and traditional Jewish texts from the Bible and Talmud to modern writers like Martin Buber. The group also examines the meaning of ancient sites like the Western Wall and Masada in modern life. Past guest speakers have included Benjamin Netenyahu, Shimon Peres, and A.B. Yehoshua.
"During the course of their summer in Israel, we educated and inspire our fellows to these values, along with a commitment to the Jewish people and their heritage," Felix said, "with the hope that, as young leaders, they will disseminate these values to the community at large."