Boston Commons

A writer finds connections with a variety of Jewish teens in the Genesis program at Brandeis University.

The Genesis journalism class poses with anchors from New England Cable News in Boston. 

We decorated the walls in Hogwarts house colors  — red, green, blue and yellow — and made a Deathly Hallows sign from duct tape. We put the round tables into four rows, like the four house tables in the Great Hall, and gave people slips of paper with the different House names written on them informing students of their assigned rows. 

Some of us performed a dvar Torah drama that merged J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series with the week’s parashah. Two guys improvised Harry Potter-themed entertainment; two girls ran in screaming “Troll! Troll in the dungeon!” like Professor Quirrell did in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” We sang a niggun to the tune of the Harry Potter theme.

Although it may seem offbeat to combine Harry Potter and Jewish ritual, it was just another Shabbat lunch at Genesis. An academic program at Brandeis University for Jewish high school students, Genesis was my home for a month last summer. Along with 75 other teenagers from all over the world, I experienced the perfect combination of education, fun and diversity.

Participants in the Genesis program at Brandeis University. The author is third from the right. The teens ranged in religious observance from a Lubavitch girl to one who never attended Hebrew school or celebrated her bat mitzvah. My friends hailed from places such as California, Vermont, Canada, Israel and Russia. I feel so blessed to know these amazing people and am so glad that I’ve managed to keep in touch with so many of them months after Genesis ended. (In the photo, the author is the third person from the right.)

The main part of Genesis was the courses: journalism, law, social entrepreneurship, innovation and revolution and world religions. I was a member of the journalism class. As part of the course, we took a trip to the Christian Science Monitor’s offices and observed an editing session. I found it really fascinating to witness how headlines are chosen and which articles are sent to print.

We also visited the studio of New England Cable News, NBC’s New England affiliate. After a tour of the station we sat in on the morning news broadcast. It was cool to meet the anchors and see the inner workings of broadcast news.

In the final weeks of the program, we wrote news articles and produced a broadcast piece. I chose to cover the tensions between the LGBT and Orthodox Jewish communities. I enjoyed researching my topic and compiling the information. While I’ve written and published a lot of articles, I usually write opinion pieces, so it was a challenge for me to write an unbiased, nonpartisan, truly journalistic piece. All of our articles were published in an online newspaper we called The Genesis and I went on to publish my article in several other media outlets. (You can read it at http://bit.ly/UNKiXp.)

I was also in a mini-class (which we called an expedition) titled Tell Me A Story. We explored storytelling and the preservation of people’s stories, especially those from members of marginalized groups. After learning about different modes of storytelling we presented stories that we collected.

I interviewed Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and an indispensable player in the women’s rights movement. I wrote a piece from her perspective about her life experiences and accomplishments. Since I’m an active feminist, it was great to be able to discuss women’s silenced history and how to fix that problem for future generations.

There was a lot of unstructured time at Genesis too. We went on three major trips: Harvard Square, downtown Boston and Newport, R.I. It was so much fun to explore these areas with a group of friends. Considering Harvard is my top-choice college, it was great to see the university and hang out in the surrounding area. Getting to eat at J.P. Licks, the kosher ice cream store, was definitely a bonus!

I also went with a small group to Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh (ritual bath) in Newton, Mass. Although it’s not traditional for unmarried women to immerse, I did so anyway. I had no particular reason to immerse; I did it because I could. Mayyim Hayyim is a beautiful mikvah that is often described as spa-like and it was great to be there.

In addition to the Harry Potter Shabbat lunch, I spearheaded a Shabbat activity about Jewish feminism. Twenty male and female participants attended; they represented various denominations, sexual orientations, political ideologies and levels of feminist involvement.

I facilitated a conversation about mechitza, the partition separating genders in traditional synagogues, and about possible roles for women in Jewish leadership. We also had an impromptu discussion about religious feminism and agunot (women whose husbands refuse to issue Jewish divorce papers). It was an amazing conversation that lasted for more than two hours and I think everyone in attendance left with broadened horizons.

I adored being at Genesis and will always cherish the memories I made. There was never a dull moment and I would strongly recommend the program to any Jewish high school student, regardless of denomination. I’m hoping to intern there during my college years so I can experience Genesis again.

Although I left Brandeis many months ago, I still talk about it incessantly and bring it up in almost every conversation. (I’m sure you think I’m exaggerating. Take it from my friends, I’m not.) Since I come from a homogeneous community, I’m really happy that Genesis gave me the chance to befriend all types of people from so many different places. I’m still in touch with most of them, whether it’s through Skype, chat, email or old-fashioned letters. I really miss the safe, accepting, pluralistic environment that was Genesis and wish I were still there!

Applications for the Genesis program are available at http://www.brandeis.edu/highschool/genesis/apply/index.html
They’re due Feb. 15, 2013. 

author's bio: 
Talia Weisberg is a senior at Manhattan High School for Girls.

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