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Byline: Lisa Mascaro Daily News Staff Writer

Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin first attended the Brandeis-Bardin Institute on a whim during a summer break from college in 1984, but he went back a few years later with nothing short of a life's purpose.

``I was just really deeply moved by the power of a lot of things at that place - the scholars, the pluralism, the beauty of the place,'' said Bernat-Kunin, now director of Jewish studies at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.

The then-Harvard University junior had planned on becoming a political consultant until the visit to the institute led him to a career as an educator. ``It definitely had a transforming impact on the rest of my life.''

From area rabbis and teachers to national political leaders, the Jewish intellectual community often finds common ground at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

Nestled in the hills above Simi Valley, the facility provides a rare mix of culture, academics and spiritual formation that crosses the movements within Judaism to create something like a thinking person's getaway.

More than 10,000 visitors annually attend the institute to study with the best and brightest Jewish thinkers - from writer Amoz Oz to National Public Radio correspondent Linda Gradstein - listen to concerts under the stars and meditate along the tree-lined grounds about what it means to be a Jew.

``They're really taught to question - by having an inquisitive mind, they may get some answers,'' said Joseph A. Wapner, the former ``People's Court'' judge who is president of the board of directors.

``It's a spiritual thing. It also helps them in the real world - it isn't just talk and doing things by rote,'' he said. ``By listening and learning and questioning, they just grow.''

As the new year begins today in the Jewish community with celebrations of Rosh Hashana in homes and temples, the 57-year-old institute prepares for a new era, bringing in new administration and starting a $5 million capital campaign to expand its facilities and mission.

Wapner will be stepping down in December after six years on the board and longtime director Alvin Mars is leaving in the fall to open the nation's first Jewish prep boarding school in North Carolina.

The institute, whose supporters include Stephen Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, has tapped Los Angeles attorney Helen Zukin to take the presidency and oversee hiring a new top administrator.

Zukin plans to create a national conference center on the institute's grounds and expand its reach to a broader population of Jews and non-Jews nationwide.

``One of our challenges is to make sure we are better known so we can touch more people,'' said Zukin, who represented the institute in a recent lawsuit against neighboring Rocketdyne in which the two sides reached an undisclosed settlement. ``The institute needs to grow in a way that reaches out to more people. We have never intended to be insular.''

Founded in 1941 by the late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and educator Shlomo Bardin, the institute settled six years later on donated land in Ventura County that became home to a spiritual think tank for the then-growing Jewish community.

Leaving doctrine behind, the institute welcomes Jews who celebrate the sabbath each weekend as well as those who haven't stepped foot in a temple in years.

Young and old come to the 3,000-acre facility, children attend summer camps, young adults study at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, newlyweds stay in quaint cabins for couples workshops and families participate in a traditional tree planting on the vast grounds every Mother's Day.

``We're not a synagogue. We're not a religious movement. We're here to turn people on,'' said Mars. ``You can find your Judaism through your feet through choreography, through your mind, through politics and political bantering.''

He added, ``That can be very discouraging for people who are looking for the truth.''

The hope, as Mars puts it, is that no sooner than Jews arrive at the rural grounds they find what they are looking for - leaving with a renewed quest to make a difference in the world.

``The mission and vision of this place is really to enhance the world. That is the mission we believe of our people,'' said Mars. ``I hope what they take with them is the inspiration to repair not only themselves but to repair the world.''

Tandy Westmiller, 16, just returned from a summer spent at the institute's camp - complete with swimming pools, horses and arts - where she has been training to become a counselor.

The Thousand Oaks High School student said she liked learning about Jewish traditions and customs and celebrating the Sabbath.

But mostly she likes thinking about being Jewish.

``It didn't really make an impact on me to do more Jewish things; it made an impact on me to learn about being Jewish,'' said Westmiller, who is considering becoming a pilot after graduating from high school. ``There's so much more to being Jewish than just going to temple.''

The youth is in good company. The summer camp draws young people from across the nation and the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a 26-day program for college-age adults, has been a stopover for young people the Jewish community. Institute programs have drawn leaders such as former Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, local Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

``That has probably touched more leaders in the American Jewish community than any other program,'' said Bernat-Kunin.

But many in and outside the institute believe Brandeis-Bardin could reach even more people with a broader marketing campaign and develop as a national center for Jewish dialogue.

The institute operates on a few million dollars annually, said spokesman Jeff Kramer, mostly from donations, grants and fees for programs, which range from $1,400 for three weeks at summer camp to $15 for an afternoon Shabbat service.

This fall, the institute will start a $5 million capital campaign to expand the summer camp from about 225 kids each three-week session to 300, and improve facilities.

Plus, incoming President Zukin has hopes for expanding the institute's programs and reach.

``The word just hasn't gotten out as well as it should have,'' said Wapner. ``I will continue to work on that because it needs work.''

In many ways, the challenges facing the institute reflect those in the Jewish community since Brandeis and Bardin founded the institute in 1941.

The facility was established as war was building in Europe and Brandeis, a Zionist, was working to unite Jews in the creation of the state of Israel. He died in 1941, months after the first summer camp was held, leaving Bardin to carry on the plans.

``It grew up at a particular part in history by a set of circumstances and happenstances. We weren't as fractious as we are today,'' said Mars.

Still, the mission remains close to the same as it was when Bardin took the helm of the institute, which he directed until his death in 1976.

``Our purpose is not to hold on to people,'' he said. ``We want to grab hold of people and put them out there.''


3 Photos

PHOTO (1--Color) ``One of our challenges is to make sure we are better known so we can touch more people.''

- Helen Zukin

Incoming president

(2--Color) Alvin Mars, longtime facility director, is leaving the institute in the fall to open the nation's first prep boarding school for Jewish students in North Carolina.

(3--Color) The House of the Book structure at Brandeis-Bardin contributes to a focus on Jewish culture.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Special to the Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1998 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 20, 1998

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