the helix project

immerse yourself in culture

Helix Project 2015

Art and Culture on the Borderlands of Europe


Daugavpils, Latvia

Known as Dvinsk and Dunaburg, this town on Duna River was home to rabbis, revolutionaries, and artists — such as Mark Rothko born here in 1903. An art center at the city fortress is dedicated to his memory.


Vitebsk, Belarus

Close to the Russian border, this city became a center of early Soviet art and art education.

Helix — A New Kind of Immersion

Leave the classroom and studio behind and come outside to the Helix Project: a fresh, revolutionary approach to cultural history. Helix is an immersive residential summer program that transforms scholars, artists, and activists into cultural archaeologists.

The Helix Project has been growing in depth and breadth since we launched in 2011. Starting in 2016, Helix expanded to unfold over two years of collective study, community building, and cultural exploration. In even years, students coalesce as a group and gather together for a 10–day intensive seminar at the end of summer, just prior to the start of the academic year. The program culminates with Yiddishkayt’s trademark month-long immersive residency in Europe.  Over the course of these two summers students, artists and scholars immerse themselves in regions that for centuries sustained a vibrant and dynamic multi-ethnic civilization before the genocidal devastation of the twentieth century.

Each part of the program is curated and led by leading scholars of history, literature, and politics, as well as young cultural activists and Helix alumni. Year One of the Helix Project begins with a series of digital collaborative learning modules. In August, Helix participants gather for their first residential colloquium in Southern California. There, they take intensive crash courses in the languages, history, and culture of Eastern European life, while also learning and practicing methods of mindful listening and discussion, all skills necessary for our unorthodox style of study and travel.

Help tell the story of Jewish life filled with joy, community, and creative potential.

Check back here in December 2017 for the 2018 Helix Application!

open your borders

The geographical focus of our residential program in Europe is the area that was once home to the majority of the world’s Jewish population. We crisscross historical, political, and linguistic borders every day of our journey, using Yiddish language and culture as a guiding lens for examining the complex hybridities and connections that developed in these culturally diverse spaces.

Drawing from the great literary, folkloric, and political traditions of Yiddish-speaking Jews, we literally follow the footsteps of poets, artists, and activists who drew inspiration from these very lands and cityscapes where they lived, worked, and dreamed.

All the while, we aim to practice the principle of doïkayt, or “being present,” avoiding tautologies and valuing the power of places and moments both historical and contemporary.

make the past present

In our groundbreaking residential programs, no two days or experiences are alike. Over the course of the two years, Helix participants engage in in-depth study of cultural history and dynamics. They acquire the skills and resources to examine culture as a crucial bridge that connects personal histories to the present globalized world of displaced people, immigrants, and exiles. Helixers learn local languages, interview elderly residents about their memories of pre-war inter-communal relations, use old maps to search for the remains of pillars of community life, or read Yiddish literature while immersed in the physical and historical context in which it was written, both at home and abroad.

As cultural archaeologists, we are constantly uncovering all-too-often ignored histories of political activism and cultural exchange. In turn, we channel inspiration from our findings into new, creative productions relevant to today’s world.


Summer 2018

❶ The Helix colloquium meets in Southern California for an intensive week of workshops with scholars and artists.


Fall 2018–Spring 2019

❷ Artists and scholars engage in small group learning throughout the year in person and online.


July 2019

❸ Helix students and artists gather again in Southern California to form a creative and immersive learning community.


Summer 2019

❹ Helix participants head out to the borderlands of Eastern Europe for three weeks of cultural exploration the landscapes of Yiddish culture.


After Helix

❺ Scholars, activists, performers and visual artists return to their work to apply the insights of the experience and continue working with the supportive community created with Helix.

frequently asked helix questions

Helix teaches that no culture or history can be understood without its local context. The creative coexistence of Jews with their neighbors demonstrates precisely this. Jewish culture is not examined as particular cultural property or as a way to turn inward, but rather as an opportunity to see how people of differing nationalities, languages, and religions can create together. Visiting these places where Jews once lived — but live no longer — also shows, in the most palpable way, the terrible dangers of insularity and intolerance.

Helix is open to full-time students (who have been enrolled during the 2017–2018 academic year) at an accredited degree-granting college or university; to artists who are working at the professional level in their fields (in literature, visual and performing arts, music, or film and video production); as well as to cultural activists and educators. As part of the program’s commitment to teaching Jewish culture in a world-historical context, it is open to participants of all backgrounds who wish to explore this culture in the most creative, direct, and personal way possible — and regardless of financial status.

Who are the Helixers?

Helix is open to all students, professional artists, and cultural activists and educators. Helix students must be a full-time student enrolled at an accredited, degree-granting college or university at the time of your application.

Who leads the project?

The Helix is facilitated by scholars of Jewish history, literature, and culture, alongside advanced graduate students in these fields. Helix alumni from previous years also join the program as resident assistants and to facilitate colloquia.

How do I apply?

You will need to fill out and submit our online application, which will be made active the in December 2017. Student applicants must upload a transcript and send two letters of recommendation (at least one must be from a faculty member at your school) directly to the Los Angeles offices of Yiddishkayt (address at the bottom of the page). The student application closes after the first week in April 2016.

Artists who are working at the professional level in their fields should apply using the artist application (posted in December 2017) and upload samples or links to samples of their artistic work. A different application, along with a series of essay questions is provided for cultural activists and educators.

How long is the program?

The Summer 2018 residential program begins in Los Angeles mid-August and, including travel time, lasts just over one week. During the 2018-19 academic year there are a series of online and in-person immersive learning experiences. The 2019 traveling residency in Europe will span the month of July, beginning with four days in Southern California. Participants are given the opportunity to apply for the subsidized international residency program in January 2019.

Can I get university credit for this if I am a full-time student?

This is up to your own university. While this is certainly an intensive academic program, we are not a credit-granting institution. We encourage participants to find out whether the program can be counted for credit at their colleges and universities.

Where can I ask a less frequently asked question?

Please write to us with any questions you might have!

The Helix Project is made possible thanks in part to the generous support of the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, Kronhill Pletka Foundation, the Les Paley Fund for New Yiddish Culture, Erwin Rautenberg Foundation, and the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Many American Jews today, some of my family included, have written off the countries we visited on Helix as too full of anti-Semites or terrible memories. These layers are painfully present, but they are far from the only historical narratives worth looking at. Traveling with the Helix Project, I saw an Eastern Europe full of nuance. One in which Jews and Christians intermingled in early 20th century towns, where Jews fell across the political spectrum, and where some present day Polish historians and guides passionately promote Jewish history.

Ella • Johns Hopkins University

The best thing I’ve taken away from the Helix Project is a new energy to explore my own city. I want to find more out about how in Melbourne we have resisted together, forged cross-cultural dialogue and built multiculturalism for ourselves. What the Helix Project teaches us is that if we really look, then we can find those things.

Clare • Monash University

All of this cultural exploration, of course, presents us with questions which are just waiting to be investigated: Who were these writers writing for? What is the political significance of their work? Their language? How might they have been influenced by current social trends? The exploration of these difficult yet vital questions was a part of Yiddish that, for whatever reason, seemed to have eluded me. Helix not only brought many of these issues to the fore for me, it made them tangible.

Max • Harvard Divinity School

How can you understand history? How to fathom how these things could have happened? How to think about what it all meant — or didn’t mean — to ancestors, and what anything means or should mean or can mean to us now? I never used to worry over these questions. I stopped taking history classes because I didn’t think it was possible to answer them. Right now, I think that what Helix taught me is that they have no answers, but that’s what makes looking for them so meaningful.

Nathalie • Yale University

Overall, Helix gave me clarity on the region and provided me with tools to help reconcile, engage with, and understand the Jewish past and present of Eastern Europe. I greatly value the interactions I had on Helix, whether they were with local Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians or my fellow group participants (American and Australian!). It was a special time warp experience chock full of music, literature and history that I will cherish.

Adam • Brandeis University