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.

A New Kind of Immersion

Leave the classroom and studio behind and come outside on the Helix Fellowship: 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 has been growing in depth and breadth since we launched in 2011. Starting in 2016, the project expanded to unfold over two years of collective study, community building, and cultural exploration. In Year One Helixers gather together for a 10–day intensive seminar at the end of summer, just prior to the start of the academic year.

In Year Two, the program culminates with Yiddishkayt’s trademark immersive arts and culture residency, traveling to Europe during the month of July. Over the course of these two residential summers, students, artists, activists, and educators 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, politics, and the arts, as well as young cultural activists and Helix alumni.

In July/August 2018, Helix participants gather for their first residential colloquium in Southern California. There, they take intensive 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. Over the 2018-2019 academic year, Helixers collaborate online and in person to launch new artistic projects inspired by the themes and figures they encounter during the summer.

The Helix learning and creating community is supported by a regular digital seminar in language and culture designed by Yiddishkayt’s expert faculty. In July 2019 Helixers set out for a life-changing journey in the Central and Eastern European borderlands.

You can help tell the story of Jewish life
filled with joy, community, and creative potential.

The Helix 2018–2019 application period is now closed. Check back for future opportunities.

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

No two days or experiences are alike on our program. 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 Students, 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 are enrolled during the 2018–2019 academic year) at an accredited degree-granting college or university; to artists who are working at the professional level in their field in any creative medium or discipline; and educators and activists (currently employed by or affiliated with a recognized institution) working with any age-group in any field. As part of the program’s commitment to teaching Jewish culture in a world-historical context, Helix 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?

Helix is facilitated by scholars and cultural producers working in history, literature, politics, languages and culture, alongside advanced graduate students working in these fields. Click here to learn more about our rotating faculty. 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. All applicants will answer a series of short essay questions, supply two letters of recommendation, and upload a short video about themselves. Student applicants must upload a transcript. Artists who are working at the professional level in their fields should apply using the artist application and upload samples or links to samples of their artistic work. Educators and community activists working at any age or specialization level should apply using the educator and activist application.

How long is the program?

The Helix Project unfolds over two calendar years. In late July/early August 2018 we offer a 10-day intensive colloquium in Southern California and regular online workshops during the fall. In 2019 we offer a spring online seminar program and a summer travel experience to Central and Eastern Europe that begins in Southern California and spans the full month of July. 2018 Helixers will be given the opportunity to apply for 2019 programming following the SoCal colloquium.

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.

Do I need to know Yiddish? Will I learn Yiddish on Helix?

Helix applicants don’t need any background in Yiddish. However, language students are encouraged to apply and will be able to use relevant primary sources during the program.

Helix programming deals with Yiddish and other relevant regional languages, depending on the interests and backgrounds of each unique cohort. However, Helix is a cultural history program, not a language intensive. If you are specifically interested in learning the Yiddish language, you can apply to a variety of summer programs listed here. We work to ensure that Helix doesn’t clash with other Yiddish programs, so that you can participate in a language program before joining us.

How much does Helix cost?

At a minimum, all participants are responsible for making their way to and from Los Angeles in time for the residential program start dates. Helixers cover the majority of their meals during the Year One summer colloquium as well as public transit and other incidental costs as needed.

All program costs are subsidized for all participants. The 2018 summer program fee is $3,000. This amount, heavily subsidized by generous contributions, includes tuition, accommodation, some transport, and some meals. Further scholarship aid is available and awarded based on need. Successful applicants will receive information on applying for aid and seeking funding from their institutions and communities.

2019 travel program costs are approximately $10,000 in total. This includes touring fees, entry to cultural sites, tuition, accommodation, most meals, air travel, and ground transport. Travel program contributions are assessed and negotiated on a case-by-case basis. In the past, the majority of participants have covered between 50-75% of these costs. Helix staff provide ongoing support for individual fundraising initiatives to help offset these costs.

Does the program include any religious group activities?

Helix does not observe any religious rituals as a group. Applicants must be available for programming every day of the 10–day colloquium, including some evening events, activities, and possible travel. Participants come from many different backgrounds and communities and we encourage you to share your own traditions and ideas with other Helixers, but we ask that all Helixers’ boundaries regarding religious beliefs be respected. Helix staff can assist participants to independently access religious communities and services during their stay in California.

Where can I ask a less frequently asked question?

Please write to us with any questions you might have!

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