Across oceans and across worlds

Diller Teen Fellows pairs up communities in Israel and the Diaspora to engage in the next generation of leaders.

Diller teens from Miami visit their partner city of Yeroham (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diller teens from Miami visit their partner city of Yeroham
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s been called the best-kept secret in the Jewish world. The Diller Teen Fellows program, which with 3,000 alumni has fostered a generation of young Jewish leaders around the world, is marking 18 years since its inception.
Initiated in San Francisco in 1998, the program today includes 26 partnership communities, where a group of 10th and 11th graders are selected by each community for the 15-month-long leadership program.
“The Diller Teen Fellows program is much more than a one-time trip to Israel,” said Mark Reisbaum, senior director of philanthropic engagement of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and treasurer of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. “It’s a chance for teens to explore their own Jewish communities as well as the communities of their Israeli partners.”
The Diller Teen Fellows program engages nearly 600 teens from across Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa who participate in leadership training, exploring Jewish identity and values, while building ties to Israel and networking with the Jewish world. The participants also take part in local community impact projects and alumni initiative projects, once they have completed the program.
“Today, young people have to choose to have a relationship with Israel – once it was a given. Young people have to have a real experience with Israel to understand what the country is about and to understand their own Jewish identity,” Reisbaum told the Magazine.
“The selected group of teens reflect the Jewish diversity of their community – economically, socially, politically, culturally, and the multiple ways of being Jewish,” explains Adam Weisberg, the director of the Diller Teen Initiatives, in regard to the Diller participants both in Israel and abroad.
To be accepted, the applicants undergo a rigorous nomination and interview process. Once accepted into the highly selective program, the diverse group of students participate in 12 local workshops, two local Shabbatonim (weekend events), an array of community events, and two seminars.
The seminars entail a 10- to 12-day visit by the Israeli participants to their partner communities outside of Israel, while the summer seminar includes an intensive three-week visit to Israel.
SARA ABEBE, who participated in the Diller Teen Fellows program seven years ago, believes there is no other program in the Jewish world that comes close to Diller. She took part in the program when the branch first opened in 2008 for Beersheba and the Bnei Shimon Regional Council in the northern Negev, which are partnered with Montreal, Canada.
“It seems that all you are really interested in when you are 15 are your friends, your clothes, your music – you don’t really think about Jews in the Diaspora.
But being in the Diller program gave me a chance to think about what it means to be Jewish and to live in Israel,” she told the Magazine.
“I remember that during one Diller meeting we talked about why it’s a good thing that there are Jews living outside of Israel – and that was a very serious conversation for us teens,” she recalled.
Abebe, whose parents made aliya from Ethiopia in 1991, also recounted how the Diller program gave her the opportunity to meet other Israelis she never would have met outside her Beersheba circle.
“One of my best friends to this day is a kibbutznik, thanks to Diller. I got to learn about kibbutz life, which is not something you ever experience living in a periphery city, like Beersheba.”
She continued, “In Israel, it’s clear that we are Jewish, that we are Israeli; you buy Bamba [snacks] and you keep Yom Kippur. There are holidays and traditions that we follow as a collective.
But outside our country, it’s not always so clear how to be Jewish.”
Abebe said her experience in Diller influenced her army service – she served as a commander in the Nativ program, which provides Jewish identity and heritage education to new-immigrant IDF soldiers.
“I consider myself secular,” said Abebe.
“And here I was teaching Judaism to soldiers who are going to convert. Diller helped me to connect with Judaism and understand the concept of “tikkun olam” – the responsibility we have for the world.”
Following her completion of the Diller Teen Fellows program, Abebe took part in a two-week Diller project, where the alumni of her program’s year traveled to her parents’ native Ethiopia to deliver medical and school supplies and to help build a school.
“That was such a powerful experience,” she recalled.
“It’s so important for our country to educate youth to be better, to be more reflective and to make wise decisions,” emphasized Abebe, who, having finished her two-year army service, is now traveling the US before she returns to Israel to study.
ON THE other side of the ocean, Noam Blauer, from Montreal, shared the way Diller has most recently impacted his life as a student at McGill University.
Blauer is pursuing a double major in philosophy and English literature and is active on his campus Hillel.
“Diller showed me that Judaism is not a given and to never take anything for granted. The program gave me the platform to learn to question everything – which is a wonderful Jewish tradition that is not necessarily accessible to 16-year-olds,” said Blauer, who grew up in Montreal and attended a Jewish school there. He participated in the Diller program as a 10th grader and went on to be a junior Diller counselor as a high-school senior.
Regarding his experiences on campus, Blauer says he encounters anti-Semitism quite often.
“When it comes to the discourse about Israel on campus, it’s so shrouded by anti-Semitism,” says Blauer, who describes himself as a leftist. “I want to create a better conversation about Israel on campus. My experiences at Diller are helping me think out how I can better respond to the anti-Israel dialogue among students.”
Echoing Blauer, Ally Weiner shares her college experiences following her participation in the Diller Teen Fellows as a 10th-grader in Baltimore, which is partnered with Ashkelon.
“I went to public high school and was looking for a way to connect with Israel and the Jewish community,” she says.
“I had never been to Israel before the Diller program, so spending that week in Ashkelon with my host family during the Diller seminar week was such an amazing experience.
“I really connected to Ashkelon and my Israeli friends. Just hearing about the rocket attacks on Ashkelon on the news makes me appreciate that city a lot more today.”
Weiner carried her Diller experience into college as a film major.
“After all the BDS stuff going on in universities, I wanted to show a different face of Israel for my final film project in my senior year,” she told the Magazine.
Weiner ended up traveling back to Israel to film her Israeli friends, with whom she had stayed in touch ever since her Diller experience as a 10th grader, and who were now serving in the IDF.
“I interviewed and filmed my friends about their army service experience and had to get all kinds of special clearances to go to their army base for this documentary,” Weiner recalled.
“When I screened my film, Defending Israel, to my professors and classmates, they were surprised to see what the typical post-high-school experience for an Israeli is like – obviously very different from ours in America. It was actually really interesting for my classmates and instructors to see that side of Israeli life up close.”
FOR THE Diller program to function, it follows a complex structure that entails several layers. A local advisory committee exists in each participating community, alongside a program supervisor, a federation representative (for North American communities), a program coordinator who manages all aspects of the program, as well as junior Diller counselors who are high school seniors, and program interns who are Diller alumni in college.
Sue Linzer, a representative for the Pittsburgh Federation, commented that Diller provided the Jewish community of Pittsburgh (partnered with Karmiel-Misgav) with the framework to invest in teen leadership programming.
“We’ve seen the impact on teens, families and communities. It’s inspiring to see how Jewish leadership develops at that stage,” she said.
“I’ve dedicated most of my professional life to working with youth and seeing how important it is to build that lifelong connection with Israel, the people and the land – and to see students become strong advocates for Israel on campus,” said Linzer, who taught modern Israel studies in the formal classroom for many years in Pittsburgh.
The Diller Teen Fellows program is made possible by the philanthropy of the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the local sponsoring communities.
Helen Diller was born and raised in San Francisco, which was the first community to be partnered in the Diller Teen Fellows program with the Upper Galilee.
Today the Diller program has expanded beyond North America to South Africa (Johannesburg is partnered with Beit Shemesh, and Cape Town with Shoham) and Melbourne, Australia (partnered with the Golan Heights).
Diller’s international staff are now eyeing Buenos Aires and potentially Europe.
Helen Diller, who died in January, believed that it is never too late or too early or too often to give back and make the world a better place.
“As a mom, grandma and someone who cared a lot about the Jewish community, Helen believed you had to reach Jewish teens at the earliest time,” recalled Mark Reisbaum.
BUT PERHAPS the person who best exemplifies the impact that the Diller Teen Fellows program has had on a community level is Michael Biton, the mayor of Yeroham. Biton, who grew up in Yeroham, the son of Moroccan immigrant parents, has been mayor of the northern Negev city with a population of 11,000 for the past five years.
“The Diller Teen Fellows program is so important to us – it’s the only Jewish leadership program that I can offer the kids of my city,” he told the Magazine.
“Diller allows the kids of Yeroham to be part of the global Jewish world. Just because they are living in the periphery, in the desert, doesn’t mean that they should be cut off from the international Jewish community,” said Biton.
Yeroham’s partner community is Miami. According to Biton, Yeroham is made up of a diverse population, with new immigrants and veteran Israelis, with children who come from stronger socioeconomic families and those from weaker ones.
“Diller gives our kids, no matter what their background is, a chance to participate in an exceptional program,” related Biton.
“The program allows our kids to gain confidence, develop leadership skills and improve their English. It opens their world," emphasized Biton.