Diller Teen Fellows go to Israel
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Diller Teen Fellows go to Israel

MetroWest residents join a global cohort to learn — and have fun — together

Diller Teen Fellows are on the beach in Rishon LeZion.
Diller Teen Fellows are on the beach in Rishon LeZion.

Twenty MetroWest residents were among 350 Jewish high school sophomores and juniors from six countries who spent three weeks in Israel this month as part of their year-long Diller Teen Fellowship leadership program.

Each community is matched with an Israeli partner community. The MetroWest cohort joined up with 20 Israeli counterparts in Rishon LeZion, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv. They stayed locally and got to know the Israelis and their families. The two groups participated in community volunteering and other activities together.

“We have two groups of teens, one from Israel and one from New Jersey. Each with completely different backgrounds, and we learn from each other and bond,” said Gavin Emdur, 17, of Randolph.

“Whether it be dancing in a park, or touring a kibbutz, an imaginary bridge is created that connects our two communities on a deep level.”

The two groups helped set up and run an event called “Watermelon on Wheels,” the annual kickoff of the swimming season at Rishon LeZion’s accessible beach for people with disabilities and special needs. More than 200 people came.

“It was an amazing beach party where we danced with everybody,” Klara Har-El of Short Hills said. “There was a soap machine, too, and we were all throwing soap at each other. It was so much fun.”

The 17-year-old Milburn High School student acknowledged that “the language barrier was a little bit difficult, but we were all dancing and having so much fun, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I barely even noticed.”

Diller Teen Fellows meet on Sundays throughout the school year to hone their leadership skills, learn about societal issues in their communities that they can impact positively, and explore their personal relationship with Judaism, Israel, and the international Jewish community. To round out their Jewish pluralism and peoplehood experiences, they participate in local Shabbaton retreats.

Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff, coordinator of the Greater MetroWest group, said the summer seminar culminates this year-long program. Themed “Israel of Many Faces,” the itinerary was intended “to expose participants to the complexity of Israeli society while instilling a love of Israel.”

Accordingly, the fellows were introduced to a wide range of locals – LGBTQ people, residents of the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, and ultra-Orthodox – charedi — Jews.

From left, Diller Teen Fellows Madison Moskowitz, Joshua Metz, and Klara Har-El. (Dror Miler)

“It was really amazing to see how other sects of Jews live,” 17-year-old Madison Moskowitz of Maplewood said. “In Rishon LeZion, there were a few kids in our group who are Orthodox. Coming from Maplewood, where Jews are predominantly Reform, it’s a dramatic change to see how they’re living and observing Shabbat. We met a charedi couple during our first week of touring in Jerusalem and I’d never spoken with charedi Jews before. It was really informative.”

Madison said she is “bringing home a better understanding of the connection we have to Israel as Jews. I was here last summer and didn’t have the same experience I was able to have through Diller because all year I was learning about my Jewish identity.”

Speaking from the program’s Global Congress at a kibbutz in the northern city of Tel Hai, where all 350 international and 350 Israeli fellows were together for the final week, Klara said she was excited to connect with Diller Teen Fellows from places such as Buenos Aires.

“I’ve never met anyone from Argentina,” she said. “The fact that we’re all going through the same process and we’re able to connect with them and learn about each other’s communities and cultures is really cool. There’s so much energy; it’s great.”

The MetroWest contingent also met peers from Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Montreal, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and the United Kingdom.

Joshua Metz, a 16-year-old student at Westfield High School, said the highlight of the summer seminar for him was touring Israel with his friends from New Jersey.

“During the year, we have meetings, but being able to spend day after day with all these friends has made such great connections between us,” he said. “Just being able to share experiences with them in Israel was very, very fun.”

Joshua’s take-home message about Israel: “It’s very special for the Jewish people to be able to come back to a homeland that had been taken away 2,000 years ago. For me, to be able to spend time through Diller with 700 Jews from around the world that all have the same background as me is very special too.”

Jen Smith, executive director of the Helen Diller Family Foundation Programs, said, “At a time when our world can feel more fractured and divided than ever before, Diller Teen Fellows from across the globe are uniting to build understanding, create connections, and help repair the world. Diller serves as a foundational year that can impact the lifetime of a teen, as they explore their Jewish identity and the good they want to do in the world as a leader. While the goals, values, and mission of the program unite participants as one global Jewish family, each teen brings their own unique perspective, lived experience, and leadership qualities.”

Diller Teen Fellows is a program of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which supports programs and organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the world, with a focus on education, science, and the arts.

Another of the foundation’s programs is the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, honoring up to 15 extraordinary American teen leaders every year. Dylan Zajac of Hoboken is among the most recent cohort of awardees for his Computers 4 People project; it collects, refurbishes, and donates computers to individuals and organizations in under-resourced communities to promote equity and access to opportunity.

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