Teenage volunteers bring songs and seder joy to Laguna Honda

As the upbeat words and melody of "Dayenu" filled the community room at Laguna Honda Hospital, heads began bobbing, feet began tapping and some residents even began singing.

To 17-year-old Heather Barondess, one of about a dozen high-school students who helped organize Sunday's Passover seder, the scene at the city-owned long-term care facility was revealing.

"The most important thing is that the residents had a good time and were able to come in touch with a part of their Judaism," she said. "We were able to give them a Passover when they ordinarily might not have had it."

Barondess, a senior at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, is one of 20 Bay Area students selected to take part in the inaugural year of the Israel Center's Diller Teen Fellow program.

During 1997-98, the teens are taking part in Jewish community service projects — including the seder — that are designed to foster leadership and social action skills among students. Others are involved in publishing a Jewish teen magazine, creating a mural depicting Jewish identity and producing a documentary video about Israeli and American teenagers.

The program is underwritten by the Helen and Sanford Diller Family Philanthropic Fund of the Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund.

The students, who also receive cultural, spiritual and political leadership training, will travel to Israel this summer. While there, they will meet with teen leaders, build cultural ties and participate in community outreach projects.

Jackie Diller Safier, the daughter of Sanford and Helen Diller, said the seder underscored the purpose of the teen program.

"My family is very excited and committed to education and community involvement by youth," she said as she helped students fill seder plates with matzahs and hard-boiled eggs. "This seder is a great example of both. It's so exciting to see."

Only about 30 of 1,200 Laguna Honda Hospital residents are Jewish — which made bringing Passover to them all the more imperative, some of the teens said.

"Reaching out to Jews everywhere, wherever they might be, is one of the main goals of the Diller program," said 16-year-old Emma Schwartz, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco. "With the seder, we were able to bring some light into these people's lives."

The hourlong seder included traditional holiday foods. Rabbi Jeffery Silberman of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center led the ceremony, while Diller Teen Fellows and other teen volunteers fanned out around the long table to mingle and visit with residents.

Most of the residents have disabilities, and some are on restricted diets and can't eat some of the traditional seder foods. But the event was a much-appreciated one, said Silberman, who has conducted seders at Laguna Honda Hospital for about five years.

"An event like this is difficult because Passover is about the Exodus, but these people are bound by this facility and by their illness. They don't have their freedom. The value of the Diller Teens is that they have brought the outside Jewish community within these walls."

Hospital resident Charles Levinson spoke for many of those who attended in expressing his appreciation.

"Keeping the Jewish spirit alive is so important," he said as he pushed his wheelchair back toward his room. "So many of us here are challenged in so many ways, so it's great when people come in and expose us to the outside and to being Jewish."