Teens take on leadership roles through community service

After nine summers at Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow, Iliana Berkowitz feels confident enough in her clowning to bring it to the masses.

“I just want to do something silly that people can laugh at,” says the 17-year-old high school senior from Palo Alto. So Berkowitz boards the Route 22 bus line on the Peninsula every Saturday morning dressed up as a clown, just to make passengers smile.

In 2005, Berkowitz was one of 20 local teens selected to become a Diller Teen Fellow, an innovative program for 11th graders designed to inspire leadership among Jewish youth in the Bay Area.

Diller Teen Fellows spend seven Sundays during the year exploring their Jewish identity, learning leadership skills and performing community service. They also go away for two intensive weekend retreats, followed by a three-week summer seminar in Israel.

They learn firsthand the “role that Israel plays in our lives,” says Ilan Vitemberg, who runs the Diller Teen program out of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s office in San Francisco.

Two years ago, however, Diller Teen Fellows said they wanted a sort of encore after coming home from Israel. They were eager to do something real and significant in their community, Vitemberg says.

And this is where teen educator Jennifer Mangel stepped in with her program, Doing Good Well, which she’s been running through Berkeley Hillel. The goal is to encourage young people to commit to social action.

Doing Good Well was adapted to be a “bridge” between the Diller Teen experience and a future role in community service, Mangel says. At the Diller Teens’ last retreat, she worked with the participants on a plan for their next service projects. While the fellowship program initially had the teens working on group service projects, Doing Good Well encouraged them to take action on their own.

“My role is to help inspire them to find their passion and to give permission to them to follow it,” Mangel says of teens such as Berkowitz, who come back from Israel and want to get involved with community service.

For Berkowitz, “doing good well” means dressing up like a clown to ride the bus with early-morning laborers between Menlo Park and Santa Clara. “I’m hoping to make some difference in the lives of some people who don’t normally get this random act of happiness,” Berkowitz says.

Most of the passengers are Latino, African American or Vietnamese. “I’m a teenager and a white girl,” she says. “So when I start doing something silly, it will get people’s attention.

“I can’t imagine that this is a happy part of their day, for someone who rides the bus every day,” adds Berkowitz, who’s off to American University in Washington, D.C., next fall. “It’s OK for me to sacrifice my integrity a little to make someone else happy.”

Diller Teen Jeremy Avins’ summer Israel trip inspired him to take action back at home, too.

“I started getting interested in the whole Palestinian conflict in 2001, around the time that I had my bar mitzvah,” says Avins about his mission to create a Jewish-Palestinian youth dialogue group in the Bay Area.

“Our family had been planning to go to Israel so that I could have a second bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. But this was at the height of the second intifada, so we didn’t go.”

Avins, a 17-year-old University High School student, finally made it to Israel last summer, with the Diller Teens. “This was the first time that I saw Arabs,” he says. “But I regret that we didn’t really spend a lot of time with Arab teens. This is why I’m trying to start a dialogue group in San Francisco. I want to see if I can get Palestinians and Jews to interact positively.”

This summer, Avins is going back to Israel with his family, and he plans to immerse himself in the culture of the country. Upon his return, he plans to attend Yale.

“Their commitment to the community never ends,” says Vitemberg of the Diller Fellows. “They use their passion and knowledge to do things they care about it.”

The Diller Teen Fellows program, which is going into its ninth year, is a project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, operated by the Bureau of Jewish Education and funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

“Each of these individuals is mature, thoughtful and kind,” says Jewish educator Mangel. “They’re a great group to work with because of it.”

For more information, visit www.dillerteens.org.