Follow the leaders: Diller teens build confidence, friendship in Israel

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Tears mingle with sweat on Eric Siegel’s cheeks. The Atherton teen has just touched the smooth stone of the Western Wall for the first time, an experience that moves him so deeply he cannot find the right words — or any words, for that matter — to explain his emotions to his friends after they slide notes into the cracks between the ancient rocks.

The Diller Teen Fellows with whom Siegel is visiting Israel silently embrace him when he arrives at their sunny meeting spot. Several wipe away their own tears; others appear stoic, as solid as the legendary wall where they stood moments before.

When all 34 teens are accounted for, the two girls charged with being the group’s leaders of the day decide to tweak their schedule. Instead of browsing and bargaining for souvenirs in the Arab market, they want to talk about what they just experienced.

The girls ask the group, which is half Israeli and half American, to sit down in a shady corner of the Old City.

The two teens who make the change are leaders of the day. As a Diller Teen Fellow, every participant holds this position at least twice during a three-week Israel summer seminar, which was held this year July 23 through Aug. 13. The leaders are responsible for making sure the day’s schedule unfolds smoothly. The position comes not with a list of chores, but with a directive summed up by Erica Hymen, San Francisco coordinator, this way: “You’re in charge, make this day happen.”

The leaders of the day decide the debrief, as it’s famously known to these teens, would best happen in two groups, so the Israelis and Americans can discuss the experience in their native language.

And so just outside an office in the Old City, the teens circle up and sit down on the cobblestones.

There is silence until Zoë Glas, a serious teen whose occasional grins light up her face, clears her throat. The reflection begins.

“I got up to the front and touched the wall and I just felt sheer joy, I was so moved,” says Glas, a senior at Jewish Community High School of the Bay. People snap their fingers in agreement.

“Wow,” says Daniel Crankshaw, “I’m really jealous.” He, in contrast, felt nothing. A different set of fingers snap.

Crankshaw is a thoughtful teen with shaggy brown hair who, despite his athletic appearance, is quick to point out he’s not a jock. He says he felt more spiritual several days earlier, while tucked into his sleeping bag under the twinkling Negev sky.

When it’s Siegel’s turn to speak, he exhales, nods and explains he’s not ready to articulate what was an intensely personal experience. The analysis and commentary continue, ping-ponging around the circle for about 30 minutes until it’s time to depart.

What does it mean to be a Diller teen? This is a question participants are asked to consider often during the yearlong fellowship for 16 and 17 year olds in the Bay Area and in the upper Galilee. The process is transforming how American teens see Israel, how Israeli teens see America, and the way they all see themselves.

“It is life-changing,” says Noam Raychental, an affable Israeli with a round face and an infectious grin. The fellowship is revered in Israel’s north; Raychental was chosen to be a Diller Teen Fellow from more than 200 applicants.

“The kids really feel they have earned a space, and it gives them ownership of the program,” says Liat Cohen Raviv, who has coordinated the Upper Galilee program each of its 10 years, and this fall will serve as the Israel program director.

Most of the participants in Israel’s north live on kibbutzes and are convinced that theirs is “the best kibbutz ever.” This year’s Bay Area participants live as far north as San Rafael and as far south as Palo Alto.

The Diller fellowship began in 1997 by pairing teens in San Francisco and its sister city, Kiryat Shmona, in the Upper Galilee. It is currently a project operated by the Bureau of Jewish Education and funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund. It’s also supported by the Jewish Community Federation.

The Israel Center of San Francisco, the federation and the BJE dreamed up the program as a way to engage Bay Area teenagers who had already been to Israel, but who wanted to explore the country and its people in a deeper way, through service learning, leadership and a cross-cultural exchange. Philanthropist Helen Diller shared their vision, and continues to do so.

“This program wouldn’t exist without her,” says Nicole Miller, national director of the fellowship.

Diller pushed for the expansion of the fellowship, and this year it found a home in eight additional U.S. and Israeli cities: Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, Cleveland and Beit She’an, Baltimore and Ashkelon, and the northern suburbs of New Jersey and Rishon LeTzion. All 200 participating teenagers spent the third week of the seminar in Jerusalem from Aug. 6 to 12.

The Diller Teen Fellows is a yearlong initiative that engages, challenges and trains teenagers in Israel and the United States. Fellows meet in their hometowns for daylong workshops and weekend retreats, youth-led gatherings in which they develop community service projects and participate in activities and discussions that aim to bolster their leadership abilities.

The actual activities, though, are less important than what they learn from the process of their participation. For instance, during the five days the Bay Area teens spent in their counterparts’ homes in the north, they planned a fundraiser for Elem, a nonprofit supporting Israeli youth at risk. They raised about $650.

Yet, “it wasn’t really about how much money we raised, but how well we all worked together,” says Allie Windham of Atherton.

Then, when they come together for a cultural exchange and home stay in both countries, the group shares a lexicon built on the program’s four primary elements: leadership, Jewish identity, tikkun olam and Israel-diaspora relations.

“A lot of organizations do a mifgash [encounter], but nobody does what we do at the scale we’re doing it — with a dual, yearlong program happening simultaneously in Israel and the United States,” says Oren Massey, Diller’s national education director.

Leadership is the nucleus of the fellowship’s atom. Everything revolves around learning how to lead and knowing when to listen.

Yoav Harris remembers with a grimace the first time he served as leader of the day. “It was a nightmare,” he says.

The 17 year old has enviable black wavy hair, with features from a Yemenite mother and unusually proficient English from an Australian dad. He is bashful as he recalls being the first Upper Galilee participant to serve as leader of the day. The group had just arrived in the U.S. in April, during the first of two cultural exchanges. There was no precedent.

Later that evening, Harris, his peers and director Cohen Raviv sat in a circle and discussed what he did well and what he did poorly — standard operating procedure for the Israeli teens. The kids said he was controlling, neurotic, condescending. Cohen Raviv softened the blows by summarizing that, ultimately, he led without listening to the group’s needs. Nor did he trust his peers.

When the Americans arrived in Israel, Harris got a chance to prove he had learned from his mistakes.

“You end up gaining so many tools and abilities,” he says. “I’m more perceptive now.”

The focus of the seminar’s itinerary is not sightseeing, though of course the teens visit famous spots such as the Old City and the Dead Sea. All activities, tours and educational components seek to build a healthy group dynamic.

American teens spend about a week staying in the Israeli teens’ homes. They also spend several days hiking and camping in the Negev, and a week in Jerusalem, where they go sightseeing and attend educational workshops.

Most delegations debrief about once a week during the three-week seminar. The San Francisco-Upper Galilee Dillers, however, take time for daily collective reflection, generating a synergy and intimacy among the group. Seldom are adolescents asked this often to articulate their feelings.

“When the fellowship first began, we’d do a 15-minute activity and debrief on it for 30 minutes,” says Windham. “It seemed useless at first, but now we understand why it’s so important.”

For the San Francisco-Upper Galilee group, no topic is off limits. Everyone is allowed to speak and everyone else must listen.

“San Francisco is the model for the other groups,” says Gilad Argaman, an endlessly enthusiastic tour guide adored by the teens (in part for his relentless environmental advice, such as: Don’t eat at McDonalds and you’ll save the rainforests in Brazil; don’t use air conditioning, to save the polar bears on the North Pole). He works as a teacher in Israel and has been a tour guide for nearly five years.

“This was the first time in my life that there was no arguing in the Negev about who would hold the jerry can [of water],” he adds. “They cooperate, they listen to each other, they love each other and they’re willing to challenge themselves. It makes me very satisfied to see it.”

Argaman also credits the group’s staff — BJE employees Erica Hymen and Jeremy Lansing from the Bay Area and Cohen Raviv from Kiryat Shmona — with setting the tone. The three command the kids’ respect, but always step back and let the young people take the wheel. They expect a lot, and the Dillers aspire to those high standards.

Understanding how to lead and when to follow lays the groundwork for the teens to explore the complexities of Israeli life and their own Jewish identity.

Armed with leadership skills, they work together during the Israel seminar to design their own Shabbat services, decide whether kippahs should be mandatory and analyze why, as Jews, they should or should not feel compelled to work for justice.

One morning in Jerusalem they crowd into a meeting room at their hotel to watch a movie. Within minutes, people are wiping away tears, retreating to the bathroom for tissues.

The documentary, “Unsettled,” is an up-close, emotional look at the 2005 Gaza disengagement from the perspective of six young Israelis. Limor Morad, a demure Israeli with pale skin and thick dark hair, cries so much she struggles to catch her breath. When Ross Fineman notices, the JCHS senior gets out of his chair and sits on the floor near Morad’s feet.

He puts his hand on her knee. She puts her hand atop his and sniffles. They sit like this for an hour. This is the kind of friendship the Israeli and American teenagers develop: authentic, considerate, loving.

The film provides one of many moments when the teens are asked to take a close look at the complexities of life, politics and religious practice in Israel. The screening prepares them to meet a Gaza evacuee who today lives in a trailer on a moshav outside Jerusalem.

On the bus ride to meet her, the Americans ask the Israelis if the film was fair, balanced. They talk and debate for the entire 45 minutes.

“My opinion [of the Gaza disengagement] is in no way clearer, it’s only more complicated,” says Doria Charlson, a precocious girl from Menlo Park.

Just before the Dillers arrive at the moshav, Charlson has a revelation. “I think we’re here to be ambassadors,” she says. “We can take back all we’ve learned to our community. Maybe we could try and show the movie in our school?”

At the moshav, they sit and listen politely to Rivka Goldschmidt talk about her 20-plus years as a Gaza settler. She delivers her story with conviction, as though she’s been interviewed a dozen times on “60 Minutes.”

The quasi-lecture takes a wrong turn when Goldschmidt accuses the Israeli group of being “brainwashed by lies from the media.” Not exactly the best choice of words for a room full of teenagers who, for the past two weeks, have been told they are the future leaders of the Jewish people.

The Upper Galilee participants respond in fiery Hebrew, and for a few minutes, they argue heatedly. One girl leaves the room.

After the argument, Goldschmidt continues, taking questions at the end. The teens ask why she left before the soldiers could force her out, why she’s not yet settled in a new home and what Israeli citizens can do to help Gaza evacuees like her.

“The Diller teens, we have energies and the power to change things in Israel,” says Chen Malka, a bold statement from the most petite girl in the group.

“I’m glad you believe in change,” Goldschmidt responds.

“We don’t believe, we know,” asserts Noam Raychental.

Later, Diller national education director Massey is thrilled the speaker provoked such an impassioned response.

“We want them to have their assumptions and opinions challenged,” he says.

As Jewish researchers and demographers sound the alarm about young American Jews’ lack of connection to the land of Israel, and secular Israelis’ tendency to prioritize their national identity above their Jewish one, the Diller model appears to be the antidote.

For one, the Israeli teens get to see themselves as part of a global Jewish family.

“I am now more connected to my Judaism,” Ohad Aloni says during the final debrief of the seminar. “I now am feeling like we have family in the world, that we are not alone and that we have support for our country.”

Meanwhile, the American teens are given the opportunity to love Israel — the land and the people.

“To me, the home stay provided insight into Israeli life unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It allowed me to connect people and faces to dots on a map, pictures and landscapes to places I’ve heard about in Sunday school,” Charlson says in a speech at the conclusion of the group’s home stay in the north.

“Their hospitality and generosity made me feel as though I was a member of the family, and it was easy to forget that I was halfway across the world.”

The home stay aspect of the trip has cultivated an intimate sense of Jewish peoplehood for a decade. This year the teens got a broader view with the first Diller Youth Congress, which brought together all 200 teens from 10 delegations for a daylong summit at Tel Aviv University.

The program will continue to grow, adding four new cities next year. However, the San Francisco-Upper Galilee staff hope the growth doesn’t distract from the program’s initial goal.

“My hope is that we won’t be confused by the size, and remember that it is about the one hanich [participant], the process, adventure and experience of the one hanich, and how they see themselves in their community,” says Cohen Raviv.

Cohen Raviv grew up in a poor family, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. Not until after high school, when she rose in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, did she realize she could make a worthwhile contribution to her community and country.

“I think such a realization should come to you sooner,” she says. “So I am pointing out to these kids that they are great people, they can do amazing things, and I’m giving them the opportunity to do those things now.”

Diller alumni: Where are they now?

Here’s a sampling of what some former local Diller Teen Fellows have gone on to do:

Jeremy Avins is a member of the Jewish-Muslim group at Yale University. He just returned from a three-week trip to the Balkans with Abraham’s Vision, a program that brings together American Jews and Palestinians.

Julie Bernstein, a first-year Diller Fellow, currently works as the program associate of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council Middle East Project. She’s stayed in touch with the Israelis on her trip, and in 2006 went to Israel for one of their weddings.

Becky Bob-Waksberg is a student at Oberlin College, where she lives in a sustainability house known on campus as SEED (Student Experiment in Ecological Design). Since Diller, she has worked in South Africa, taught inner-city students in New Orleans and is now in India.

Elissa Brown is in college on the East Coast, where she’s studying environmental education. She just finished writing a novel.

Mark Donig became one of the leaders of Hillel at Stanford and is a strong Israel advocate.

Eric Eisberg is in Ghana working at the Buduburam Refugee Camp.

Alex Grunwald spent last year in Young Judea’s Year Course in Israel and decided to stay and enroll in a university in Israel.

Chayve Lehrman was a Kohn intern at the Israel Center in San Francisco this summer and is active at Wellesley College.

Daniel Riff spent the summer working with the nonprofit No on Prop 8, Equality for All in Los Angeles.

j. reporter Stacey Palevsky spent a week with the Diller Teen Fellows Aug. 6 to 12 in Israel.

Applications for next year’s Diller Teen Fellows are due Sept. 10. For more information, contact Erica Hymen at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.