Israel program gave me skills for the rest of my life

Thirty thousand feet in the air on my way back to California, I found myself thinking about how I was transformed after serving as a counselor on an intense three-week Jewish leadership program in Israel this summer. I needed every minute of those 14 hours on the plane to appreciate the impact the Diller Teen Fellows Israel Summer Seminar had on me.

One of the ways Diller leaves a mark on its fellows is by sharing its commitment to tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world. It is a lofty goal, but it can be accomplished one step at a time.

In that spirit, this summer my group visited a park in South Tel Aviv, a neighborhood where many Africans who have fled their home countries now reside. They are recent refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, seeking safe haven in Israel. We prepared and served sandwiches to those gathered and had the opportunity to speak with the few men who spoke English. We learned from them about the refugee situation in Israel and the difficult and frightening road they took to get there.

From visiting with these men, I learned firsthand about the plight of political refugees escaping danger, as well as their search for better economic opportunities. Regardless of what brought them to Israel, they are now homeless and destitute. I couldn’t help but realize that while our ability to improve their situation in concrete terms was limited, just being supportive and kind to them was so important, whether through providing them a meal or listening to their stories. Diller tries to teach its fellows how gratifying it is to live a compassionate and giving life. This summer, in that park, I felt that gratification.

This experience was one of many that created deep connections between the American participants in the program and our Israeli counterparts with whom we worked closely, strengthening our ties to Israel.

This was the second time I was on a Diller program. Four years ago, I did a yearlong leadership program in San Francisco, which also included a three-week summer seminar in Israel. That experience created the same intense bonds between the North American and Israeli

participants as my seminar this past summer.

Both times, the nature of the program, the level of responsibility I was given and the challenges my group was faced with day to day helped me to hone my guidance and leadership abilities. Traveling together in a country close to our hearts, yet far away from home, created an intensity within our group that was different from what we experienced when we worked together in the more familiar setting of California. In Israel we lived together for three weeks; we created together, accomplished together, laughed, cried, ate, roomed — everything, always together.

I didn’t realize how great an impact the first Diller program had on me four years ago until I had to create a community service project in order to graduate at the end of the year. Looking around at my school, Burlingame High School, I realized there were many students that needed someone to talk to but weren’t comfortable approaching the adult counselors who were available. Thanks to the confidence and listening skills I developed through Diller, I was able to create a peer-counseling program at the school. The idea was for students to be empowered to mentor other students, and for Burlingame kids to know they had a confidential ear they could talk to.

Four years later, the peer-counseling program at Burlingame continues to thrive. And being a peer counselor at school gave me the skills needed to be a junior counselor for Diller this summer, where I mentored 20 younger students, this year’s fellows. Facing new experiences, challenges and powerful programming enabled me to feel not only as a role model, but also helped lead to a greater understanding of myself and facilitated growth in my leadership skills and abilities.

Diller Teen Fellows promotes self-evaluation, personal development, and close relationships between Israeli and North American students. It is the most eye-opening program I’ve had the privilege to experience — now twice — and it gives the same opportunity to more than 300 North American and Israeli teens every year.

Ariel Light of Foster City recently returned as a junior counselor accompanying a delegation of Jewish teens from Los Angeles to Israel, organized by the Diller Teen Fellows international leadership program. She is a graduate of Burlingame High School and now attends San Francisco State University.