Former Diller Teen Fellows Nadav David, Aviva Herr-Welber and Ophir Gilad
Former Diller Teen Fellows Nadav David, Aviva Herr-Welber and Ophir Gilad

Former Diller Teen Fellows: ‘It’s not enough to apologize, you have to take action’

The San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation has given a lot of money to many worthy organizations over the years, most recently $50 million to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa to support a new quantum science center.

So the early October revelation that in 2016 the foundation gave $100,000 to the Central Fund of Israel, earmarked for the controversial and highly secretive pro-Israel organization Canary Mission, hit some in the Jewish community like a bombshell — particularly because Diller is a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“When I read the news, I got extremely angry,” said Ophir Gilad, 21, from Berkeley. “At Diller, we learned about tikkun olam and the importance of letting many voices be heard, and for them to fund Canary Mission is devastating.”

Canary Mission, which describes its mission as “a desire to combat the rise in anti-Semitism on college campuses,” has come under fire for its practice of anonymously posting the names and photos of people it claims are anti-Israel, maintaining what critics call a “blacklist” of hundreds of students, professors and activists.

In a statement first reported in J., Federation CEO Danny Grossman noted that in 2017 the Central Fund of Israel was deemed “not in compliance with our guidelines,” and that neither the Diller Family Foundation nor the Federation would fund it — or Canary Mission — in the future.

That wasn’t quite enough for Gilad or for more than 80 of her peers, all of them former Diller Teen Fellows, who published an open letter in the Forward demanding “teshuva” from the Diller Family Foundation.

“The response was an important first step, but this moment demands more than a retraction,” the letter stated. “We believe the SF Federation and Diller Foundation must set a higher standard for Jewish organizations across the country by not only denouncing anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, and suppression of dissent, but actively playing a role in fighting these forces.”

“I felt it was important for us to speak up because we have all benefited from the foundation,” said Nadav David, 24, who grew up in Sunnyvale. A Diller Teen Fellow in 2010-11, he was one of three co-authors of the letter along with Gilad, a fellow from 2013-14, and Aviva Herr-Welber, 24, a 2010-11 fellow from San Anselmo.

“We learned in Diller that according to Jewish values, it’s not enough to apologize, you have to take action,” said Gilad.

Herr-Welber pointed to people who have been hurt by being listed on the Canary Mission website. “I know people afraid to travel to Israel for fear of being detained. People have been shut out of jobs. It’s been devastating and painful and scary,” she told J. “I really believe that’s not what our Jewish institutions want to create, but it is the result of funding these organizations.”

The Diller Teen Fellows was established in San Francisco in 1997 as a leadership development program for Jewish teens, focusing on pluralism and Jewish peoplehood; there are nearly 3,500 alumni.

RELATED: How does the S.F. Federation vet its grantees?

What’s notable about the three co-authors of this open letter is not just that they are former Diller fellows, but that they have extensive roots in the Bay Area Jewish community —– all three went to local Jewish day schools and/or Jewish high schools and were active in their congregations — and all continue to be deeply involved in their Jewish communities today.

“Diller was a really important experience for me,” said David. “I’ve since taken leadership positions in my Jewish community, from youth group when I was in school, to Jewish life on campus. I wrote this letter to hold the Federation and [Diller] foundation accountable as someone very committed to the Jewish community.”

“The program gave me tools I continue to use as a Jewish leader,” said Herr-Welber, an alumni of the Brandeis School and Jewish Community High School in San Francisco who was very involved with Hillel and J Street U in college. “Many of the fellows continue to be very involved in Jewish life.”

Herr-Welber now lives in Boston, where she works as a community organizer. Both she and David are leaders in that city’s Moshe House Kavod young adult community — David attended Yavneh and Gideon Hausner day schools as well as Kehillah Jewish High School, and Gilad, a senior at Macalester College, went to Tehiyah Day School.

It’s precisely because of the Jewish values imbued in them by their Jewish upbringing, including their time as Diller Fellows, that these three young, up-and-coming Jewish leaders say they want the Bay Area Jewish establishment to do better. We are the future leaders of this community, they told J. We have a vested interest in pushing our current leaders to act in accordance with the values they taught us.

“It’s because we really care about the community,” Gilad told J., explaining why she and her two friends wrote the letter. “We don’t just want to call out the Diller Foundation and the Federation; we want to engage with them.”

In fact, the three noted that directors of the Diller Teen Fellows program already have reached out to them, emailing a statement now posted on the organization’s website.

The statement notes that the grants have been stopped and the Foundation “has no intent whatsoever” to renew them.

It continues: “Further, we condemn any organizations and any ideologies associated with sinat chinam [baseless hatred]. We are proud of our alumni for their engagement, stepping up to ask us the tough questions, and for providing your sincere concern to ensure that the Diller Teen Fellows program and the Foundation continues to reflect the inclusive values and ideals that have always been embedded in the Diller Teen programs. We can assure you that these values are consistent for the Foundation.”

Herr-Welber said she and her peers “will be having a conversation” with Diller leaders “in the coming weeks.”

“I believe in the power and potential of the Jewish community, and young Jewish leadership,” she told J. “I’m not interested in just leveraging critique — I’m really interested in seeing these institutions change.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].