Building friendships builds ties to Israel

Every year tens of thousands of Jewish teenagers fly into Ben Gurion International Airport to visit and photograph Israel’s historic sites.

Yet the Holy Land is more than its land. And unless these visitors stay a while, many never talk to an Israeli citizen other than the one herding them onto their tour bus or selling Jerusalem bagels from a pushcart in the Old City.

This is unfortunate, especially in light of recent research that indicates young adult American Jews, in particular, increasingly feel distant from or indifferent to Israel.

Perhaps it’s because they don’t know any Israelis.

J. reporter Stacey Palevsky recently spent a week on an Israel trip with the Diller Teen Fellows, a program that introduces American teenagers more to Israeli life than to the country’s holy sites.

But the cultural exchange and friendship begin long before the Americans land in Israel, making this mifgash, or encounter, one of a kind.

In January, teens in both countries begin attending daylong workshops and weekend retreats to learn about leadership, social action, Jewish identity and peoplehood. They become Facebook friends with their counterparts overseas.

When the Israelis come to the United States in the spring and stay in their peers’ homes and visit their schools, they learn what it’s like to live in a place where being Jewish means being different. Three months after that, the American teenagers go to Israel, where they also stay in their peers’ homes, seeing what it means to be Jewish in a place where everyone else is too.

Suddenly, Israel is not just a land of ancient sites and disputed boundaries, but a place where their friends live, go to school and the discotheque, and serve in the army. Likewise, for the Israelis, Jews in the diaspora become real people rather than ideas, their new friends immortalized in cell phone camera snapshots.

For many Diller teens, the trip was their second or third to the Jewish state. Never before had they seen the country alongside Israeli teenagers. All returnees told Palevsky the addition of Israelis transformed their understanding of the country, its people and their relationship to both, in a way previous visits did not.

Israel is a country filled with fascinating, intelligent, passionate people, young and old, religious and secular, Arab and Jew, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Israeli-born and immigrants from around the globe. The land and its history make Israel special, but the people make Israel extraordinary.

We commend the Helen Diller Family Foundation for supporting such a unique cultural exchange, but even as the program grows, it still only engages a few hundreds teens each year.

More American and Israel Jews need and deserve an opportunity to meet and befriend each other. Intensive interpersonal connections are the best way to develop young adult Jews’ affinity for Israel. We hope that the Diller Teen Fellows program becomes a model for other Israel initiatives in communities around the world.