Diller teens hike Andes, aid fellow Jews in Argentina

The Book of Exodus reads a bit differently when you're sitting 12,000 feet high on an Andean mountainside.

Diller Teen Fellows from the Bay Area recently returned from Argentina after visiting and lending a hand to one of the diaspora's more beleaguered Jewish communities. Along the way, the group of 20 local teens worked at a variety of charitable institutions and studied the Torah during hikes through Andean terrain thousands of feet up in the clouds.

"Clearly there are a lot of very impoverished people and a lot of very desperate people, but it's also a very vibrant culture in Buenos Aires, and it shows through," said Noah Metz, a 17-year-old congregant at Palo Alto's Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth.

"In Buenos Aires, we did a lot of community service, and you could just tell from people's faces that they might not have expected a bunch of people from the San Francisco area to be serving them soup on a Tuesday morning. Everywhere we went people were really glad to see us, and I think we were glad to see them."

The Diller teens' international trip is the culmination of a year of Jewish study. The program is underwritten by the Diller fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, and is jointly run by the Israel Center and the Bureau of Jewish Education.

The Americans worked at a variety of social service centers during the excursion, which took place from late-June to mid-July. In addition to the aforementioned soup kitchens, the teens packaged medicine for a drug dispersal center, baked challah for the hungry, visited the elderly at a senior home and provided clothing for the poor.

"We each brought down a duffel bag-full and that turned out to be a lot of clothes. But there are a lot of people who need a lot of stuff down there," said Jordan Stern, a 17-year-old San Franciscan who attends services at the Or Shalom Jewish Community.

"It made me think about things I do and how I do them; resources I use and how much people generally use and how little people generally need."

The group interacted with Argentine teens and came away impressed by their worldliness.

"They knew everything about our government and their government, but we didn't know anything about their country," observed Stein.

Added Yaely Pickman, a 17-year-old from Foster City, who attends Peninsula Temple Beth El: "It didn't seem like they were struggling or having a difficult time coping with the situation. They were just regular teenagers having a good time, but their lifestyle was definitely different from ours…a lot of them are working to support their families, not just themselves."

After a week of social work, the teens headed to the northwestern region of the country to Jujui (pronounced hoo-hooey) for a weeklong backpacking trip.

Along the way, group leader Ilan Vitemberg led the teens in a study of the Book of Exodus, a continuing theme for the trip. In between strong winds blowing away tents and one hiker sitting on a cactus, the teens bonded as a group and met some of Argentina's indigenous mountain-dwellers.

"There was an elementary school, and I talked to the teacher in Spanish a little bit to get an idea what they do there. They did have a computer, and for an elementary school in the middle of nowhere, I was impressed. There was also a big cross with Jesus on it in front of the classroom," said a laughing Metz.

In pre-intifada days, Diller teen trips would go to Israel. That idea didn't fly with parents at this time, however, so the program looked at Cuba and Argentina and settled on the latter.

While all are hoping to visit Israel someday, the teen travelers seemed enthralled by their journey to South America.

"I feel like I will eventually make it to Israel. A lot of people go to Israel, but how many go to Argentina? It's something I feel is very unique, I would never have gone there otherwise," said Annie Downs, 17, an Orinda resident who attends services at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

"It would never have crossed my mind to go to Argentina. I'm glad this program showed me that part of the world."

The trip was a homecoming of sorts for the Israeli-born Vitemberg, who visited his extended Argentinian family.

Before leaving, the one thing his mother told him he must do is visit her elderly uncle. Coincidentally enough, when the teens visited a Jewish senior home, the uncle was one of the residents.

"So I did end up meeting him," said Vitemberg. "It's a funny story."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.