Last spring, when Sam Maller received a letter notifying him he’d been nominated as a Diller Teen Fellow, he had no idea what the program was.
“I remember getting this thing in the mail, and saying to my mom, ‘What is this?’” said Maller, who is just about to start his senior year at Burlingame High School. “But after I did some research, I realized it was exactly what I had been looking for.”
Diller Teen Fellows is an 18-month leadership training program for Jewish teens entering their junior year of high school. The Bay Area is one of eight metropolitan areas in the North America with its own cohort, each of which has a “sister city” group of teens in Israel.
The fellows meet with local activists and participate in service projects and Jewish community events, and a big highlight is a three-week summer gathering in Israel during which the North American teens get together with their Israeli counterparts. This year’s 20-member Bay Area cohort returned from the trip Aug. 1.
“You learn so much about yourself [in the program] before you go,” Maller said. “And then once you’re there, you just start to feel like this is what we’ve been working for.”
In Israel, the teens discussed what they learned in their own communities, along with the challenges that they faced.
“Being in Israel with 19 other teenagers who are all in the program for same reasons that you are — having that opportunity was unbelievable,” Maller said. “I don’t think it’s like anything I’ve ever been through.”
Ellie Rosenthal, 17, who soon will be starting her senior year at Oakland’s College Preparatory School, said some of the best parts of the trip came outside of the structured activities.
For example, at a kibbutz her group was visiting, Rosenthal found herself in a casual yet spirited debate about the similarities and differences between socialism and capitalism, and what those words mean in the United States versus Israel.
“It was fascinating to hear all the differences of opinion, to see how much things can vary between different cultures … and yet how much we had in common,” she said.
Then, while visiting ultra-religious families in Jerusalem a few days later, Rosenthal was surprised to learn about the forms feminism can take in Orthodox households. “I wasn’t expecting that conversation at all,” she said.
At the center of the experience was the Congress, a meeting at which the Diller Teen Fellows from North America and Israel gathered to hear from Israeli leaders, share stories and compare and contrast their experiences.
The Fellows from North America were from Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Montreal and Pittsburgh in addition to the Bay Area.
“What struck me most was the diversity in that group,” said Maller. “It was good to see the effects of the diaspora, and see how much you really can learn from people that are very different than you.”
“I don’t know how to express in words how incredible this trip was,” Rosenthal said. “It was more eye-opening than anything I could have anticipated.”
Aaron Levi, the Diller Teen Fellows program coordinator for the Bay Area, said the teens exceeded his already high expectations of the trip.
“There was such tangible support and love that everyone had for each other, which is something they’d developed throughout the year,” he said. “And I was incredibly impressed by how much the trip was driven by them — the level of responsibility they took on.”
Each day, one teen was selected to be a “leader,” making sure the members of the group stayed together, knew where they were going and remained orderly. And during the last week of the trip, the Bay Area Fellows planned their entire itinerary with the help of their Israeli counterparts, arranging everything from lunch to transportation.
“I’m very proud of them,” Levi said. “Part of what makes this program so unique is these teens’ ability to be in a partnership — they give us feedback, they help direct what the program is going to be. It’s a constant dialogue.”
Maller, who isn’t “super religious,” said the trip helped him identify with Judaism in surprising new ways.
“When you get so many viewpoints from all these different sides, you really start to identify what you believe in,” he said. “And the fact that there can be so much contrast in the group and yet everyone comes away with this positive experience, that really helps build your sense of community.”
The Diller Teen Fellows program is funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. In the Bay Area, the program is operated by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.