Meital Rosenberg was accepted into the Diller Teen Fellows program as a 15-year-old Jersey girl. While leaving her teen years behind might have been easy, the now 22-year-old San Franciscan has no interest in leaving the program behind.
“After my fellowship, I went on to be a junior counselor and then when I entered college, I worked for the local [Diller] cohort,” she said. “Then I interned for the coordinator this past year, and served as the international mentor for all of the junior counselors. I never left.”
Rosenberg is one of 3,400 examples of how the program, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has brought to life the vision of its namesake, the late Helen Diller.
Lay and professional leaders will reflect on two decades of “preparing the next generation of Jewish leaders” (as it says on the fellowship’s website) at the program’s annual conference for professionals and lay leaders, a three-day event in San Francisco starting Tuesday, Oct. 24.
“Diller Teen Fellows exuded who she was,” said Jackie Safier, Diller’s daughter and president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which has left its philanthropic footprint on programs and institutions in the Bay Area and around the world. “When it started, teens were an overlooked age, but the teen years are important in one’s life. She would say, ‘We have one year to impact a lifetime.’”
Executive director Liat Cohen-Raviv, who has been with the program since its inception, agreed. She recalled how Diller told her that she wanted to create as prestigious a program for 15- and 16-year-olds as there were for 27-year-olds.
“These are their formative years,” Cohen-Raviv recalled Diller saying. “And she wanted their choices driven by Jewish values.”
The program, which started with a San Francisco cohort in 1998, has expanded to include 16 partnerships and 32 participating countries across the globe. It organizes cohorts of teens from across the Jewish spectrum — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and beyond — who gather for retreats, Shabbatons, and workshops that focus on values through an experiential lens. For example, the 600 teens accepted into the program each year may be asked to design their ideal community, discuss how they want to raise their children or talk about their plans to join (or not join) a synagogue.
The program, which just switched to a 12-month schedule after running for 15 months for many years, culminates with a trip to Israel, where the teens are matched with Israeli peers who bring another perspective to the personal discovery process. Israeli cohorts also have an opportunity to visit the United States.
“It’s a mind-opening experience,” Rosenberg said. “You’re allowed to question your identity. You’re not asked to have the same journey as everyone else and to have the same answers. You gain confidence and a sense of self, and then you go and experience the world. I can attest that suburban New Jersey didn’t give me those skills.”
It was my initial exposure to pluralism in a real way and my first experience of global Jewry.
Aliza Caplan, a New Jersey native, credits her parents with providing her with opportunities to nurture her Judaism with a variety of summer experiences, while attending public school during the year.
“Diller allowed me to strike out on my own and find Jewish peers,” she says. “It was my initial exposure to pluralism in a real way and my first experience of global Jewry.”
Following her Fellows experience, the now 23-year-old serves as a Springboard Innovation Fellow at Penn Hillel in Philadelphia, where she completed undergraduate work in Sociology and Jewish Studies and graduate work in Non-Profit Leadership. Springboard is a program of Hillel International that places young people on college campuses to help students reimagine Jewish life.
“There is no question that Diller was a highly formative experience,” she said. “For the first time, I understood myself as a Jewish leader, not just a Jewish person.”
About the program’s impact, Safier said, “She would ‘happy beyond her wildest dreams,’” using an expression for which her mother was known. “What she would be most proud and excited about is the international reach.”
Two decades after the program began in San Francisco with one partner community in Israel’s Upper Galilee, teen fellows now hail from North and South America, South Africa, Australia, Europe and Israel.
Lotem Lev-Ari, now 35, was in that first Israel delegation. She discovered Diller Teen Fellows while volunteering with kids at a community center in her hometown of Metula, near the Lebanese border. When she heard the program described as “a living bridge between kids in the Bay Area and Israel,” she was sold.
“To meet Jewish teens from the U.S. was a big deal,” she said from her home in Mountain View. “I was curious about how kids lived in the U.S. I’d never been.”
The recent graduate of the Stanford University School of Business and mother of two also was looking ahead to her army service and knew having leadership skills that stretched internationally would assist her in attaining a more coveted position. Just completing the application was a huge deal for the then-15-year-old. With no online forms or translating apps to help with the process or her English, Lev-Ari learned the first of many lessons.
“I learned that it paid to work hard,” she said. “It was the first time in my life that I achieved something all by myself. There was a sense of pride I never had before. Over the years, I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling. I’m addicted to that feeling of achievement.”
While proud of the program’s past, Safier and Cohen-Raviv will use the upcoming conference to bring together partners from around the world who share the goal of strengthening global Jewish communities.
“We really will take a fresh look as we re-evaluate the program and look at its core and depth, while strengthening its educational content for as amazing an experience as possible,” Cohen-Raviv said.
Added Safier: “I feel a responsibility to improve and grow the program and continue it forever. My parents taught us to give back. It is our obligation, our duty and our joy.”