By Julia Ellis
“Any last questions?” It was June, 2011 and I was a freshman interviewing for a place in the 2011-2012 Boston Diller Teen Fellowship cohort. I knew that many other Jewish teens had also been racking their brains: some were thinking in English, others in Hebrew, Amharic, and even Spanish, but we were all thinking along the same lines... What can I say to stand out? We were all determined to reserve a spot for ourselves in next year’s Diller Teen Fellowship. From 16 cities: eight North American, eight Israeli; twenty young teens would be selected to engage in a pluralistic, national, youth leadership fellowship. They would be selected based on leadership aptitude, commitment to Jewish learning, interest in exploring their connection to Israel, and passion for serving their community. I looked around the room and found solace in the familiar setting. I myself had spilt grape juice on the conveniently purple carpet of the JCC on many Shabbats past throughout my childhood. I had grown up in this building and felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia to be back. I had not however, been in the building for years. Just like riding an old bike, sitting down in the JCC to talk about my Judaism was something that I could never forget how to do, the seat just felt smaller. The Jewish Community would always be behind me and as I grew older I would adapt new perspectives of it.
Sitting in the interview, I did not realize how much my perspective was about to be altered, and I am not merely talking about the fact that all of the furniture had seemingly shrunk. “Any last questions?” I asked about school. Would Diller affect my grades? After hearing of my acceptance into Diller, the question became more real to me. Thankfully, I decided to give this Diller thing a shot and this “last question” about school was not to be my last question with the fellows, but rather my first. This last and first question would be one of many that would force me to reflect upon myself in a deeper level than I ever had before. In this instance, it forced me to get out of my routine bubble of Westwood High School and evaluate a world of opportunities being offered to me: would I continue on oxymoronically admiring the Jewish community all alone, or would I make time to truly be a part of it?
I became an official “Diller”, the best decision I ever made. I received a list of names of the other fellows from Boston in the mail and stalked each one on Facebook that day (I must confess). Depending on their privacy settings, each person was to me anything ranging from a single profile picture to perhaps a plethora of pictures, but nothing more. Now, of course, we’re all friends on Facebook and in real life, or as I would prefer to refer to them, we’re mishpacha. I’m not going to try to fool anyone in saying that our unbelievable closeness was instantaneous. We had a series of awkward meetings in September(which we now base the brunt of our jokes on) before we were able to attain the level of closeness that we have today. All jokes aside, learning how to clear one’s throat and just speak up during an unbearable hiatus in conversation is a useful tool for any leader.
We later used this tool in the Israeli seminar in December. After becoming so close with our Boston group, we were at first a little apprehensive about whether or not we would be able to form lasting friendships with Haifa teenagers. A pre-Diller Julia would have hesitated to introduce myself to anybody, but just a few months of programming urged me to leave my comfort zone...it also helped that we were about to be locked in Beit Yehuda Guest House, Jerusalem with them for seventy-two hours. There were two other groups of fellows from Cleveland and Beit She’an joining us for congress. Congress consisted of a series of back to back lectures and reflective sessions on the controversies of Judaism. Being thrown into a group with forty more people caused our Boston-Haifa group to cling to each. With the support of our friends we were able to overcome our anxiety about the larger group and ultimately become one large group. I did not mean to place a negative connotation around the locked doors of Beit Yehuda, I would not have preferred it any other way, for inside those doors was the back drop for three of the most challenging, most rewarding days of my life. In those days, besides learning that sticking the sharp end of a name tag into your hand during a lecture was a perfectly good substitute for approximately five hours of missed sleep, I learned how to listen, learn and lead. Ultimately, that’s what Diller has taught me: first, to listen in on everything that I possibly can, second to filter all of that information into something useful and third, to lead peers in that. For example, we listened to many speakers such as Ofer Bavly about the politics of the Middle East, or Parents Circle which is a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis promoting reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. Before that, I had listened to the differing views of Jews and Arabs alike back at home. I had never known what to do with the things I had been hearing, but I now have the tools to learn from them and have been leading discussions amongst many of my Arab and Jewish friends since I have arrived home from Israel. In fact, we are working towards creating a school club with similar purpose to that of the Parents Circle.
Already, I had shared so many irreplaceable and unique experiences with our Israeli counterparts. Together we had herded sheep on the rolling hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, volunteered at a school for mostly Russian and Ethiopian Immigrants, stumbled over ourselves trying to learn Ethiopian dances at Yemin Orde, danced and played bingo at an elderly daycare, repaired the forest atop Mount Carmel, rode camels in a Bedouin village, ate a traditional Druze meal at a Druze village, and tried to bargain on Ben Yehuda Street. But we were about to embark on another significant journey together: the North American Seminar.
During the North American seminar, we hosted the Israelis and were able to reciprocate their hospitality for us when we were in Israel. The Haifa Diller Fellows stayed with us and forced us to take a closer look out our own lives. Having the Israelis in my own home brought me to notice things about my own community that I had never looked close enough to realize before. (I can’t believe I never noticed that the door handle at my local Dunkin’ Donuts was in the shape of a “D” until the Israeli girl who stayed in my home, Shachar, pointed it out for me.) Shachar’s family was constantly video chatting with mine and we have truly formed mishpacha in the process of exchanging each other’s cultures. A seder plate given to us by Shachar was on the table during our Passover seder this year; I am sure that this will become a tradition. Bringing Shachar and another Haifa Diller Fellow, Maytal to school with me was an especially unique experience. I was very nervous for Maytal, who is Shomer Negiah, (she cannot touch members of the other gender until marriage) to meet all of the male figures at school. I was figuratively touched by her literal willing to touch when she shook the school Principal’s hand, an immense act of respect. Shachar and Maytal did a fabulous job of representing Israel proudly in a school with no more than twenty Jewish students (Westwood High School). The Israelis educated Americans about their own culture just as much as they learned about American culture while here. After getting through more than a full school week of balancing Diller programming and homework, we all spent the weekend at Friendly Crossways retreat center in Harvard, MA, engaging in programming completely and solely organized by the Boston-Haifa cohort. My job was to organize the Final Event at the end, a presentation to show off our Diller family to our families and also to thank many generous donors who made this experience possible. Organizing the event and other aspects of the retreat was very challenging, especially since most of it was done online approximately 5,400 miles apart. But we were more than successful.
Diller’s final Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) project encourages us to use the skills that we have accumulated throughout the year. Personally, I hope to revolve my project around a township near Capetown, South Africa, a place of extreme (and extremely undeserved) impoverishment, a repercussion from Apartheid. I stayed near Langa for a month this summer touring with a chorus. This is a place that I think of every single day of my life, yet I would not have had the courage or organizational skills to develop my passion into something that would make a difference without having been a Diller Teen Fellow. I am now confident that in our Tikkun Olam portion of the program, I will be able to satisfy that hunger to help make Langa a better place. The official programming “ends” next year, and I am no longer a timid freshman too preoccupied with the color of the carpet in the JCC to speak up and make a difference. The actual end of Diller, however, is nonexistent. We have already all fantasized of pooling our money together and living in one house as we grow up, but even if that does not happen, many of us will probably continue to be in contact throughout our adult years on paths that have been forever changed by the amazing opportunities in which Diller has opened up for us.