Teens Gain Leadership Skills, Foster Jewish Identity Through Diller Program

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For both 16-year-old Ariel Mandel Weinbaum and her 18-year-old sister, Rose, learning about Jewish communities from different countries and ethnic backgrounds — communities different from their own Conservative, Ashkenazi community — has been one of the biggest takeaways of their time as Diller Teen Fellows.

Ariel Mandel Weinbaum, for example, gained a new perspective on interfaith marriage during a program with her Israeli counterparts two months ago. A group of Diller fellows from Israel visited Philadelphia and, during a Shabbaton, were put into groups to discuss what was important about being Jewish. While Ariel Mandel Weinbaum didn’t think marrying someone Jewish was important, the Israeli students did, and a conversation ensued about how their community wouldn’t recognize their children as Jewish if they didn’t.

“I will still be marrying whoever I want, no matter their religion,” said Ariel Weinbaum, who is in the current Diller cohort. “But I have a lot of respect for people who do marry the same religion as them now because I’m understanding where that’s coming from.”

That’s an example of how the Diller Teen Fellows program brings Jewish 10th- and 11th-graders together from countries around the world. In their own communities, the fellows first spend a year learning in bimonthly programs. They complete service projects, attend Shabbatons and take a leadership role in creating their own programming. The program culminates with a three-week trip to Israel, where Diller Teen Fellows from around the world meet. They come from communities in the United States, Israel, Canada, South Africa, Australia, South America and Europe.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia partners with Diller Teen Fellows to offer the program to students in the area. This is now the program’s second year in Philadelphia.

“This program is really about connection and Jewish peoplehood and pluralism,” said Trisha Swed, project manager of teen engagement at the Jewish Federation. The program is “getting our teens to meet teens from different backgrounds, from all around the world, to celebrate the fact that we are the Jewish people, that we are here and we are diverse and we are a really rich tapestry when we all come together.”

The students spend the first part of the year learning about their own community, then about their partner community in Herzliya, Israel. In December, they participate in a volunteer activity — Ariel Mandel Weinbaum’s cohort volunteered at Northeast NORC. During the Jewish Communities Mifgash, the fellows from Herzliya visit.

When they arrive in Israel, they spend the first part traveling and learning about the country, including a visit to the Jewish Federation’s partnership region in Netivot and Sdot Negev. Then they gather for Community Week, when they spend time with the teens in their partnership community in Herzliya. The last part of their time in Israel is Global Congress, where all of the students in the program, more than 600 teens from around the world, meet. While there, they also have Shabbatons.

When they return, the students end the year with an impact project, which is a community service or social justice-oriented project. Rose Mandel Weinbaum, who plans to attend Brown University next year, volunteered at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for her project.

“We are, through this program, developing the next generation of committed Jewish leaders,” Swed said. “This program helps give them the tools and the values and the sense of empowerment and agency to really take on that role.”

When the program launched in Philadelphia, Rose Mandel Weinbaum was hesitant to apply. But her parents convinced her, and she ended up loving the program, so she decided to become a junior counselor this year. Ariel Weinbaum applied because of how much her older sister enjoyed the program. She is now gearing up to leave for Israel on June 30.

The program in Philadelphia has grown steadily, from seven students the first year to 12 this year. Swed said the goal is to have a class of 20 for the 2019-2020 academic year.

The application is open and available at jewishphilly.org/resources/teen-programs/diller-teen-fellows.

“It’s one of those programs designed to get teens to fall in love with Israel and rethink their Jewish identity, but it’s focused on the pluralism and diversity of Judaism and how different Jews live around the world,” Rose Mandel Weinbaum said. “Something I really liked learning is that there are a million ways to be Jewish.”

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