The Diller Teen Fellows’ first cohort in 1998 had some 20 participating American and Israeli teenagers. Today there are more than 5,100 fellowship alumni from 32 global communities on six continents.
The staff that makes the program possible gathered from last week for their annual Professional & Lay Leaders Conference. This was the first time this train-the-trainer workshop was held in Philadelphia. More than 120 people from communities in Israel, the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and the UK came for training and collaboration. The conference is the only opportunity the professionals get to see each other, brainstorm and share best practices in person..
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has partnered with Diller to offer the program for two years. Jewish 10th and 11th graders spend a year learning in bimonthly programs and completing service projects, attending Shabbatons and developing leadership skills. It all builds up to a three-week trip to Israel.
Leah Maas is a Philadelphia resident and works as director of leadership and engagement at Diller. She said the leaders conference rotates from city to city each year, with last time being in Montreal, and the year before in San Francisco to celebrate the organization’s 20th anniversary. She said the change of scenery allows for staff to experience different flavors of Jewish culture. Diller staff at this year’s conference spent the majority of their time at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue, but also got the chance to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History.
“Something special that we like to do in each different city is hone in on what the city has to offer, so here it was a no-brainer for us that we were going to spend a day at the Jewish Museum,” Maas said. “Philly is a really special place to hold such a conference, between its American history and its Jewish history, there’s so much to do here. So it’s been really fun.”
Hadas Nir, Diller’s director of fellowship program, described the conference’s opening event as “an emotional moment” with a mother speaking to the crowd of the program’s impact on her family and two daughters. The conference’s keynote speaker was Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who spoke on the future of Jewish peoplehood. Another conference speaker was Jonathan Kaufman, co-founder and principal at Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies, whose presentation was titled “Diller Evolution Planning.” Another highlight was indie pop band Distant Cousins, comprised of Duvid Swirsky, Dov Rosenblatt and Ami Kozak from Los Angeles, leading a workshop on songwriting. But one of the best parts for Nir, who is from Israel, was interacting and speaking to staffers from around the globe.
“It’s so interesting. We have so much in common. We’re running the same programs. You hear the different accents, but you learn about the different flavors and the different realities,” Nir said. “So it’s fascinating.”
From across the state came Debbie Swartz, Israel and overseas planning associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. She said having conversations with people from Mexico, South Africa and Australia allowed her to think beyond her own community and hear of new ideas and strategies to implement back home after recently commemorating the one-year mark of the Pittsburgh shooting.
“It has been really great so far,” Swartz said of the conference. “We just came out of the commemoration in Pittsburgh, so this has been personally and professionally a nice time for me to reinvigorate, jump start and remind myself of the importance of my work.”
Alex Malanych joined her. The director of teen engagement and leadership at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Malanych had never been to the conference before, or the museum. He said he enjoyed exploring the exhibits and acting as a translator for Israelis. He also enjoyed hearing program alumni speak of their experiences.
“It gives a lot of hope for what the Jewish future is going to look like by getting teens to think about what leadership is from a Jewish perspective,” Malanych said.
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