By Danielle Gelber
A Jewish day school attendee since age three, I always knew about Israel. I learned about the history, the language and the culture, but still the notion of a Jewish homeland remained foreign.
When I was in 10th grade, I applied to the Diller Teen Fellows Program, one of the teen leadership programs organized by The Associated’s Jewish Volunteer Connection, hoping to meet Jewish teens from the Baltimore area, gain leadership experience and visit Israel. What I didn’t realize was that as a participant in Diller, I would not just visit Israel, but fall in love with Israel as a culture, a homeland and a heart of the Jewish people.
As part of the program, the North American cities travel to Israel in the summer. The three week summer trip is divided into three sections: one week devoted to touring, one week devoted to meeting and learning from Diller fellows from North America and Israel and one week spent in the home of your match from your delegation’s partner city. On the Baltimore delegation’s final night in Israel, we sat cross-legged with knees touching in a tight maagal lilah, taking turns reflecting on our favorite part of the trip. For some of my peers who were enjoying their first trip to Israel, the touring week was their favorite. Others enjoyed hearing opinions from teens, staff and guest speakers during Congress, the week dedicated to dialogue between the Diller delegations.
The week in Ashkelon was my favorite. It was the first time in my visits to Israel that I stopped feeling like a tourist awkwardly navigating the streets of Israel with a neon orange Orioles baseball cap plastered to my forehead, a black L.L.Bean backpack tightly strapped to my back and the words “Slicha, efo hasherutim” etched in my memory.
During the week in Ashkelon, I lived at the home of the Hatav Family, a welcoming family of six whose eldest daughter, Osher, had stayed at my house during the North American Seminar in March. Together, we went to the supermarket to buy groceries for Shabbat dinner. The next day, I chatted with some of Osher’s friends from high school after we walked to the local store to buy an ice cream snack. On Sunday, I went to the mall with Osher, her mom and her sister on a mission to find the goofiest clothes in the mall. Since that week in Ashkelon, I think of Israel as the home of my sister Osher where I am always welcome.
Feeling inspired after finishing my Diller experience, I continued my involvement in Judaism as an undergraduate student at Boston University. Because Hebrew is my way of connecting to Israel and Judaism, I have taken Hebrew every semester since starting college. After recognizing my progress in the program, the head of the Hebrew department asked me to tutor other students struggling with Hebrew. In this role, I hope to help others develop their connections to Judaism.
Following our graduation from the Diller program, many of my peers have gotten involved Jewishly on campus, as well. For example, Justin Hayet, a rising sophomore at SUNY Binghamton University, attended both AIPAC Saban Leadership Conference for college students and the annual Policy Conference during his freshman year. Justin also spent his summer interning at the Baltimore Jewish Times. Among other extracurriculars, Alex Kadish devoted her time freshman year to Chabad House at George Washington University as a member of the General Board, a group of students dedicated to planning religious events and coordinating new student outreach initiatives. Starting this year, Alex is slated as the Israel Liason for Chabad; in this role she will help integrate Israel into Chabad programming and events. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, Eli Davis joined the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and became a member of the Jews in Greek Life Fellowship, a Hillel-sponsored organization comprised of Jews in Greek life who serve as lay leaders between the Jewish and Greek communities on campus.
These teens serve as examples of how Diller encourages its participants to explore their connections to Israel through their individualized interests, whether it’s language, politics, religion or community. The personal connections my friends and I have developed make our dedication to Israel so sustainable. I am thankful to the Diller program for strengthening my pride as a Jew and as a member of the Baltimore Jewish community.