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Israeli and local teens bond as Diller Fellows
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Israeli and local teens bond as Diller Fellows

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Diller teen host Sydney Hershman of Towaco, front row, third from left, celebrated her birthday at the program’s farewell dinner just before the Israeli contingent returned to Rishon Letzion. Photo courtesy Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life
Diller teen host Sydney Hershman of Towaco, front row, third from left, celebrated her birthday at the program’s farewell dinner just before the Israeli contingent returned to Rishon Letzion. Photo courtesy Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life

During their 10 days in New Jersey, teens from Rishon Letzion, Israel, saw all the things they had in common with their American counterparts: hanging out, listening to music, going to the movies.

They also noted some surprising contrasts.

“They all belong to temples and are more Jewish than we are,” said Inbar Sade, 16.

“Jews in America have a greater commitment to their community and their religion,” agreed Yanir Ashkenazi, 17. “I am not religious, and I heard about this program and wanted to connect with my Jewish identity and explore myself as a Jew.”

Ashkenazi and Sade were two of the 19 Israeli youth who visited the MetroWest area as Diller Teen Fellows. Run locally by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the program, which is run in 15 communities throughout North America, is designed to groom a new generation of Jewish leaders here and in Israel.

From March 16 to 25, the Israeli teens stayed with local American families and learned about American-style Judaism, went sight-seeing, and interacted with their American peers; the American teens, all 11th-graders, will return the visit during a three-week seminar in Israel this summer.

The program’s sponsors include the Israel Program Center of UJC MetroWest, The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, and the Helen Diller Foundation.

NJJN caught up with the Israeli and American teens at a farewell celebration held at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany on March 24.

The Israelis’ surprise at the Americans’ level of observance and knowledge about Judaism was a common refrain.

The Israelis also picked up on the intensity with which American high school students throw themselves into their studies and their college searches (while the Americans considered how their peers would spend the same years in military service).

And of course, there was plenty of time to talk about what teenagers share around the world — “going out, having fun, music, movies,” said Inbar, who was hosted by Sydney Hershman of Towaco, a student at Newark Academy and a member of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Hershman celebrated a birthday — complete with cake and being held aloft in a chair by her American and Israeli friends — at the final dinner.

Highlights of the Israeli group’s stay included visiting Ground Zero and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, learning about Jews in the American army at West Point, and spending time with the students in the Israel club at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange.

The teens participated in panel discussions about Jewish pluralism with local rabbis and lay leaders, packed and delivered Passover packages to senior citizens through DOROT, and visited with residents at the Lester Senior Housing Community on the Aidekman campus.

But perhaps most important, they began to share a bond forged through the experience. Yanir was hosted by the family of Justin Weissbrod of Scotch Plains. At the closing dinner, Justin said Yanir wished him a good night with “‘Laila tov, achi’ — Good night, my brother.”

“And that is what he and the other Israeli kids are — our brothers and sisters,” said Justin.

Abby Meth Kanter contributed to this article.

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