Sprawled on the floor of a meeting room on the Aidekman campus in Whippany on April 11, 20 teenagers opened shopping bags and examined their purchases from a recent trip to the mall.
They might have been any group of local youth, but these young people had a lot more on their minds than comparing their new T-shirts and sneakers.
They were young Israelis who, with a peer group of area teens, are part of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s 2010-11 Diller Teen Fellows program.
Daphna Yizrael, MetroWest youth shliha — an emissary stationed at MetroWest’s Legow Family Israel Program Center on the Aidekman campus and coordinator of the Diller program here — said the program is designed to develop the next generation of leaders, both locally and in Rishon Letzion, a MetroWest partner community in Israel; its goal is “for this future generation of Jewish leaders to be committed to the Jewish people, Israel, and community service.”
The Diller program, which is run in 16 communities in North America and Israel, is also sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation; UJC MetroWest’s education arm, the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, is actively involved in the community service aspect of the program.
That day at the Aidekman campus, the young Israelis, all from Rishon Letzion, were in the middle of their April 5-14 trip, getting an up-close introduction to American-Jewish life. That goal was accomplished through a visit to New York and sites of American-Jewish history, meetings with local rabbis and community leaders, participation in a kabalat Shabbat event at Lester Senior Housing Community on the Aidekman campus, encounters with American teenagers at public and Jewish day schools, and even attending a professional basketball game.
Most important, said organizers, was their getting to know their 19 MetroWest counterparts, chosen a year ago to take part in the program that began last September and runs until next November. This summer, the MetroWest Diller teens will return the visit for a three-week seminar in Israel.
For some of the visiting Israelis, staying with their MetroWest peers’ families was most significant: Maor Sagiv said, “Seeing the everyday life of my host, Isaac Feldman, was so interesting.”
For Maor, “the most meaningful moment in the seminar was when we spent hours talking about our similarities and differences,” and another highlight “was spending four hours at Mountain Lakes High School. I got a chance to speak with four different classes about the life of Israeli teens.”
“It is important that both groups got to know each other better,” said Yizrael, “for Americans to know how Israeli teens are in real life — what are their dreams, what do they think about, what do they share, and what is different about them.”
Israeli Ophir Shinhertz, who stayed with Jason Roth of South Orange, said that the group’s visit to the Reform Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston led to an understanding that “you have to struggle to stay Jewish in a society of mixed religions and beliefs. I realized that people in these kinds of societies have to try harder to keep their beliefs than in a place like Israel where the majority of the population is Jewish.”
“Once I realized that, I understood why it was so important to have kindergarten and after-school programs in the synagogue,” said Ophir. “It is vital to make it more than just a place to pray. It is more like a Jewish center, a place where people can meet other people with whom they share something in common — their Jewish identity.”
While the Diller teens noted contrasts — “Everything is so big and so different from Israel,” said Michal Mahari — some, like Addi Katzav, who was born in Florida and moved to Israel as a child, also stressed the similarities. He said he wanted the Americans to know that “we are not so different from them. We play soccer and basketball and watch TV and do other things they do.”
“But the difference,” he added, “is we live in a Jewish country.”
The teens talked about prospects for peace and the distorted image of their country Americans often get from the media.
Hen Sigal, for example, said she would like Americans to know that “Israel is really different from what they think it is. I watch the news and we get a lot of bad press. When I was little there was a lot of fear, but not right now. We are trying to make peace but both sides should work hard for peace.”
When it comes to prospects for peace, said Tomer Camaran, he is “always optimistic, but we need to be prepared for the worst things that can happen. I want to be a fighter to defend my homeland.”
He talked about going on a scouting trip and meeting “Palestinian and Arabic people.”
“They seemed nice but they are so different from us. We don’t share the same things,” said Tomer. But, he added, if there is peace and “we will live with them we can get used to them.”
“I hope it will be peace with the Palestinians,” said Michal. “In school I learned Arabic. So we spoke with Arabic people and they explained about what they are doing. I think I could be friendly with them. I hope the Arab countries will understand that peace is good for us both.”
As they look toward the future, all the teens said they are optimistic about potential political transformations in the Arab lands surrounding Israel.
“I think the revolutions are only the best for us, because after the change there will maybe be democratic countries,” said Avigdor Ben Horin. “Then we can negotiate and maybe have peace. I can see it in my future in 20 or 30 years.”
Tomer, however, was not so sure that the Arab revolutions will have a positive outcome. “We don’t know what is going to happen so it can be a bad thing,” he said; but, he added, “I want to believe there is hope that the new governments will like peace and we will have what we want.”