"Dude, aren't you scared? Everybody has guns there and stuff," said my friend, as we went for a drive back in California earlier this summer. "Just don't die over there,” he told me.
What classic words of encouragement, just what I wanted to hear before I left on my journey to Israel. But before I go any further, I need to give you some background on my story.
I am part of a Jewish teen leadership group, the Diller Teen Fellows, based in San Francisco. There are Diller groups like mine in five other North American communities, and each group on the North American side partners with a group of teens from a specific community in Israel.
This exclusive leadership group is based on the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.” We concentrate on Jewish leadership education, learning about our Jewish heritage, as well as how to be a Jewish leader in the modern world.
The Diller Teen Fellows program also has instilled in me a strong connection to Israel, built over timethrough the relationships I have been fortunate to develop with the members of my own and the other Diller groups, both stateside and in Israel.
Speaking of Israel and its importance to Diller, I just returned from an unforgettable experience in Israel as a keystone component of the Diller Teen program. Earlier this year, we in the San Francisco cohort had the chance to host our Israeli counterparts. During the North American Seminar, Israelis from the Upper Galilee region in Israel (they are the San Francisco cohort’s partners), came to San Francisco for three weeks to visit us, see our wonderful city and participate in a home stay with our families.
The seminar gave the Israelis the opportunity to see what being an American Jew is like as well as a good excuse to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world – ours. While they were here, we showed them Lombard Street and Ghirardelli Square, we attended Golden State Warriors games and we made sure to give them a taste what it’s like to live in this amazing city.
Next it was our turn to visit them in Israel. This summer, all six cohorts from the six North American DillerTeen communities together trekked to Israel. We toured the country, commemorated Shabbat each week, hiked through the Negev, engaged in community service, and spent time getting to know the rest of the Diller Teen Fellows.
It was a three-week, jam-packed leadership workshop, which turned out to be one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Now, back to the story! As soon as I landed in Israel, I realized that this trip was very special; it was not going to be like any I would have been able to experience through any other program – it was life–changing, in a sense. Each day was filled with something new and creative, something that I did not expect. I remember early on thinking, "This trip is going to go by so quickly, no matter how much we want to stop it. It’s going to whiz by."
No sooner did I say that then I was I gazing at the airport doors which read, "Come back soon!"
Looking back, my Diller Teen experience has changed my outlook on life. Coming into the program, I was like clay, new, impressionable and searching to discover what kind of person I could become. Diller has helped to mold me and has given me the tools to grow and be the best person possible, and to shape other lives by leading through example and inspiration.
I can’t help but to take the opportunityto give a public thank you to Helen Diller, who founded the Diller Teen Fellows program, as well as everyone involved with this incredible organization, all those who enabled me to have the incredible and valuable experience that I just had.
When I returned from my trip, that same friend who thought Israel was all about guns and violence told me that I "looked changed.”
I just told him, "Thanks." But what I was thinking to myself was: "Changed? You don't know the half of it."
Alex Jekowsky is a member of the 2011-12 Diller Teen Fellows San Francisco delegation. He lives in Tiburonand is an incoming senior at Redwood High School.