MORRISTOWN, New Jersey — “We have some birthdays this morning!” an exuberant Liat Cohen-Raviv cried into a microphone while brandishing a fetching chocolate cupcake. Part cheerleader, part den mother, Cohen-Raviv joyfully announced the milestones and — such nachas! — engagements of her vast Diller Teen Fellow team at its recent annual global reunion in Morristown, New Jersey.
Full from a too-lavish bagel buffet, the crowd of Jewish educators, international community leaders, and Diller Teen Fellows support staff clapped and giggled as Cohen-Raviv, the senior director and spirit behind Diller’s international program, played Jewish mother to the hilt and celebrated the “family” she has raised since helping launch the first Diller program for some 20 American and Israeli teenagers in 1998.
It’s come a long way since: Today there are 3,200 Diller Fellows alumni worldwide and this year’s cohort boasts the largest numbers — 640 teens from 32 global communities on six continents. “We’re still working on Antarctica,” joked Cohen-Raviv at the previous night’s banquet.
Back in the 1990s, the impetus for the groundbreaking teen program came when philanthropist Hellen Diller, in seeing the success of existing leadership programs for young professionals, had a vision of reaching potential leaders much earlier. Diller, who died two years ago, once said in a much-quoted statement (and the basis for the Diller Teen Fellow’s theme song) that “it’s never too late, too early, or too often to give back and make the world a better place.”
Those attending the early November annual conference for professionals and lay leaders are entrusted with molding the next generation. Coming from around the Jewish world and with disparate backgrounds, they are tasked with imbuing the teens with a commitment to their communities, the Jewish people, and Israel.
So when they finish the program, these “inspired and empowered” young Jews will have been taught the programs’ four pillars: leadership, Jewish identity, Israel, and tikkun olam. But — as part of the legacy of patron Diller, a legendary party-thrower — as long as Liat “Selfie Stick” Cohen-Raviv is at the helm, all involved will also have lot of fun.
The Diller ripple effect
Helen Diller’s granddaughter is a current Diller Teens Fellow. “It’s nice to see it firsthand,” said her mother, Jackie Safier, Diller’s daughter. Safier is the head of the family’s Prometheus Real Estate Group and now also runs the Diller Family Foundation.
In a phone conversation during the conference, Safier explained that her mother saw the teenage years as formative. To have a greater and more long-lasting impact on potential leaders’ lives, she decided to invest in them early.
Diller pushed for the creation of an intensive program that would foster leadership skills — not only among select Jewish teens in the San Francisco Bay Area where she lived, but also in a group living in the Upper Galilee (San Francisco’s historical Israeli twin “city”).
In its first almost-decade of operation, the Diller Teen Fellows program continued to focus on its two founding communities. Back when Cohen-Raviv, fresh from five years’ IDF service, led the group of Diller teens from Israel’s peripheral Upper Galilee region as a lay volunteer, there were fewer than 20 graduates a year.
By its second decade, the highly competitive program began to spread out all over North America, with new programs popping up in locations such as Baltimore-Ashkelon and Toronto-Eilat. In the past several years, just ahead of its third decade of operations, Diller Teen Fellows has gone global, with new partnerships including London-Tiberias and Buenos Aires-Hof Hasharon.
“We definitely want to continue to grow it,” said Safier, “and once you have this really neat infrastructure, it becomes easier to expand and richer. Now we have teens meeting people from all over the world. There are more reached, which creates a multiplier affect.
“That said, we’re going to shore up the infrastructure before we expand as aggressively again and make sure the excellence remains top notch,” said Safier.
Program nuts and bolts
To design her revolutionary early impact leadership program, Diller reached out to Israeli-born pioneering experimental education expert Dr. Shlomi Ravid. Ravid, who was at the Morristown conference, is today the founding director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and remains a consultant for Diller.
The Diller Teen Fellows program is a carefully crafted cascade of individual and communal self-discovery. At its core is the individual teen on his personal 15-month odyssey. Within the first few meetings, however, he and 19 other teens form a connected web of diverse individuals to become a functional working and planning unit.
“It’s really 20 different journeys in a group setting,” explained Cohen-Raviv between workshop sessions in New Jersey.
After the groups are established, the program then loops in participants’ families. Especially when preparing to welcome and host in their homes their sister city counterparts — a group of 20 other individual teen self-explorers — the families spend time together and plan which jewels of their community to showcase.
A final concentric circle comes in the summer, when the entire international cohort meets up in Israel for a global conference.
The infrastructure of the program also creates a mentoring chain of command. In addition to the group leaders there are usually two alumni participants who, while going through the program for a second year as junior counselors, serve as peer-mentors for the new crop.
The boots-on-the-ground mentorship comes into play quickly. Within its first few meetings, a group must organize a full weekend away for their own immersive experience. With those skills, each group begins to prepare to host its international partner.
The program, Cohen-Raviv said — at its genesis and today — is “brave” in that it allows teens a “safe environment to experiment. We’re not here to tell them about leadership,” she said — the teens learn through leading.
A unique model with unique challenges
Establishing the annual 20-participant local cohort does not always run smoothly, said education director Oren Massey over a cup of coffee between presentations at the New Jersey conference. In the intensive “very complex” selection process, these groups are intentionally formed of teens from different walks of life — religious, secular, wealthy, disadvantaged — who quite possibly would never have met.
With the “tension created with the diversity, we are setting ourselves up for a challenge,” said Massey.
To counteract, the training for Diller staff is comprehensive and ongoing, with both remote and in-person seminars throughout the year.
However, especially in Israel where society is stratified from day care onwards, it can be difficult to find group leaders who are equally able to relate to, for example, religious or secular youth. Add in a second layer of diversity — Diaspora Jewry, which is mostly Reform or Conservative, movements not largely represented in Israel.
Said Massey, “Most Israelis have never heard of Reconstructionist Judaism,” although many in pulpits throughout the US were trained in its seminary.
‘Diversity, this is the reality. What we’re doing is training teens to deal with reality’
On the flip side, many Diaspora Jews are unaware of the nuance found within different sectors of Israeli society. As such, group leaders must, essentially, have the broad-based background the fellows acquire in their 15 months.
Since most Israelis do not receive realistic diverse training, today, the vast majority of current staffing hires are from the ever-growing pool of alumni.
“Diversity, this is the reality,” said Cohen-Raviv. “What we’re doing is training teens to deal with reality.”
Enough bang for stretched communal bucks?
Alongside its local/global perspective and in-the-trenches leadership training, what is equally innovative is that communities and participants are not merely philanthropic recipients, but financial partners with the Diller foundation.
Although Cohen-Raviv estimates that Diller shoulders approximately 70 percent of the costs, this is no easy come, easy go free Israel trip: Each participant much find funding or pay the approximately $4,000 fee (which includes overseas plane fare). Likewise, the local communities must budget for subsidies and its portion of the outlay, which, according to Dana Prottas from Minnesota, is not easy in smaller Jewish communities.
As head of Yachad, the Jewish educational platform for teens in Minneapolis, Prottas joined the annual conference in New Jersey as a scout for her community. Like many less densely Jewish-populated areas, the Twin Cities community’s budgets are carefully assembled and earmarked. And with a free trip to Israel looming through Birthright, which takes Jews aged 18-27 on a 10-day journey, parents are less likely to subsidize one for teens.
Speaking with The Times of Israel on a bus ferrying to and from the local country club for a catered kosher buffet, Prottas expressed skepticism that she could justify such a heavy financial investment into so few participants. Like most supervisors working with an already overstretched budget, Prottas is aware of the quality of the programing, but needs to show bang for communal bucks.
Cohen-Raviv is well aware of this quandary and admits the program is not for every community. As the partnerships continue to grow, she said the decision makers are balancing the belief in their mission and desire to be available to all, with the understanding that “not every community has the capacity to take it on.”
When speaking of size of a Jewish population in a potential partnership, Cohen Raviv pointedly distinguished between sheer numbers and percentage of engagement. For example, there may be under 50,000 Jews in Johannesburg, she said, but most of them are members and involved with the community. Likewise for Melbourne, which has a similarly engaged, yet relatively small Jewish population. The Diller program is flourishing in both locations.
According to Ginette Searle, executive director of the Zionist Federation of Australia, the impact of the Teen Fellows program is well beyond the 20 participants. In addition to direct effect via the teens on the families and local communities, there are “intangible benefits,” she said.
Melbourne’s new partnership and close friendship with the Golan Heights is primary, she said, but even within the Melbourne community, where a sizable number of pupils attend Jewish day school, there is more cohesion through increased contact.
Searle was likewise impressed by the professional mentoring participants received toward completing their end of year “impact projects,” which are aimed to aid the Jewish community, or give a Jewish take on a more general problem. She cited one teen who decided to facilitate the accessibility of sanitary napkins to Indian girls, and the “unbelievable” professional connections Diller opened up to her.
“How can we maximize these relationships,” mused Searle. “There’s a lot of opportunity we can develop, to build up,” she said.
Diller’s impact wears blue and white
“I sold my soul for Jewish education,” joked Moran Shevach at the Diller banquet. Shevach participated in the Diller Teen Fellows program in Israel in 2006-7 and is today an emissary in New Jersey’s Metro-West Jewish community. “I fell in love with Diller… I got a flu called Diller,” she laughed.
Switching to a more serious gear, Shevach said, “to educate correctly, you need to understand where you come from.”
But it was seeing another part of the Jewish peoplehood that changed pre-army service volunteer Oz Attar’s life. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, the Diller program “was the first time I had heard of religious pluralism,” he said.
‘The program opened my mind. I want to open other people’s minds’
“The experience was so amazing, I want to educate also. The program opened my mind. I want to open other people’s minds… to absolutely get out of your comfort zone,” said Attar.
However, in terms of simple saturation, the real long-term winner of the Diller Teen program is Israel.
A statistically disproportionate number of Israeli Diller alumni continue on to a volunteer pre-army year of community service, said Raviv-Cohen. Many others serve as post-army emissaries to the Jewish World. They become Knesset helpers, communal leaders, officers in the army, and involved in student government, she said.
And as different groups are started throughout the world, in Israel the impact is proportionately greater because for every group begun outside of Israel, another group is launched inside.
Daughter Safier believes this added value for Israel was her mother’s intention. Among her mother Hellen Diller’s numerous philanthropic initiatives, said Safier, the Diller Teen Fellows program “was the apple of her eye, the favorite thing she’s ever done.”
“If there’s a main beneficiary it’s Israel,” said Safier. “The teen fellows program is a phenomenal way to invest in Israel, and the youth of Israel.”
The writer was a guest of the Diller Teen Fellows program.