Anna Hutchinson quickly made some close friends when 20 Diller Teen Fellows from Israel came to Pittsburgh in March.
After the teens returned home to Israel, Hutchinson kept in contact with them through text messages and on Facebook.
Hutchinson, a 16-year-old junior at Mt. Lebanon High School, flew to Israel last week with the Pittsburgh contingent of Diller Teens and will have a chance to see her Israeli friends again.
“Knowing that I’m going to see my friends is almost more exciting than just going to see Masada or the Kotel (Western Wall),” Hutchinson said the day before she left. “I want the standard Israeli trip experiences, but I also want to see what people do day-to-day when they actually have a chance to live in our homeland.”
The trip is the student exchange component of the selective Diller Teen Fellows 15-month international leadership program that began last September. Organized by Diller Teen Initiatives, a program of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, the Diller Teen Fellows program pairs incoming high school juniors and seniors from North American communities with Israeli students their same age.
Through educational workshops, weekend retreats and the creation and implementation of social service projects in each partner community throughout the year, the program empowers participants to be engaged, effective leaders with a strong understanding of their Jewish identity and respect for Jewish pluralism and peoplehood.
Nineteen Pittsburgh Diller Teens have been matched up with their counterparts from Karmiel-Misgav, in northern Israel. The other North American communities sending teens to Israel are Baltimore, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto and Metro West New Jersey. There are almost 300 American and Israeli participants.
The three-week trip is broken down into three parts: one week for traveling the country, one week for living in the Karmiel-Misgav community, and one week for congress when all of the North American groups will meet and have a seminar focusing on the concept of a global Jewish peoplehood.
Hutchinson, who is on the executive board of her youth group at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, informs teens about opportunities to visit Israel and encourages them to take those trips. This will be her first time in Israel.
“I’m really hoping to get the experience everybody says it is,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve been convincing other teenagers to go on Israeli trips and saying that these trips are going to change your life, you have the right as a Jew to go back to Israel, to your home and I’m hoping for just a little bit of a return on that.”
She thinks that this trip will be more valuable than other trips because the teens have a chance to stay with an Israeli family for some time.
“I don’t think you can get that kind of connection and you don’t get to learn the history or learn about the culture from the same personal level with other trips,” Hutchinson said. “It makes it a lot more personal when something about Israel comes up on the news.”
Henry Cohen, 17, another Diller Teen from Pittsburgh and a senior at Shadyside Academy, is also making his first trip to Israel. Like Hutchinson, Cohen is more excited for the community week than anything else.
“Staying with an Israeli family is going to be really interesting and I think I’ll get a better sense of the culture,” he said.
Cohen is looking forward to the trip, but did not want to speculate on what he might get out of his journey because of previous Diller experiences.
“I’ve kind of reached the conclusion that going into a Diller event with specific expectations is probably not the greatest way to go into it because I’m probably going to learn more than I ever could expect to and probably going to experience things that I would never imagine,” he said. “I’m just going to go and get as much out of it as I can.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)