MONTREAL — High school student Liora Bitton never thought of herself as a leader, was not active in community life and had not been to Israel.
Today, the École Maïmonide student has an entirely different image of herself after engaging in hands-on social action in Montreal and Israel, and experiencing the diversity of the Jewish People.
Bitton is one of 20 Montreal teens selected for this year’s Diller Teen Fellows, a 15-month program that identifies North American Jewish youth with leadership potential and partners them with students of the same age in Israeli communities.
“Diller has opened my eyes to so many things,” she said. “It brought out the leader in me.”
This the third year the Diller program has been offered in Montreal. It is based at the YM-YWHA, with support from Federation CJA. The current session continues until the end of November.
While strengthening Jewish identity and connection to Israel are pillars of the program, its organizers say it is different because it exposes youth to the realities in their own communities and Israel.
The participants are expected to show initiative and take responsibility, creating and implementing activities.
Bitton and her fellows spent three weeks in Israel this summer with teens from the Negev area of Be’er Sheva/Bnei Simon, with whom they have been in contact since the program began in September 2011.
They volunteered together on community service projects and the Montrealers got to know the country in a deeper way than most Diaspora teens do.
They were reciprocating a 10-day visit by the Israelis to Montreal in March, which included a four-day retreat and then touring and performing community service, such as serving food to the needy or raising funds for charities. They were hosted in the teens’ homes, visited their schools and got an idea of what a Montreal Jewish teen’s life is like.
The Montreal teens saw not only what Israel has accomplished, but also its challenges. Israel is the Jewish state, but its population is very diverse, they learned.
Montreal Diller co-ordinator Yamit Ochayon, a Jewish school teacher originally from Israel, said this is not a typical Jewish youth program.
The Israel trip is just one component, and when they do go, it is not just to tour and have fun. Everything is laid out for them.
“For a whole week, we give them the budget and trust them with creating their activities,” she said.
Jewish students in grades 10 and 11 may apply, and the current fellows come from eight Jewish and non-Jewish schools, including the public system, after making it through a rigorous interview process.
The goal of the program, which was created in 1997 by the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation, is to include Jewish teens from the whole spectrum of religious and cultural backgrounds. They may or may not have been to Israel previously.
By the time they complete the program, the teens should have a respect for the pluralism that exists among Jews, yet have a sense of a common future.
Participation is not free; the students contribute $2,400 for the entire 15 months of programming.
The teens attend monthly educational workshops and four Shabbatons over the duration.
Bitton has found the community work in Israel to be especially rewarding, and likes the confidence placed on the participants. They volunteered at an Ethiopian community centre and at a home for the intellectually disabled, and organized a fundraising parade in Be’er Sheva.
“This was a summer of true growth, both intellectually and emotionally,” said Bitton. “I rediscovered myself as a leader and made solid friendships and strong ties to both my Canadian and Israeli community.”
They also met Israeli Arabs their age in Carmiel, spending two hours talking frankly about their lives and more sensitive issues such as military service and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bitton also enjoyed the Diller congress held at a kibbutz, where they met this year’s 100 other Diller fellows, all Americans, and their equal number of Israeli partners from all over the country. The Americans came from San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles, MetroWest New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
The Montreal Dillers are completing by carrying out final community service projects, with the guidance of mentors. One idea is to raise funds for a school in an impoverished part of Africa.
At the same, time a new group of 20 teens will start a 15-month fellowship this month.
Diller alumni are expected to continue their community activism and leadership development, Ochayan said. “The deal is, we are investing in you, we want you to give back to the community.”
“I’m in my second year as co-ordinator, and it has changed my life, too,” she added. “I feel more connected to the community, you can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.”