For many young American Jews, a trip to Israel-whether via youth group, study abroad, or Taglit-Birthright Israel-has become nearly as much a rite of passage as a bar/bat mitzvah.
But as 19 Israeli high school students learned in April during a two-week visit to Chicago through the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's Diller Teen Fellows program, cultural exchange doesn't just go in one direction.
"America is so different than Israel in so many ways," said Nur Lev, 15, who, like all of the teens on the trip, hails from Chicago's Partnership 2Gether region in Israel, including Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. "Being here, and hearing new opinions… it opens your mind."
The students are the Israeli counterparts to a cohort of 17 Chicago-area Jewish teens. Their Chicago visit was just one component of the 15-month JUF-supported Diller program, which will send the American teens to Israel for an additional joint seminar this summer.
Since the program began last fall, both groups have been participating in monthly seminars and weekend retreats in their respective countries, focusing on leadership, tikkun olam (social action and community service), Jewish identity, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. Last month's trip, however, marked the first in-person meeting of the two groups.
"It was amazing to see how quickly the teens were able to form one group out of two," said Program Coordinator Jessica Fisher. "We work all year to facilitate relationships across the ocean, but the connection that happens face-to-face is so much deeper and stronger than anything that we could accomplish over Skype."
The trip kicked off with a weekend of team-building and bonding at Camp Chi in Wisconsin Dells. From there, the rest of the time was spent exploring the Chicago-area Jewish community, and learning about Jewish life in America through panel discussions, lectures, and a day shadowing their peers at their respective high schools. The teens also spent some time volunteering, and taught a class at a Jewish day school.
While in Chicago, the teens were hosted by the families of their American peers, giving them a chance to forge even deeper connections and get an authentic taste of American life.
For Ittai Harkabi, 17, of Lachish, one of the biggest "aha!" moments came from hearing a panel of Chicago rabbis speak about the nuances of their different religious denominations-which are not common in Israeli society.
"In Israel there's a lot of separation because there is no middle-there's only religious or not religious, Jewish or Arab, right or left," he said. "When nothing is in the middle, people go to the extreme, and you can never get people to unite. It was lovely to see how all these American rabbis got along. I think if we could have this in Israel, we would have peace."
The international Diller program began in 1997, and has grown to include 10 North American/Israeli partnerships. The program was created to inspire and train future generations of Jewish leaders worldwide who will be committed to the Jewish community, Israel and community service.
According to Leah Umanskiy, 15, a sophomore at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School and participant in this year's inaugural Chicago cohort-so far, it's working.
"My involvement in the Diller program is probably one of the best things that's happened to me," said Umanskiy. "I've learned a lot about myself as a leader, as a follower, and even as a friend."
In addition to developing valuable leadership skills, Umanskiy said she has forged incredible friendships with both her American and Israeli peers. "Over the past eight months, the members of our Chicago cohort have become like one family, and now we have extended our family with the Israeli cohort. Words truly cannot describe the connections we have made over the past 10 days," she said.
The Diller Teen Fellows program is funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the San Francisco Federation's Jewish Community Endowment Fund. The local Chicago program is a collaboration of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, the International Diller Teen Fellows office, JUF/Federation, and its Partnership 2Gether region in Israel. It is open to Chicago area Jewish high school sophomores and juniors, and is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 cohort.