Martinsville resident Eric Lederman was selected among only a handful of others to participate in a special 15-month Israeli exchange program—and he has recently returned from three months abroad.
“It was absolutely amazing to travel through Israel and to see the ancient and modern existing side by side,” he said of the program.
Lederman, a student at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, said he was encouraged by a student in another Israeli exchange program to apply for the Diller Teen Fellows program, which operates out of eight regions in the United States and Canada, plus Israel.
“Each region, or cohort, accepts about 20 teens annually into the 15-month program,” he said. “The teens come from the entire religious spectrum.”
Lederman said he had to fill out a lengthy application and get references to vouch for his leadership ability. After interviews and a selection process, he said, he was chosen among 20 teens from this region of New Jersey, and among 300 overall from North America and Israel.
“During the program period, we are required to demonstrate leadership, participate in community service projects, be willing to explore our feelings about Judaism and our relationship with Israel, host an Israeli teen in our home for 10 days and travel to Israel with our group for three weeks,” he said.
The program, according to a release from the organization, is organized by the Diller Teen Initiatives, a program from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, and it pairs incoming high school juniors from North American communities with Israeli students of the same age.
For the first 10 months of the program, Lederman said, they would gather for evenings, and spent a first weekend together at a camp just to get to know each other.
From there, Lederman said, they held study sessions, celebrated holidays together, participated in community service projects and hosted their Israeli teens.
“We began to focus on our differences and similarities,” he said. “There were lots of discussions and lots of laughs.”
And in July, Lederman said, they left for three weeks in Israel, where they had the chance to travel around the country and continue discussions, seeing all the beauty of the country in cultural and exchange activities, while also celebrating Jewish ceremonies, visiting historical sites and volunteering.
This final piece of the program, Lederman said, ended with a Diller Teen Fellows International Congress, where United States and Canadian participants joined with their Israeli teen counterparts for five days.
“During that time, we participated in workshops about Avraham Infeld’s ‘Five Legged Table’ of the greater Jewish community,” he said.
Lederman said they focused on memory, which is about Jewish history; family, from which people learn values; and covenant, or the bond between the Jewish people and God.
“[We also discussed] the Hebrew language and our attachment to it through prayer and the Torah, and Israel, the historic home of the Jewish people that is also the foundation of its future,” he said.
For Lederman, the program was all about connecting with others.
“We got to meet with Jewish and Israeli leaders, and learn a lot about each person’s perspective on Judaism and Israel,” he said. “The bottom line is that there is no one right answer on how to connect with either, it’s just important that we do connect in whatever way is meaningful.”