My Journey to Multifaith Leadership: A Story of the Diller Teen Fellows

Diller ShirtBy Katie Wysong

One recent afternoon in March, I hurriedly wrote the words “Multifaith Teen Leadership Workshop” on a blank piece of paper and stuck it on the door of the conference room at the Beresford Rec Center in San Mateo. In that moment, I did not realize how much had gone into that act. The workshop, which I was hosting, leading and facilitating, was my Diller Teen Fellow’s Impact Project, and was the culmination of over 17 months in the program.

The path to the workshop actually started much earlier. I am a 17 year old from San Mateo, California, and come from an interfaith family. My path could be said to have started with my parents’ marriage, which included the breaking of glass under the watch of a Unitarian minister. The more direct path started my freshman year at Aragon High School, when I participated in a dialogue program for Jewish and Muslim teens called Abraham’s Vision Unity Program. That summer, I volunteered as a Youth Leader for Peace Village, a camp for elementary and middle school age kids jointly hosted by a local Congregationalist Church, a Muslim community, and my synagogue, Peninsula Temple Beth El.

A few years later, when I was nominated for the San Francisco Diller Teen Fellows program, an international Jewish leadership program jointly run by the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, I was drawn in by the opportunity to create a Tikkun Olam or Impact Project. My mind immediately went back to the wonderful experiences I had at Abraham’s Vision and Peace Village. Inspired, I applied to and joined the Diller program, making one of the best decisions of my life.

Throughout the program, which began in August of 2013 and ended February of this year, I learned skills that are incredibly useful, including how to plan and lead programs, activities, and workshops, and how to better understand cultural differences. During the North American Diller Seminar in the spring, we finally met our Israeli partners from the Upper Galilee. Each Fellow was assigned a partner early in the program, and we messaged back and forth months before we met. At the retreat during the Seminar, we engaged in activities involving cheese puffs and Tevas meant to highlight the cultural differences and stereotypes that existed between us. At home with my partner, our casual conversations unveiled more differences in everything from school dances to political views. I realized that dialogue was not just important for interfaith communication, but for any group.

One of the major components of the program is a three week trip to Israel in the summer. There we have a homestay and plan an entire week for ourselves. Last summer, however, was marked by the conflict with Hamas and it was decided, ultimately, that it was not then safe for us to go to Israel. Although we could have given up and not done anything, we embraced the opportunity and started planning local activities right away. I opted to return to Peace Village, where I led a program and invited Diller Fellows to take part. Their encouragement inspired me to choose to make an interfaith workshop for my Impact Project.

That fall as we, the Diller Fellows, began to work on the mission, vision and goals of our Impact projects, I already knew what I wanted: a sort of Peace Village experience for teens. At every workshop, I was inspired hearing about the different ideas from the other Fellows. There were websites, lesson plans, lectures and so many other creative projects aimed at improving different parts of our communities. Through Diller, I had so many different levels of support. I had our intern, Ariel, help me plan my pitch to my Rabbi. Gabi, the Federation’s Diller coordinator, helped me perfect my schedule over coffee. I received a grant from the program to cover the cost of renting a room for the workshop, and even received help from the organizers of Abraham’s Vision and Peace Village.

On the day of my workshop, on March 14, eight participants from Diller, my synagogue, my school, the Teen Interfaith Leadership Council, and elsewhere arrived to take part. I started the workshop with trust activities, and people were immediately engaged. It was great to observe the different backgrounds and perspectives of the participants in a non-confrontational way. In a lighter activity, we designed a city discussing the values and goals of the community. We created an eco-friendly tourist town centered around a pyramid with lots of farming called “San Franaverage.” I gauged the group’s success based on how people interacted during the breaks. It was inspiring to see people connecting and making new friends in the informal time.

I was nervous as we entered the dialogue portion of the workshop. I had never facilitated dialogue before. After explaining the basic principles of dialogue and the difference between dialogue and normal conversation or debate, I had the participants practice dialogue in pairs on funny topics such as the best pizza place or whether Starbucks or Philz was better. My stomach churned during the break before the big moment. I started with some open-ended questions about exclusion and prejudice. Everyone offered stories from their own experiences. While some people needed prodding, others spoke more willingly. In the end, I believe that the dialogue helped us gain a little better understanding of the variety of experiences and points of view that exist.

Although that experience is over, I hope to continue similar work in the future. Next year, I will attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. As a Jesuit university, there is a long history of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. I am excited to engage in fascinating dialogue in the college setting, and to continue the mission of Tikkun Olam and Diller.

To learn more about Diller Teen Fellows or to apply, visit www.jewishfed.org/get-involved/sf-diller-teen-fellows, or contact Lara Walklet at 415.512.6292.