EXTRAORDINARY TEENS AT DJCS
By Guest Writer: Jo Michaels
I should start by noting that until recently, I had never heard of the Diller Teen Fellowship (DTF). I won’t be too hard on myself as it’s been more than twenty years since I was in fact, a teenager. That being said, the DTF was brought to my attention a few months ago by Belinda Keshen and Marsha Slavens, the principal and a high school teacher (respectively) at the Downtown Jewish Community School (DJCS) in Toronto.
According to their website, Diller Teen Fellows is an immersive leadership program inviting a select group of Jewish 10th and 11th graders to step up, lead their communities, and repair the world. I’m told that the selection process is quite rigorous and that it is a notable accomplishment to be accepted, which brings to me the point of this article. At the Downtown Jewish Community School - this one small supplementary Jewish school - three high school students have already been chosen as Diller Teen Fellows.
Let’s start by acknowledging that there are still Jewish teens who voluntarily attend the monthly High School program at the DJCS. In fact, according to Marsha Slavens, the class currently has 18 committed students and two shinshinim (young Israeli emissaries). The students hear from captivating guest speakers, go on social outings and enjoy meaningful discussions, so it comes as no surprise that three of these immersed and dedicated teens were accepted to the Diller Teen Fellowship; Antigone Fogel was the first.
“The most memorable experience for me was the Israel Summer Experience as a Diller Fellow. It was during Operation Protective Edge (in Gaza), and Toronto was the only Diller cohort in the world to proceed with the trip. I learned so much about the beauty of the program, had fun and loved the intellectual challenge. It forced me to think about who I am as a Jew.”
Maya Rotstein was accepted next. She comes from a Jewish and Muslim background and practices both religions. She found that the DTF helped her to learn about her history and to understand how important it is to reach out to people who are in need. Maya noted, “I think it is extremely important to foster young Jewish leaders because they are the ones who are going to be building the Jewish future in their communities. Empowering youth and educating them about Israel and the responsibility we have to one another will benefit [all of us] tremendously in the future.”
Theadora Draper, adopted from China and raised in Canada, was the most recent DJCS student to be selected and is still somewhat new to the Fellowship, but she has already formed some very mature opinions on how the DTF will be of benefit.
“We live in a time where almost every week you hear of another terrorist attack, or about the conflict in the Middle East. With all the different media outlets available, it becomes harder to tell what’s true, so it then becomes our job to find out before making a judgment. As teens, we are the next generation that will be running the world. It’s our job to know how to be a good leader, so when the time comes, we will be ready to take charge [and] to do things like tikkun olam, repairing the world. We need to be ready to face the world as a strong and united Jewish community.”
These three young, articulate women have gained and will continue to gain indispensable leadership skills among other teens from North American, South African, Australian and Israeli communities. They have spent/will spend 15 months engrossed in the program which features a commitment to hands-on tikkun olam, building a connection to the Jewish people and Israel, and deepening their Jewish identity.
Not to be overshadowed, Lena Ford (another DJCS high school student) was recently selected to the Jewish Teen Board of Greater Toronto - a year-long program open to Jewish teens in grades 9 through 11. During this past academic year, Lena has been working together with thirty other teens to acquire critical research skills, enhance leadership abilities, and learn the ins and outs of professional philanthropy.
Lena wanted to feel part of the Jewish community and this was a perfect opportunity to meet other Jewish kids her own age. According to Lena, “Most of the other members are in a Jewish environment every day as they go to CHAT or other schools with Jewish students. I am the only one from Downtown Toronto.”
When you break this down, what stands out is the impact that this could have on the growing downtown Jewish community. Nearly 25% of the students from one downtown supplementary Jewish high school class have been selected to participate in elite leadership programs. This bodes well for the future of the diverse Jewish community south of Bloor.
The Board and staff of the Downtown Jewish Community School could not be prouder of these exemplary students and the dedication they have shown to becoming strong, passionate Jewish leaders. Yasher Koach!
EXPLORING JEWISH MEANING
Principal Belinda Keshen has been published in the Jewish Theological Seminary's Fall issue of Gleanings newsletter. Her article is part of a larger collection that The Davidson School sourced from over 20 leaders in Jewish education as part of a conference around the term “meaning” with support from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
Belinda's article appears on Page 6 and is entitled: Exploring Jewish Meaning Through Authenticity, Lived Experience, and Reflective Practice (Strategies in an Informal Education Structure)