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No Such Thing as a “Fake Jew”

Vayikra 5779 / 16 March 2019

March 19, 2019

Shabbat shalom everyone and thank you for having me. So to be honest, writing this speech was really hard – I’m gonna be speaking about the Diller teen fellows program, and it’s a program I really love, but it’s always so hard for me to talk about… when I come home from one of our shabbatonim or workshops, how am I supposed to explain to my mom that yes, I did have fun doing hours on end of… Jewish learning? I know it sounds strange. But bear with me.

So this week’s parsha is Vayikra, the first parsha in Leviticus, and it outlines different kinds of sacrifices, what they are for, and how they are to be conducted. While I was looking at different interpretations of Vayikra and googling “Vayikra for kids easy explained,” I came across one d’var by a reform rabbi named Dahlia Marx, who looked at the different rules for who could and who could not conduct the ritual sacrifices. The Torah says “speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: when any person of you presents an offering…” (Leviticus 1:2), which seems to include all people of Israel, and even anyone maybe associated with the Israelites: anyone can lay their hands on the offering. However, the Mishnah says “All may perform the laying on of hands excepting a deaf-mute, an imbecile, a minor, a blind man, a gentile, a slave, an agent… or …. a woman” (M’nachot 9:8). This one is a lot more exclusive: there are clearly those entitled and those not entitled to laying hands on the offering – insiders and outsiders.

So this is kind of an awkward transition but I did want to heavily plug Diller and I feel like I should give a full explanation first…

Diller Teen Fellows is not-your-average Jewish teen Israel program. It’s a year-long program in 16 international communities in 6 different countries, each paired with teens in a different community in Israel. During the year, the fellows in their local cohorts attend – and plan together – workshops and shabbatonim focused around 6 core values of leadership, Jewish identity, tikkun olam, pluralism, Jewish peoplehood, and Israel. In the spring, the Israeli cohorts each go and visit their partnership cohorts for 10 days, where the Diller process really begins. Here, while the Israelis stay in the homes of the international fellows, the Israelis and the international fellows together plan for a week in Israel called community week, where the kids plan everything – from the activities to the transportation to even the food the group will eat. The program culminates in a 3-week Israel trip that includes some Israel-exploring and sight seeing, community week (which is what the kids have to plan), and finally Congress, where ALL the Diller fellows from around the world, around 600 kids, come together and learn from each other about Judaism – and life – all around the world.

I started at the Diller teen fellows program, as many teens would start any program advertised as a “Jewish teen leadership program”: my parents made me. At the first workshop, I sat in a circle at the Jewish Community Family Services building in Bala Cynwyd, staring into the faces of six other young Jewish teens, all of whom lived outside of Philadelphia, but when asked, would say they were from Philly… an immediate red flag. After a couple hours of Judaism-themed discussions, I was ready to go. As soon as I got into the safety of our car, after the workshop, I said to my mom, “these kids are nothing like me!!! This is NOT the program for me.”

So now back to the parsha connection – in the beginning of Diller, I felt totally excluded from… putting my hands on the metaphorical offering. Even though I had gone to Hebrew school since I was 7, I somehow felt less entitled to my claim to Judaism than the other kids. I felt like I didn’t know as many of the biblical stories as did the rabbi’s daughter in the group, or the girl who went to Jewish day school. I didn’t feel a strong connection to Israel, like two of the kids who had spent a high school semester there, or my friend whose two older brothers made aliyah. I had been to Israel before, but it kind of just felt like any vacation. Somehow, I felt like a “fake jew.”

So in this way, I really felt like an outsider at first. But as the program went on, I discovered all these little moments that helped me feel like being Jewish was something important, something central to my life, and something fun: The conservative service at Temple University Hillel where I knew most of the prayers (with the help of some transliteration). Havdalah with all the Philadelphia fellows and Israeli fellows. Sitting around a campfire with my cohort singing Hebrew songs. Leading my very own text study unit on tazria metzorah and actually feeling like the other kids were engaged. Swimming at night at the beach in Herzliya with my Israelis. Chasing all the cats in Jerusalem. All of these helped me feel ownership over my Judaism and my relationship with Israel, and even a real love for all of those suburban kids.

And now I will NEVER let anyone say they’re a “fake Jew” because there’s no such thing – everyone just connects differently. (Plus, and I always say this during my no-such-thing-as-a-fake-Jew shpiel, pluralism is one of the Diller pillars – there’s no right or wrong way to be Jewish).

And the good thing is, the Diller experience is really different for everyone because it’s whatever you make of it. And at the end of the program, everyone feels like they can have their hands on the offering.

This year, my sister Ariel is doing Diller, and I’m Junior Counseling. Our experiences are already different, because… pluralism and identity… but we are both having fun.

So PLEASE if you have or know any kid going into 10th or 11th grade, tell them about Diller Teen Fellows!! We are accepting applications now!

Find out more about Diller Teen Fellows here.