March 20, 2019

Tucked deep amid a sea of 700 teens sitting outside a college campus in Israel, I stood up to take the pulse of what was happening around me. Some of my peers were laughing, others hugged as if it were the last time they would see each other. I tried to catch my breath. We had accomplished so much together in just three short weeks. Despite my friends feverishly tugging on my shirt, urging me to sit down and join the festivities, I had to snap this mental picture. 

A key element of the Diller Teen Fellowship is teaching participants that effective leaders assume the helm while simultaneously valuing diverse opinions. This is crucial when discussing one’s beliefs with people from various cultures and backgrounds. One of the core pillars of Diller is pluralism: embracing diversity and seeking to understand different opinions in order to coexist. This open discourse was epitomized one morning in a program called “Philosophical Shabbat,” where 30 international students (including me) gathered in a room to dispute various philosophers’ views on Judaism and God. 

The morning began with an activity icebreaker during which teens were given a notecard with a philosophical question on it. We were instructed to walk up to one another, ask the question and then trade cards. Typically, when teens — particularly American teens — interact for the first time, they aren’t questioning anything remotely as weighty as the other person’s religious beliefs. However in Diller, this is simply a normal introduction. With notecard in hand, I approached a tall, broad-shouldered boy. We exchanged pleasantries. I learned he was from Montreal. Then abruptly, he got more substantive. “Do you believe in God?” he asked. Here was an absolute stranger cutting right to the core. How forthright was I going to be with a person I ‘d literally just met? Was I going to reveal my internal struggles with my beliefs? 

Every Jew prays in a different way and connects to what it means to “be Jewish”
in a different way.

After the icebreaker, we formed groups with four strangers who lived in other parts of the world. In my group was an Orthodox boy from Melbourne, Australia; an atheist from Cape Town, South Africa; a Conservative from Baltimore; and me, a Reform Jew from Los Angeles. 

Our adviser gave us a passage from a Jewish philosopher who wrote about what he imagined to be the “Jewish God.” Simply put, he theorized that whatever is written in the Torah is 100 percent factual.

This philosophy resonated with the Orthodox student from Melbourne, who couldn’t fathom how Jews didn’t believe in and strictly adhere to the Torah’s teachings. Not surprisingly, the atheist challenged this notion, arguing one doesn’t have to believe in God to be Jewish. Moreover, he found no meaning in prayer because he believed everyone prays to a God. Despite his atheism, he considered himself Jewish because the teachings, values and traditions still resonated with him. 

What I appreciated about this was the gray area: In Judaism there is no clear-cut definition or belief one must obtain. Every Jew prays in a different way and connects to what it means to “be Jewish” in a different way. As we continued our discussion, I couldn’t help but appreciate the civil way we defended our differing religious beliefs. While we all hailed from vastly different geographic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, we connected with one another on a personal level. 

Through my countless conversations with people of various cultures and beliefs, I’ve learned the difference between hearing and listening to someone — namely, when you listen, the information truly resonates. In society, it is common for people to label one another by their political party, race, gender or religious beliefs. In our conversations in Israel, we were emotionally stripped down and were able to look past these one-dimensional labels to find ways to accept and respect one another rather than adopting any preconceived notions.

Ashley Lifton is a current senior at New West Charter and was a member of the Los Angeles Diller Teen Fellows from 2017-18.

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