Israeli and Pittsburgh teens gain mutual understanding during Diller Mifgash
Diller Teen FellowsCreating Connections

Israeli and Pittsburgh teens gain mutual understanding during Diller Mifgash

Midway through yearlong program to bolster Jewish identity, young adults meet, begin broaching war and other 'weighty subjects'

Diller Teen Fellows Carmel Bash, Gabe Seldin, Shahar Ben Shimon and Moriah Neiss gather during the Jewish Community Mifgash. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Diller Teen Fellows Carmel Bash, Gabe Seldin, Shahar Ben Shimon and Moriah Neiss gather during the Jewish Community Mifgash. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

A school year typified by contention and violence is closing with a quest for friendship.

Since Oct. 7, Israel’s teens have attended classes while the country fights Hamas. During the same span, Pittsburgh’s Jewish teens have faced rising antisemitism at home, including defacement of private property and vandalization of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School.

During time together last month, Israeli and Pittsburgh teens largely avoided discussing hardships wrought by conflict, political extremism or destruction. Instead, high schoolers in the Diller Teen Fellows program celebrated Shabbat, explored western Pennsylvania and discussed shared interests and Jewish identity.

The annual Jewish Community Mifgash seminar in Pittsburgh is part of Diller’s yearlong program. Pittsburgh fellows meet once or twice a month for Sunday workshops, complete four overnight weekend retreats and reconvene with the Israeli cohort in the Jewish state for three weeks during the summer.

Despite the ongoing war clouding this year’s Mifgash, organizers determined that Oct. 7 wasn’t to be broached during initial conversations in Pittsburgh, according to Rebecca Kahn, director of teen leadership at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Not because we don’t think it’s important, but because we thought it was more important that they build connections together that are based on things beyond a traumatic experience,” she said.

Forcing conversation between Israeli and American teens “doesn’t make sense,” Kahn continued.

“Our experiences are so otherworldly different,” Point Breeze resident and Diller Teen Fellow Gabe Seldin said. “It’s very, very, impossible, sometimes, to make connections and relate with that subject.”

For high schoolers, meaningful relationships are forged through dialogue “in a way that feels safe and comfortable,” Kahn said.

Israeli and Pittsburgh teens gather for Shabbat at Emma Kaufmann Camp. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Several participating teens praised Diller’s approach and said that preliminary days of casual conversation between Israelis and Pittsburghers led to heftier exchanges later into the April 9-18 Mifgash.

Throughout the 10 days, nearly 20 visiting Israeli teens stayed in Pittsburghers’ homes, ran errands together and chatted. The young adults also jointly traveled to West Virginia for Shabbat at Emma Kaufmann Camp.

At camp, on car rides or inside the Squirrel Hill JCC, the high schoolers talked.

“I saw that being Jewish is difficult no matter where you are,” Misgav resident Carmel Bash said.

“It was definitely hard to speak up at first about how I felt about different things, but as this Diller experience has gone I’ve been definitely more open and able to speak my opinions,” Moriah Neiss, a Squirrel Hill resident and Diller Teen Fellow, said. “We’re all getting closer, and things are coming out more naturally.”

“I know that I’m learning more about them and they’re learning more about us. And it’s really nice to understand where they’re coming from and how their life is back home,” she added.

Creating these connections is critical, Kahn explained.

Within the Jewish state, 11% of adults aged 65-plus hold unfavorable views of the U.S. The number jumps to 18% among those ages 18-29. On the other side of the ocean that disparity swells: Although 27% of older adults have an unfavorable opinion of Israel, the number balloons to 56% among the younger demographic, according to Pew Research Center.

Though generational divides characterize one aspect of American-Israeli relations, Oct. 7’s “traumatic effect” on Diaspora youth sheds additional light.

A First International Resources and Impact Research survey of 1,989 BBYO members indicates that since the war’s start, Jewish students have “been singled out, discriminated against, harassed online and lost friends simply because of their Jewish identity.” Discrimination has occurred “at school, online and during extracurricular activities.”

Misgav resident Shahar Ben Shimon said he was motivated to join this year’s cohort by a desire to articulate his lived experience.

“I think when the seventh of October started, during the first two months, everyone in the whole world came together and did things for Israel and for the soldiers in Gaza. But I think that’s faded during the past few months,” he said. “Fighting in Gaza continues, people are still losing friends and family, and the hostages are still there.”

The situation in Israel requires Ben Shimon and his fellow Israeli teens to be “emissaries,” he continued. “We are here to talk about it, to get everyone to know how it is, and to say that the war isn’t over, it isn’t ending, people are still fighting and people should know that.”

“It was something we were so afraid to talk about, and for months we couldn’t talk about it. But right now, we feel like we should talk about it because if we don’t it’s not going to be on the surface, it’s not going to be in conversations, and it could fade away to history,” Bash said.

Diller Teen Fellows meet with ECDC students at the Squirrel Hill JCC. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

For both the Israelis and Pittsburghers, time together yielded new insight.

Casual conversations during car rides led to questions about the war Seldin never before considered.

“I was just thinking what if anything like that happened here. How different would my response be,” he said.

Leaving Israel and encountering other young adults reinforced that, “Around the world, people can connect,” Ben Shimon said. “There is good and there is going to be good.”

Each participant reiterated that the Mifgash had little to do with parsing tragedy or deciphering conflict — weighty subjects were only broached because genuine bonds were established earlier in the week.

“I think it’s really special that we’re all able to connect,” Neiss said.

At the heart of the endeavor is a mutual understanding that “we’re still teenagers,” Bash said.

“We came here to have fun, meet other teenagers, see things and go shopping.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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