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2011 Birthright Israel NEXT DC Leadership Mission

Day 6: The Meaning of Community

Today's visit to various parts of the Negev challenged me to reconsider my definition of the word "community."  As I think back on my childhood in the greater Boston area, I am tempted to say I took for granted the already-existing organizations and establishments that transformed a geographic area into a network of people with shared - though oftentimes debated - underlying principles and ideals.

Our first stop this morning was Ayalim, a grassroots organization with the mission of creating a sense of community in the Negev and Galilee literally from the ground up.  Self-selecting members of the Ayalim villages are often students at nearby universities who want to give back and essentially serve as pioneers for the uncultivated areas in the north and south of Israel.  Students will move to Ayalim and build a community with their own hands, both literally and figuratively.  They construct the houses they will inhabit and also foster friendships and relationships that, as the co-founder said, will move beyond the Ayalim village into areas like Dimona that need to be revived and revitalized by young energy. I was truly taken aback this morning when I saw the freestanding houses and those still under construction.  I used to think of Israeli pioneers as the members of the Palmach and Mossad two or three generations ago who fought to create and establish the state of Israel; I quickly learned this morning that pioneers still exist.  Aside from the founders of Ayalim who are visionaries and leaders in and of themselves, each person who moves to Ayalim is also a pioneer. The physical and emotional efforts that go into building one house, two houses, three houses, and so on, thus creating a community, mimic the  strength and commitment of the Herzls and Ben Gurions of the past.  I left Ayalim with the desire to return and make a difference on my own (Mom, we can talk about this later).

While Ayalim creates a unique community on its own, the greater Ayalim community truly does extend well past the cement houses in the village.  We arrived at a JDC site in Dimona while I was still trying to unpack everything we had just seen. Several young leaders from the Dimona community joined our  group and we exchanged stories about our connections to Israel.  I spoke with a young man who first told me he had been out of the army for five years and now lives in Dimona.  He attended Ben Gurion University after the army but wasn't really getting anything out of his studies; something was missing.  He moved to Ayalim and later decided with his group of friends that they were going to spend the next forty years in Dimona, transforming the area into a vibrant and young community.  This young man in his mid-to late-twenties explained to me that most of his friends moved to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after the army and constantly asked him what he was thinking by moving to Dimona.  Without hesitation, he would tell them that he was creating necessary change in Israel.

I shared this story with someone else from our bus and we got into a conversation about the true sense of community in Ayalim and Dimona that seem to be lacking within certain areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Though the larger cities have greater populations, it may be more difficult to find that same sense of community that exists among the small group of Dimona pioneers who have made the conscious decision to create a community for themselves and future generations.

On a separate note, the large arch that welcomed us into Ayalim displayed the phrase "The sky is the limit" in both Hebrew and English.  I'll end this post by saying that the founders of Ayalim, as well as all the other leaders we have met this week, have shown through their own actions that the sky really is the limit.  If you have an idea or see a need, do something about it.  If we don't act, then who will? I'll end this post by saying that for as long as I can remember, my dad has told me that the sky is the limit, and it is only fitting that I saw a reminder of this on Father's Day.  So with that, Happy Father's Day to those reading and stay tuned for more updates about our last couple days in Israel.

Ricki Meyer, Washington, DC

Posted by: youngleadership (June 20, 2011 at 10:38 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Day 3: Top Chef Challenge

The Jerusalem Culinary Institute is an unlikely place, tucked away in one of the thousands of back alleyways that are the nooks and crannies of Jerusalem.  It is significant in that it is the only kosher cooking school in the world. There, we were greeted by a bear of a man, Chef David, a gregarious Brit, who welcomed us into his kitchen with open arms.

Clad in a black chef's smock, hair closely cropped like a marine, Chef David got down to brass tacks. The challenge: to cook a six course meal fit for a king. There would be a salad, a soup, a fish, a chicken, a beef, and a dessert. We were split into six teams, each team to a station, and given one and a half hours to complete the task.

"Make it happen, chefies," barked Chef David. The pace was furious. 1.5 hours is not a lot of time to prep, cook, and present six dishes. Still, the teams came together to rise to the challenge. Each team chose a head chef to be responsible for the overall team's performance.  Amazingly, every group fell in line: responsibilities were clear (in spite of our varying abilities in the kitchen) and everybody knew what they had to do. Chef David circled the room, a proud smile on his face, offering hints and tips to anyone who needed them.

"Oy! Add a bit of salt. That's nice, yeah?" or "that's not how you butcher a bird, have it here, let me show you..." "WHAM!" the entire room shook as Chef David showed Team Chicken how to properly guillotine a chicken with a meat cleaver. Lesson learned!

Coming together as a group to enjoy the meal that we had all prepared was perhaps the most satisfying moment of the day.  The exercise was a wonderful opportunity to showcase our talents in the kitchen but it was also a great real-world demonstration of leadership.  Not only was the food delicious, but so were the larger lessons about teamwork, taking responsibility, and creatively improvising around setbacks. I could go on and on about this but you probably want to know about the food, so, without further ado...

French Onion Soup
Quinoa Orange Salad
Seared Tilapia in Cumin-Lime Sauce With Rice and Marinated Peppers
Chicken with Tarragon
Tunisian Beef Stew With Ginger and Tomato Couscous
Orange-mint "slushy"

~Seth Engel, Washington, DC


Posted by: youngleadership (June 20, 2011 at 10:30 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Day 2: Macarena, the Universal Language…

Our second day on this (already fantastic!) journey began with a presentation from Ron Waldman, a leading consultant in Israel, who was an integral contributor to the book Startup Nation. Having just recently attended (and blogged about!) a discussion of the book at American University in DC, I was really honored to hear the opinions and facts straight from someone who works with these high-tech startup companies on a daily basis. We discussed how Israel’s unique culture is a major contributing factor to the large number of startups, and about the blend of risk-taking, competitive spirit, improvisation, and out-of-the-box thinking that drives Israelis to continue on this path today. What made the morning session even more engaging was hearing all the detailed and thought-provoking questions asked by members of the group!

We quickly switched gears and headed to Mivaseret, where we had the opportunity to visit an Ethiopian Absorption Center run by The Jewish Agency and see some of the amazing programs it supports. The day was filled with so much emotion--too many eye-opening moments to count--that it’s hard to describe everything we experienced in one blog post! But don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it for a long time to come. Some of the highlights included:

1. Hearing from Esther, the inspirational Israeli-born Ethiopian, who shared with us her family’s story of their treacherous journey to Sudan to be a part of the first Israeli rescue mission, and the difficulties (and successes) they faced since settling in Israel. She reminded us that the Ethiopian Jewish community she grew up with always believed Israel to be their “true home,” and were willing to risk all they had, and more, to see that dream become a reality.
2. We had nearly complete group agreement that the Ethiopian coffee and bread we were offered was the best we ever had! Though it may have been slightly influenced by the severe need for caffeine at that point…
3. The Macarena transcends all language barriers. And the Kindergarden class we visited, at this point only comprised of children from the Absorption Center, definitely showed us up with their dance moves! It gave us all a view of the opportunity and hope for the future, seeing how quickly these young children were able to absorb and embrace Israeli culture.
4. An after-school program for elementary and middle school children showed us that playing games to practice English (Note, these children speak fluent Amharic, Hebrew, and are also learning English at this age, wow!) can also teach us a thing or two. Like how it seems much easier to pick up Hebrew around children than on LiveMocha. And how that shoulder popping dance they can all do is way harder than it looks…

Finally, upon working our way to Beit Shemesh, we spent time at the Youth Outreach Center that was opened by our own Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in collaboration with the United Jewish Endowment Fund and the Ethiopian National Project (ENP). The Center caters to teenagers who need extra help with homework/language/etc., want to learn a new hobby (photography or swimming) or just plain need a place to go at the end of the day. At this point, we were finally able to paint the life-cycle picture of what it’s like for an Ethiopian immigrant family, from immigration through assimilation at almost every age point, and how Federation, ourselves, volunteers, and Israel itself factors in. At our debrief session, there was a lot of discussion about each of our reactions to the day. I have to say that what impressed me the most about the discussion was how passionately each member of the group felt about this issue, and all of the great feedback provided about what worked well, how to improve these programs or what we would have done differently. It reminded me of why each of these young leaders were chosen for this trip, and reinforced my excitement that we’ll be able to leverage each other’s backgrounds and experience to really make an impact in the DC community once we return!

We capped off our night with a great dinner alongside a few up-and-coming young entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv. After hearing so many heart-warming and inspiring (that’s my theme word for the day) stories, it’s great to see that these Israelis were able to take their businesses from idea to inception.Last but not least: off the official itinerary, there were also some major things to celebrate today.

1. First and foremost, HAPPY BIRTHDAY SETH!!! Our group celebrations included a crucial teamwork component, in blowing up an entire large bag of balloons and filling the bus with them during lunch break, singing in multiple languages, cookies, and a cake (because when it comes to food in Israel, we’re quickly learning it’s go big or go home…)
2. Which brings me to point #2, which is, how great the food has been thus far (and as I write this, we’re on the bus to our cooking challenge…results TBA). I mean, did you see the breakfast buffet at the hotel, and that ridiculous view over the water? If you didn’t, I have plenty of pics of Belgian waffles/hummus/desserts/Aroma coffee etc…and I’ll stop there, before we all get hungry again.
3. Word on the street is that Emily’s Mom is reading the blog and thinks Nate’s post yesterday (and LeaderSheep joke, which was not totally baaad…ok sorry, I couldn‘t help myself!) was really clever! Shout out to Emily’s Mom, and thanks for your feedback!! Now, I’m going to go send a copy of the link to my own Mom and Dad asap.

Thanks to all for another incredibly successful day! Can’t wait for everything that’s still to come!

Sara Glickman, Silver Spring, MD

Posted by: youngleadership (June 19, 2011 at 10:32 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Trip so far!

Want to see what we did the first 48 hours in Israel?

Check out these great photos!

Posted by: youngleadership (June 16, 2011 at 9:55 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink


Upon landing in the Holy Land, tired but with new friends, the only thing on most of our minds was sleep. The itinerary, though, had other plans.

Our first stop was Neot Kedumim, a biblical landscape reserve, located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We were greeted by Gidi Mark, CEO of Talglit Birthright Israel & Zohar Raviv, Educational Director. What a powerful and informative introduction to our journey. It’s inspiring to think that in just 11 years since its inception, Taglit Birthright has been able to reach over 300,000 people worldwide by bringing them to Israel.

Our next activity quickly allowed for some serious group bonding; herding sheep and goat will have that effect! Our instructions were short and sweet: as a group, herd the animals into three different circles located throughout the area. Talk about being out of your comfort zone! We quickly realized that if we acted together as a group and relied on one another for support, the herd would gain a sense of comfort and learn to trust us.

Upon successfully accomplishing our mission we discussed the intricacies of the different types and levels that define effective leadership. Like a shepherd, a leader does not always have to lead from the front. Guidance, communication, thought-provoking dialogue, a sense of belonging, defined intentions, among other characteristics, are critical to successful leadership. Later in the day, after checking into our Tel Aviv hotel, we hit the beach. Quite a contrast from herding sheep but yet another opportunity to get to know the group, which we did…

-Stephanie is scared of cats
-Jessica might just be the lone remaining Hanson fan
-Five members of the trip list The Little Mermaid as their favorite movie
-Two trip members have met Joey Fatone (whoever that is)
-Brian’s parents call him ‘flying Brian’ because he once fell out of a moving vehicle
-Yossi, our tour guide, can give the middle finger salute with his toes

We shared a great dinner together at the hotel, during which Nate A and myself were happily surprised to learn that they stuff dinner rolls with meat in Israel! So innovative are those Israelis! Nate and I hope to bring this revolutionary movement back home. After dinner we visited The Palmach Musuem in Tel Aviv and learned about the grass roots military efforts that led to Israel becoming a State. It was an uber-successful day one and I look forward to more adventures with my new friends in the land of milk and honey.

Nathan Bortnick, Rockville, MD
(Thanks to Audrey Horn for her exquisite editing skills)
Posted by: youngleadership (June 15, 2011 at 10:03 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink
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