The Road To Israel (is 10 years long)….

When I was in college, I applied for and was accepted to go on a Birthright trip through Emory’s Hillel.  For those who don’t know, Birthright is an organization that allows any Jew between the ages of 18 and 26 to go to Israel, all expenses paid, thanks to philanthropic Jews who make it possible.  From my understanding, their intention is to help Jews connect with Israel, Judaism and each other.  I was excited to go to Israel for a number of reasons. These included being in the midst of a religious studies major; having grown up “Jewish” (born to two Jewish parents but stopped going to Hebrew school and synagogue at age 10, never having a bat-mitzvah); my love of travel and exploration; and my (at the time) four-year investment in studying and practicing Christianity.  Yes, you heard me right, Christianity.

The application and website for Birthright said only that you had to come from Jewish lineage, and if I remember correctly, a minimum of one parent’s being Jewish.  Nowhere did it state you needed to be a practicing or badge-carrying Jew.  So, under no false pre tenses, I applied, and was elated to find out I’d be going over winter break of my junior year of college.

Until I wouldn’t be.

Only a couple weeks before  the trip’s departure date, I got a cryptic phone call from someone who, upon my answering, bluntly asked, “What do you believe about Jesus?”.  Not even a, “Hi, my name is _______ and I’m calling on behalf of Hillel.”  Needless to say, I was completely taken aback and tried to gather my thoughts and understand the situation at hand, while I was being read the riot act about why I would no longer be allowed to attend the trip because of fear that I would “proselytize other participants”.  I tried to ask for an opportunity to provide my side of the story, given that I wasn’t allowed to offer one (their leading question was actually just rhetorical).  Also, I tried to emphasize to this mystery person that I should be their target market: a Jew who had fallen away from the faith/culture/religion/people, and would be a great person to bring on the trip to help me reconnect.  However, they were having none of it and abruptly ended the call, assuring me that I wouldn’t be going on this trip, nor any future Birthright trips.

Fast-forward through the coming weeks which involved differing levels of protests from Jewish friends attending the trip, they proclaimed that they were neither devout nor practicing Jews, so I should be able to attend, but they all were rebuffed.  That, coupled with my thoughtful aunt and uncle (who happen to be a judge and an attorney) who stormed the Birthright offices in DC to explain why I should be allowed to go on the trip. Yet, they too, were turned down and told that “All monies donated to make these trips possible are given by private donors, so it is at their discretion who can and cannot attend.”  So basically, I was left feeling really warm and fuzzy about being a Jew after that…

It took me a while to get past the negative feelings I had about that experience, the way it was handled, and how I felt about my Jewish identity because of that.  In addition, there were other negative experiences I faced from other Jews in college who took it upon themselves to let me know that my version of being Jewish (ie a cultural Jew…like the vast majority of Jews I knew were) was not acceptable, because I coupled it with a spiritual practice that made them uncomfortable.

Let’s fast forward again, this time to 10 years later (now).  It’s no mystery to anyone who knows me that if there is any soap box on which I’ll stand, there’s a good chance it will have to do with networking and the power of relationships and connections. In 2012, I volunteered to join a fledging organization called the Global Shapers.  One of many things that happened as a result of that was that I befriended a fellow member who was not only an Israeli Jew, but worked for an organization which takes groups to Israel.  One of these groups was for social entrepreneurs.  I applied in late 2013, and found out in early 2014 that I’d been accepted and would finally be getting my chance to visit Israel.  This time, I was excited, as well as apprehensive, because it brought back memories from ten years prior.  While this trip wasn’t exclusively for Jews, I had a fear that I’d find a similar result if anyone “knew” that I did things like go to church from time to time, meditate, and pray to a God who could be Jewish, Christian, or anything else for that matter. Fortunately for me, that call never came, and I was able to visit Israel for two weeks, one with the program and one on my own.

I’d actually written what you’ll read next before everything that proceeds it, but realized that without this context, it didn’t truly shed light on the context of my experience. So, here are the details of said experience, unedited from original creation:


Where there is no man, be the man.”

–Talmud (L Pirket Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors)


Israel: For me, a place that carried a lot of meaning for a number of reasons:  1. the country so many of my “people” claim as their own; 2. a hot bed of historic and current events;  3. the intersection of my academic studies of world religions (mostly Western) and my personal spiritual journey; 4. a country I’d intended to visit in 2003, but ultimately was told I could not.

A lot of anticipation led up to my eventual landing there.

I’m a big believer in the old adage, “It’s about whom you know, not what you know.” Were it not for a friend I’d met through a volunteer organization in which we both participate, I wouldn’t have known about this program and therefore, would not have been able to apply for and ultimately participate in, this trip to Israel.  Through the generosity of The Schusterman Foundation, a group of 37 educators and social entrepreneurs were invited to go to Israel for a week and learn not only about the dynamism of the country, but also about leadership, driven by questions of values and equity.  Because of the current war, only 11 of the 37 attendees opted to participate.  While I’ll never know what it would have been like at full capacity, I’m pleased that the group was this size, as it led to quick and deeper bonds amongst us.

There are so many details I could share about where we visited, what we learned, what each of the participants was like, and then some. I think it best that I paint a broad stroke to give you an idea, but will highlight some of the items that left an impact on me.

A practice I try to embrace is to identify daily points of gratitude.   When we were taught the “Modeh (Modah for women) Ani”, a morning prayer of gratitude which we’d reflect upon and sing as a group every morning, I was pleased.  For perhaps one of the first times in my life, I felt a small connection to my Jewish roots.  A thing that always felt so foreign and disconnected, in this small way felt more relatable. This gratitude not only was expressed by us, but in so many ways it was expressed to us.  When we arrived at the airport, it was expressed to us by Lynn Shusterman herself, the founder of the organization, who apparently had never before gone to the airport to greet a group. Her gratitude for our being there during the current conflict continued to be echoed by so many: the tour guides at sites we’d visit, shop owners, people we’d meet, and hotel staff members.

I tend to have some anxiety before meeting a group of strangers with whom I’ll be spending a week or more without interruption, especially when I read their bios beforehand and got to see how impressive and accomplished they all are. I was relieved to meet so many laid-back and welcoming people right away. With that quick reassurance, we got on our bus and drove North, with the intention of leaving Tel Aviv where the Iron Dome was in full force.

After a beautiful dinner at Moshav Nahalal (our first experience with the fresh, delicious, and abundant spreads of food we’d be offered every night), we checked into our first hotel exhausted.  We were assigned our roommates, and we settled in for a night of a solid 5 hours of sleep (after not sleeping on the flight out there).

The following days were jam-packed with opportunities to meet and speak with a variety of people, who offered different perspectives on life as Israelis, hitting the tourist hot-spots, debriefing as a group, and hopping from city-to-city.  One of the highlights included meeting two Arab-Israeli women who spoke about living as minorities in Israel and the discrimination they feel. Another was a meeting in an

Urban Kibbutz in Nazareth (a Kibbutz literally means a  “gathering, clustering”, and while traditionally it’s a large group of people who live in a shared environment based on agricultural work, many urban groups are now doing more acts of civic or factory work.) We met Dina, an Ethiopian Jew, who’d always heard her mother speak of coming to Israel and after walking through the Ethiopian desert to Uganda, eventually was taken in by Israel

Some of my favorite moments included an ATV tour of Mt. Bental with views overlooking Syria and Lebanon, led by a former military commander.  What a great intersection of fun and learning—maybe some of the educators will take that concept back to their classrooms J Another was visiting Masada, such an incredible history and beautiful remains of a civilization lost. After a hot visit there, it was time to float in the Dead Sea, the lowest place in the world.  We experienced what it’s like to feel weightless and decide for ourselves if the water and the mud do, in fact, have special effects on one’s skin and well-being (they didn’t for me, for the record). That evening included a surprise, and one of my favorite moments of the trip: a pop-up dinner and lounge in the middle of the Masada Desert, accompanied by some talented musicians who led us in a group drum circle! Absolutely incredible!

We eventually made our way to Jerusalem about halfway through the week, and stayed there for the remainder of our time as a group.  What a beautiful city that merges history with modernity!

Some additional perspectives we heard while there came from an ultra-orthodox rabbi, city councilwoman of Jerusalem, a social entrepreneur who was doing work in Africa (only perspective of someone doing work as a Jew, not specifically for the Jews or Israelis), and a teacher at a school that combines Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis.

After lots of learning, we were treated to yet another lavish dinner, this time at a Morroccan restaurant with a special guest who is a leading venture capitalist in Israel. I’d never considered what the entrepreneurial landscape looked like in Israel, but was so excited to hear how huge it was: basically the Silicon Valley of the Middle East 🙂

Mid-week, the idea of crafting our Shabbat was presented to us.  It was nice to take some ownership in part of the programming and share our ideas for what we think of when we think of Shabbat.  (For all you non-Jews reading this, it’s the weekly Sabbath that begins at sundown on Friday night and goes until sundown on Saturday. Different Jewish denominations practice it in their own way, but the basic principle is to rest for one day out of the week.).  I had little personal history with Shabbat, but thought of my friend who would host a dinner at his home most weekends in Atlanta.  It led me to think of two things: 1. that I appreciated his willingness to prepare a meal for everyone, and 2. my goal to learn to cook a local dish in every country which I visit. So, I volunteered to help prepare one of the meals during Shabbat (if you’re reading this and you’ve known me for any amount of time prior to the last few years, I realize this will be hugely shocking to you).

The next days in Jerusalem, we toured the old city, which I loved! So much culture and history wrapped up into one small area! We went through the 4 primary quarters (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian (who are also Christian).  We spent time at the Western Wall, which was more emotional than I’d anticipated.  We also spent a short time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is on the land where Jesus was crucified.

After an emotional panel with three male Palestinians, we decompressed, and then went to a private dinner at Lynn Shusterman’s beautiful home overlooking Jerusalem. As if that weren’t enough, we did something that was probably the most in my comfort zone: we had a networking mixer with a group of entrepreneurs at a local bar! It was really energizing to meet such vibrant young people and learn about life and business in their country.

The following day we started with a conversation with a holocaust survivor (Annika) who surprised me with her choice to “protect us” from certain details and stories about her experiences.  As she exited the room upon the conclusion of our time together, she limped, put two fingers above her lip as if to mock a small moustache, and said, “A lasting gift from Hitler…” and exited with that chilling joke. Something that stood out to me about Annika was her ability to continue to push forward, believe in humanity, and never give up. She also identified bullying as the root of the problem of the Holocaust. That’s pretty terrifying to think about bullying amongst kids and think that, in it’s extreme form, could lead to genocide.

We spoke about how in 15 years or so, there will be no more remaining Holocaust survivors.  This set the stage for us to visit Yad VeShem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial: a place where the memories can be retained when the people cannot share verbal histories. It was interesting to note that, when you talk in numbers, it’s easy to dissociate the humanity that makes up those numbers (ex: 6 million people were killed in the Holocaust, then divide that up into the stats of the different sub-groups, etc).  Those numbers are so hard to understand, which can result in not understanding, and can lead to apathy. I was also struck by the beauty of the people who helped all those in the Holocaust to find safety, even when it meant they jeopardized themselves and their family’s safety.  I wondered if I would I ever be so selfless and/or full of conviction that I’d do what I knew was right?

Somehow making a jump from a powerful experience like this, we were taken to the busiest local market for lunch. Instead, I went off with one of the group’s participants and facilitators, and ventured into the chaos to shop for food for a surprise Shabbat picnic dinner the next night for 20 people (that we could prepare without a kitchen, in a hotel room).  It was a really cool experience to feel for a couple hours what it’s like for many locals every Friday afternoon, as they prep for Shabbat before the city (well, country, for that matter) practically shuts down in observance of Shabbat.

We kicked off that evening on a rooftop in the Old City, listening to sounds of the cultures combining.  On one roof there was a cohort of Orthodox Jewish men chanting prayers. About a block away was the Muslim call to prayer.  It was a pretty incredible moment listening and taking in the sunset.

We walked from there back to the Western Wall.  The energy was entirely different there this time, with people singing and dancing and really celebrating the evening.

After being invited by many women to join their singing circles, we wrapped up our time.  We walked to dinner atop a hill in Jerusalem at Mt Zion Villa, with special guest Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel.  (If you read my introduction, you’ll know why someone who is or was affiliated with Hillel made me feel apprehensive.)

The following day, Shabbat continued and we were hosted for lunch graciously at a private home by a family from South Africa.  It was our first time in someone’s home while visiting, and was nice to see. That afternoon, we had more time with Avraham (of Hillel).  Then I bustled to get the picnic ready with the others involved, and took it to a neighboring park where we all enjoyed the food and one another’s company.  Everyone had become like a family in less than a week’s time.

The next morning, Sunday, was our last day together.  We started with a visit to Mt. Herzl, a cemetery for the founding fathers of Israel, the country’s leaders, and a military cemetery.  Being war time during our visit, the experience carried a somber mood. We moved from there back to Mt Zion Villa for our first time to synthesize, reflect, and consider some action steps to take home with us based on our experiences and learning that week.

One of the goals of this trip was to have us better identify our values, as well as to test/try on values that are not necessarily our own. I spent a fair amount of time and energy doing this. Upon arriving in Israel, recognizing that I was amongst such a high-quality group of leaders, I decided to take a step back. In so many arenas of my life, I jump into a position of leadership, which often means to me that I’m taking the lead. I thought it could be valuable for me to take a step back and allow others to shine, as well as to be able to watch and learn from them and their styles of leadership and thought. At first, this was entirely uncomfortable. Not knowing the other participants beforehand, insecurities set in, wondering if I would be viewed as incapable, undeserving of being there, or not smart enough.  I spent the first several days in this quieter approach, really only engaging in smaller groups and one-on-one environments, otherwise mostly listening. I’m a big believer that there are moments when things come together.  If you’re listening, you hear a nugget of wisdom you need.  That nugget knocked me upside my head on night five when I was seated next to one of the program’s staff members who was joining us for dinner that evening at Lynn Schusterman’s home.

During our conversation, he shared with me the quote from the Talmud written at the top of this passage, “Where there is no man, be the man.”  We both agreed that the obvious interpretation of that is that when there is a need and you can fill it, step up and “be the man” (forgive me and the Talmud for the fact that it is from the male perspective).  But, the less obvious interpretation is what really resonated with me: when there IS a man, let him/her be the man/woman.  I loved this because it helped me to identify that some of the discomfort I was feeling from not “being the man” really was okay, and that I was exercising a lesser-used leadership muscle of allowing others to shine.  As I mentioned earlier, each morning we’d start the day by singing the “Modeh Ani” together, a traditional morning prayer of gratitude. Each day, one person would volunteer to share some reflections and lead the gratitude session.  I was able to share this passage from the Talmud and express my experiment in trying on this new way of practicing leadership. It was great to let it be known that this was what my aim had been, and that the side of me they’d gotten to know was just a facet.  I was blown away at the end of the week when we shared some reflections with one another and so many encouraged me for my “quiet leadership” and support of their development.

I’d like to take a moment to point out a few other recurring themes that stood out to me that seem worthy of mention.  The first is that our lifestyles are a choice.  So many people we met chose to make Aliyah and move to Israel. Others chose to stay there even when it wasn’t the easiest decision. Some chose to live in a communal environment like the Kibbutz. Ultimately, so many people were making active choices about where and how to live their lives and it reminds me not to take that for granted. A second is the value in being taken out of your comfort zone to have space to think and challenge your ideas. A third is the question of what leadership is, and how do we deconstruct our preconceived ideas of what that means? On the first day, I had a conversation with one of the participants who was from Madrid.  She shared that in her culture, “being a leader” is perceived as inherently negative.  This was shocking to me who grew up being told always to drive towards being a leader, and reminded me to challenge my own norms. Another item worth noting was the focus on what our core values are, and the diagnosis of if and how these line up with  our lifestyle and leadership choices.  I was pleased to determine that my values are clear, and that my life is in line with them. Where things get blurry is that even though that’s the case, I still feel a bit of unease about some of my decisions on how to spend my time and energies professionally and how I reconcile that. I also noted that values change/shift/grow over time. Some will be consistent, but others will shift in level of priority. It reminds me of the importance of keeping tabs on this for oneself, as well as to identify that when you make decisions based on values that impact other people,  yours might adjust over time.

As if those weren’t enough, a few other themes came to the surface to me.  One was that a culture of separation and discrimination exists between Jewish and Arab Israelis.  20% of Israel is Arab. Many don’t want Arab neighbors. Schools are separate for the most part.  This, to me, was so reminiscent of the US before the civil rights movement.  If citizens, or the country, say they value equality, inclusion, etc, how do they justify this disconnect? This question plays into the next theme which was the dilemma of assigning labels to things.  This is a struggle I’ve had for years, understanding that labels are necessary in so many ways to help us categorize and quickly identify things in life. Yet, they are oftentimes also the root cause of discrimination, prejudice, and hate.  These ideas of discrimination make me pause to wonder how I can use my networking organization to further conversations about diversity and inclusion.

As I mentioned by sharing my history with trying to get to Israel, it presented the foundation for a recurring theme for me: the idea of “what is a Jew?” This is a question I’ve been asking emotionally, spiritually, and academically for about 15 years. It was interesting that of all the people on the trip whom we encountered, the one who put it best for me was Avraham from Hillel (oh, the irony!) who said that Jews are a people, and there are five primary characteristics that unite them.  He continued by saying that not all Jews will embody all five of those elements, but that just by holding on to two or more, you’ll always have something in common with each other.  I loved this because it finally allowed me to feel a part of the peoplehood, not shut out like I had on that cryptic phone call at age 20.

Lastly, I loved the Jewish edict of “Tikun Olam”, to make the world a better place.  It made me wonder how I could be doing more of that.  When coupling that with the current events during a wartime, I wondered if I’d ever be so moved/driven/passionate about something to incite a war, start a movement, etc. A quote we heard during our time there that seems fitting was,“We are not master builders, we are workers.” It’s a good reminder that we will work towards a good goal, but that we will never see the results if we’re working on big enough issues.

SO, are you tired of reading? Well that’s just week one!  But rest assured, week two will be described in way less detail!

Week two: a different vibe than week one, as the group dwindled from 11 (plus 5 staff members) to 5, to 4, to 3, to 2 over the course of the week.  It was certainly a bit of a shock to go from having every moment and meal planned out to being on our own.  Interestingly, we kept to a pretty similar schedule, waking up early and touring ourselves around. But, we also fit in a little more time to go to the beach, socialize with each other, as well as new and old Israeli friends.

The last week is easier to summarize quickly: it included 1 night in Jerusalem (with hookah and the world’s best hummus), 3 nights in Tel Aviv (with a variety of interesting tourist spots, new people met, beach time, and gawking at the beauty of the local Israeli women).  The last 2 nights were spent in Eilat, the southernmost city in Israel, which is bordered by both Jordan and Egypt.  It’s a tourist beach destination known for its world-class diving. This portion included catching up with a friend from college, making new friends, going to the beach, more hookah, and general relaxation to cap off an exhausting 2 weeks.  The final afternoon was spent driving 4.5 hours through the Negev (beautiful and desolate desert) back to the airport for 24 hours of travel home.  After a nice inquisition from 3-4 different security guards and a pat-down from 2 female ones in a private room, I was en route back to the States, with a head full of memories and thoughts to digest and sort through… And you’ve now witnessed said digestion. Thanks for making it to the end and taking this journey with me.  Here’s to more adventures, learning, and the continued extrapolation of these lessons and questions.
(Want to see some images from the trip? Check out some of my black & whites…)



  1. Just seeing this–thanks for this Willie!

  2. Thank you for sharing your insightful account and reflections of your recent visit to Israel. Your takeaways from the overseas experience mirrored those I first experienced after studying abroad, namely, gaining a new perspective on who I am ( my cultural identity) as well as a greater appreciation of the perspectives of others.
    Love, Willie

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