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Philadelphians Explore Israel as a Leadership Model

August 13, 2009 By:
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Mission participants gathered on the steps of an old Syrian command post that was captured by Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. First row, from left are: Jessica Solomon, Rabbi Shira Stutman, Gail Norry, Robin Batoff and Sue Schlesinger. In the middle are Nancy Astor Fox, Susan Schwartz, Sara Minkoff and Cliff Schlesinger. Rear row, from left are Rob Meyer, Robb Fox, Jeff Schwartz, David Solomon, Jay Minkoff, Mark Fishman and Bill Glazer.

Cliff Schlesinger celebrated two milestones recently with his fellow members of Federation's Institute for Advanced Jewish Leadership during the group's mission to Israel. The "leadership field trip" marked Schlesinger's first visit to the Jewish state and the first time that he was able to float in a body of water. While lying on his back in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, Schlesinger reflected on the "miracle of Israel as a place where Jews can float both spiritually and physically."

Schlesinger, immediate past chairman of Federation's Mens Roundtable, was one of 12 institute members who traveled to Israel June 28 through July 4 to deepen their leadership experiences, with a focus on the nation's unique opportunities to learn and grow. They met philanthropists, politicians, military leaders and community activists, visited several of the projects and initiatives funded by Federation and learned first-hand about the challenges and opportunities that Israelis encounter as they live their lives and build for the future.

For Schlesinger and several other mission participants, including Bill Glazer, a hands-on visit to the Israel Defense Force officer training base in the Negev was particularly insightful. The Philadelphians donned uniforms and participated in physical and leadership exercises with officer cadets. Glazer, chairperson of Federation's Jewish Real Estate affinity group, was inspired by Officer Avi Dolan's account of his final mission in Lebanon.

"With the lives of his men in front of him, the safety and security of his country behind him, and the imperative of his mission on top of him, Avi risked the safety of himself and his men to traverse a road with a probable ambush and near certain death," said Glazer. "Because of Avi's conviction that the mission takes precedence over all else, his men followed him to a decisive yet painful victory in the final days of the war."

Schlesinger commented that Aron Chalivah, Dolan's commander at the training base, "exudes leadership." Chalivah identified the traits of confidence, integrity, bravery and creativity as the essential building blocks of leading others. The commander emphasized to the group that "people need to be able to look in your eyes and be confident to follow."

Schlesinger took to heart Chalivah's admonishment against blindly accepting the directions of others. The commander cautioned that "if you march in the footsteps of others, you will not leave footsteps of your own." As incoming chair of Federation's Professional Services affinity group, Schlesinger plans to inspire others to feel connected to Federation and leave their unique footprints on the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community.

Robb Fox told Federation's Board of Trustees recently that Mission participants adopted the word "acharai" -- Hebrew for "follow me" -- as their rallying cry. This call to action was inspired by the personal stories of courage and determination relayed by many of the Israelis they met with -- men and women who overcame enormous challenges and personal adversities to inspire others. Fox was inspired by the courage of Yoel Sharon, a former IDF soldier and POW who was injured during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Sharon founded Etgarim to enable other individuals with disabilities to realize their full potential through outdoor training within the challenging environment of nature.

Mission participants also heard acharai in the story of Shlomi Avni, a native of Or Akiva, a small city in the center of Israel with a large percentage of émigrés from the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Avni knew firsthand about the challenges that these young people face, as well as their high risk of succumbing to drug and gang involvement, and dropping out of school. Avni returned from service in Shayetet 13, Israel's elite Navy Seals Special Forces unit, with a desire to use the skills and ethics he learned in the military to transform the lives of troubled teens.

He founded Nirim Schunot -- or "Nirim in the Neighborhood" -- in tribute to his fallen comrade, Nir Krichman, who was killed while trying to stop a terrorist attack. Avni told the group, "I am carrying on Nir's dream of helping troubled teens become productive members of Israeli society."

Robin Batoff was impressed by the passion, courage and resiliency exhibited by all of the Israelis she encountered on the trip. "We saw examples of leadership in every shape, size and form," she said.

Highlights for Batoff included a visit to Sedot Negev, one of Philadelphia's Partnership 2000 communities, where teens performed an original song inspired by the 2008 Hamas missile strikes upon communities in Southern Israel near Gaza. "These young people sang that they would not be broken despite repeated acts of terrorism," she said, adding that the group's visit to a bomb shelter in neighboring Netivot, which Federation funds helped to fortify, was particularly eye-opening. Through these visits, the group learned firsthand how community professionals helped these men, women and children cope with the trauma and move on with their lives.

In Sederot, they toured an Ayalim village where young adults are helping to secure the future of Israel's Negev and Galilee regions. Ayalim is a grassroots initiative that provides financial incentives for these college-age students from all over Israel to study at local colleges, build their own houses and communal organizations, and volunteer in their communities with youths at risk. The goal of this program, started by 27-year-old childhood friends Matan Dahan and Dany Gliksberg, is that 50 percent of the students who reside in these villages will settle in this region and raise their families there.

To Batoff, sharing these adventures, sites and stories with her fellow Leadership Institute members was "an incredible bonding experience." Although these individuals worked and studied together for a year to learn from major philanthropists and Jewish communal leaders how to define and achieve their legacy as leaders in all aspects of their work, home, community and personal lives, they emerged from Israel as a cohesive and supportive team. "Inspired by each other's courage, passions and determination, we have developed into a group poised to assume current and future leadership roles within the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community," said Batoff.

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