Today’s participant blog post comes from Daniel Hammerman, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. The group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Dan’s personal travel blog.
As I have been progressing in my post-college period and attempting to figure out my goals for a successful future, there have been two main ideas to grapple with: what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be in a community. I have had many opportunities to delve into these topics during my time on Yahel, but the most meaningful of these have occurred over the past week. During this time, I have realized that leadership and community are tied closely together, and one of these factors is essential to have for the other to occur. I have also learned that both factors, especially leadership, have different meanings for different people, and one can create their ideal community and leadership to fit their future plans and way of life.
I got much of my inspiration from a week-long Masa Leadership Summit that took place in Jerusalem. As you can probably assume from the title, this week was largely about building leadership skills and learning about different types of leadership and how to implement effective leadership in various environments. I definitely learned a lot in this regard, but a significant part of my learning derived from aspects I did not expect, including aspects of community. At this seminar, it was exhilarating for me to meet 230 young Jews like myself who came from multiple countries around the world and are all doing great work to enhance Israeli society. This was an amazing chance for me to make many new friends of interesting backgrounds and learn about the traditions of Jewish communities around the world. This was one of the first times I built relationships with multiple Jews my age who come from places other than English-speaking countries, like Russia, India, France, Argentina, and Ukraine. Our contrasting opinions and traditions really brought us together and helped us develop strong relationships that I hope can endure throughout the duration of my stay in Israel.
Leadership was also a strong focus of this seminar, but not always in the ways I expected it to be. I entered the summit thinking there would be many presentations about what effective leadership is, and I would just be expected to learn from these lessons and implement them while participating in my program. To my surprise, while there were presenters who guided us throughout the week, most of the programming was determined by the actions of the participants. This was especially prevalent during our small group workshops and discussions. Though there were facilitators present during each of our sessions, they really sat back and allowed the participants to control the direction of what we were doing. This became very difficult, especially during one politically-charged discussion one of my groups had about working together with Arabs to complete a task. However, whenever we got off topic or there was an awkward silence, the independence granted to us by the facilitators forced the group to step up and continue the discussion in a healthy manner. This experience taught me that part of leadership is trusting your instincts and taking initiative to perform actions that you feel would benefit the community.
The summit’s staff members also tested our leadership skills through other surprising methods. The most unexpected of these methods came during our large-group lectures and presentations, which included many figures with controversial views. At first, I and many other participants felt that these presenters were expressing what we considered to be Masa’s “agenda,” which was to get us to love Israel and eager to make aliyah. However, we later discovered that Masa purposely invited controversial speakers to challenge us to respond to them and defend our own beliefs. One example of such an example was the Director General of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, who lectured us about the importance of Israel in the future of the Jewish people and essentially the irrelevance of Diaspora Jewry. Another example came when I took a trip to the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) and met with young female Knesset members from both the Likud (right-wing) and Mahane Hatzioni (left-wing) parties. In our meetings, both politicians were using generalizations and statistical data to describe the “correct” way the Jewish state should be run, and utilized personal rhetoric to delegitimize the views of the opposing party.
In the aftermath of these meetings, the Masa staff asked us why no one expressed fervent dissent to what these people had to say, especially when our identity as Diaspora Jews was challenged. One of our staff members from the Jewish Agency for Israel approached me and some others after the first lecture and explained that the speaker was meant to provoke a response from us and make us ask tough questions that would clearly show different ways of thinking toward the speaker’s points, which she described as a tactic of strong leadership. Though I saw where this woman was coming from regarding the purpose of these exercises, I had to disagree that a strong, oppositional response to a controversial speaker in a room full of people is the only way to showcase effective leadership. I definitely have strong opinions on a variety of issues and I make it known when I disagree with someone, but I don’t think the right time and place to do that is in a crowded room with an authority figure where your voice is less likely to be understood and received well. As I told this woman in response to her claim, I think silence can also be a powerful form of leadership because it shows that you are attempting to prevent tensions in your environment, and if you stay calm perhaps others will follow suit. I definitely think leadership involves stepping up and fighting necessary battles to defend your beliefs. However, it also involves picking which battles to fight and choosing the ones that implement your purpose in the most peaceful and productive manner.
Another aspect of this summit I really benefited from was the work that the participants prepared for various programs. Like I mentioned earlier, the Masa staff was very helpful in not interfering in sessions and permitting the participants to really create the essence of each session. In addition to this, there were many parts of the week that were specifically designed by the work of each individual participant. One of these sessions was called an open source activity, during which each participant needed to present a talent or topic of interest to the entire group within a 7-minute time frame. I chose to utilize my love of music and write a song to perform for the group. The song I wrote was to the tune of “Hello” by Adele and it focused on my frustration about the current wave of violence in Israel and my hope for peace in the imminent future. This was a very cathartic activity for me because I was able to get a lot of my emotions out through songwriting and I got much joy out of performing a song that I created.
In preparation for the summit, I also needed to come up with a leadership challenge I have come across during my program that other Masa participants could help me solve. During one of my small group sessions, I needed to present my challenge to my group and answer all of their questions so they could come up with a productive solution. The challenge I chose was how to effectively discipline my kids at the Arab elementary school I work at in order to stop bullying and violence among the students there. This is a very tough issue, and my group was not able to decide on a clear solution. However, they did offer many helpful suggestions, and it was comforting to be able to speak freely about an issue that I have been struggling with emotionally. Through both this exercise and the open source activity, I learned that strong leadership depends largely on stepping outside your comfort zone and opening yourself up to new experiences that could benefit your community.
I was also able to experience community on a significant level last week through my group’s Thanksgiving celebration. When I decided to spend a year in Israel, I assumed I was not going to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving, and I was initially ok with that. However, as the holiday grew nearer and I heard details from my parents about their holiday plans, I began to feel very left out and I realized how important this holiday was to me growing up and is still to my identity. Therefore, when almost all of the Yahel community came together for a festive Thanksgiving dinner last week, I was overwhelmed. I was in overwhelming awe of the efforts everyone put in to make this meal happen, preparing a multitude of dishes such as turkey, stuffing, Israeli and couscous salads, mashed potatoes, green beans, apple cake, pumpkin pie, and fried dough. (I was especially in awe of my Canadian flatmate Adrienne, who isn’t even American and prepared a large turkey by herself so we could have a traditional Thanksgiving.) I was overwhelmingly surprised by how many people showed up to celebrate our mutual work and our relationships with one another, including most of Yahel’s Rishon L’Zion participants who endured the costly taxi commute to and from our apartment.
Ultimately, I was overwhelmingly happy to be surrounded by this group of people that has truly become my family. As I sat among this large group enjoying delicious food and saying what I was thankful for, the first thing that came to mind was being in that moment; having this traditional Thanksgiving experience I thought would be impossible alongside these exceptional individuals who all committed to bringing this dream to life. Over the past two months, I have gone through so much with my fellow Yahelnikim, and we have bonded in ways I cannot compare with other friends. Though we are all different and I may disagree with them on many topics, in the end I know our bonds are rock solid and we will always have each other’s backs. This realization at the Thanksgiving dinner table taught me another important lesson about community: no matter your differences in culture and background, a true community will always be there to give you support when you really need it.
Over the past week, I have learned that leadership and community are very closely tied, and one component is essential for the other to occur. My experiences at the Masa Leadership Summit and my Lod Thanksgiving dinner have made me carefully evaluate both of these concepts and develop meanings for both that are very personal and relevant to my daily life. In my mind, no one likes a show-off, and leadership is not always about showing superior ability in terms of knowledge, courage, or coordination. Instead, leadership is about maintaining a strong connection to community, and developing a balance that maximizes the community’s needs as well as your own. To me, being a leader can be about showing skill when it is needed, but it is also about showing vulnerability and relatability when those are needed. Many of the leaders I have on Yahel are so effective because they not only provide the guidance we need, but they also reveal moments in which they do not have all the answers and teach the humble message that at times even the strongest leaders need to be led by others. I surely know that I cannot reach my fullest potential as a leader without a supportive community surrounding me, and I look forward to developing my leadership skills this year with the assistance of my Yahel community and family.