When ‘tikkun olam’ and business innovation converge

The Schusterman Foundation has brought 30 of the best and brightest young entrepreneurs to Israel.

Reality program participants meet with former president Shimon Peres. (photo credit: MAAYAN BENARTZI)
Reality program participants meet with former president Shimon Peres.
(photo credit: MAAYAN BENARTZI)
When millions of Israelis somberly stopped whatever they were doing on Holocaust Remembrance Day and listened to the wailing 60-second siren honoring those who perished, Casey Rotter was on Kibbutz Ein Gev holding hands with 29 other idealistic young peers who were awestruck by the emotional intensity of the moment.
Rotter was in the country as part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation’s intensive eight-day leadership summit, which brings young entrepreneurs interested in changing society for the better to Israel, in the hope that they will bring their own version of tikkun olam (repairing the world) to their respective enterprises. According to the Schusterman website, “Israel is the ideal backdrop for learning how to lead and create social change.”
This is not your rudimentary Israel trip, however. Seth Cohen, Schusterman’s director of network initiatives, describes it to The Jerusalem Post as an opportunity for “individuals to experience Israel so they can find a deep personal connection and appreciation for the complexity of Israel, as well as how their experience can help them become even better versions of themselves and the creators of their communities that they choose to be a part of.”
The participants in the Reality: From Eden to Zion program are affiliated with the Summit Community, an organization that empowers entrepreneurs.
Cohen explains that when reviewing the pool of applicants from the Summit Community, the foundation was looking for a diverse mix of Jews and non- Jews, but that all needed to have “strong Jewish connections or express an interest in understanding Israel and Jewish culture in a more meaningful way.”
Rotter, who founded Next Generation Steering Communities for UNICEF, seems like a natural fit for such a trip.
Her work explores ways millennials can help the child relief organization, in an effort to raise the next generation of humanitarians.
Having only been to Israel once as a teenager, she marvels at how returning as an adult has made her experience the country anew.
“I’d never experienced anything like that before,” she says of the siren. “Even if you’re prepared, you never know what your body is going to feel and what emotions you will have.”
In a “really intense moment” when she held hands with two friends she had made on the trip – both of whom have family members who are survivors – she was able to “remember our families and also acknowledge that I’m here making new and old friends, and they are going through the same thing.”
For Rotter, the moment crystallized a sense of obligation she had to her grandmother and all Holocaust survivors, and the understanding that Israel was born of their suffering.
“I think you could feel something in the air, and the siren is something I’ll remember in my mind forever. It’s my duty to come back and experience it and spread the word of how amazing and special this place is,” she says.
Even though she had told her grandmother’s story of survival countless times, she was unprepared for the avalanche of emotions she felt during that brief minute. “I knew I’d get sad, but...
all of a sudden, with my eyes closed [and] those 60 seconds going off, I was in uncontrollable hysteria. Crying with so many mixed emotions. I just never felt all of those things at once.”
Being here as an adult has also given her a much more authoritative grasp on her Jewish identity.
“Then, I was Jewish because my family is Jewish; now I’m Jewish because it’s something that I want to be, and that’s a choice I’ve continued to make. So being back here is a more profound and more mature experience,” she explains.
Mikaela Ruben was one of the two friends holding hands with Rotter as the siren blared. She, too, has had the opportunity to rediscover her Jewish roots during this visit, after they lay dormant within her for most of her life.
When Ruben was a teenager, her father – who is Jewish – decided to make a sudden break from Judaism.
“We went to synagogue, we observed Jewish holidays, and one day we just stopped because he said it was painful for him,” she explains. “I realized that he had so much pain around him that I couldn’t understand or grasp that there was a community that would be there [for me] had I chosen to grasp what [its] roots are.”
Ruben, a nutritionist who founded a company creating healthy meal plans for celebrities and athletes, decided coming to Israel would enable her to discover a part of herself that had been shut off due to her father’s trauma.
“I’ve traveled a lot in my life and never really felt a belonging to a group,” she says. “This experience has been extremely unique and quite emotional, because I’m learning things that make me feel connected to the earth. It’s been an amazing process.”
Israel’s sense of community in times of hardship is something that resonated with her.
“In North America, I find that we take life for granted every day. People are more concerned with their own success and not the success of a group; we just live,” she laments. “I was very overwhelmed at how people come together and support one another in the face of hardship – the strength is unbelievable and inspiring.”
As for the constant reminder of security threats in the region, Ruben has remained undeterred. An avid traveler, she acknowledges her insatiable curiosity for discovering new places – even if it means there is some risk. However, coming to Israel enabled her to get some perspective on the conflict itself, so she now feels better informed for when she goes back to her friends and family in Vancouver.
“It’s so easy to get caught in the propaganda.
It’s very hard to filter through what’s being said. For me, in my group of friends, I will tell them they have to go. That would be the conversation.... If they wanted to talk about the political unrest, I would try to enlighten them to what I’ve been exposed to,” she says.
“What we at the Schusterman Foundation say is that individuals have their choice to create their own narratives.
They should have the opportunity to understand the Israel one through their own eyes and own ears,” says Cohen, explaining that the organization tries to show Israel through a “prism of peaceful coexistence.”
And while the Reality program doesn’t have a political bent and is not focused on the country’s many geopolitical conflicts, the participants have been exposed to quite a lot. Their itinerary, for example, has included meeting former president Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and a briefing on the Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian border.
“Wow, that was different,” chuckles Gerry Erasme when asked about his reaction to hearing bombs go off within Syria’s borders.
Erasme, the son of Haitian immigrants, serves as Nike’s senior director of global marketing and believes everyone, regardless of denomination, should experience Israel.
“All the different religions and nationalities, with people coming together in this one amazing place, it’s so complex and nuanced and [there are] so many issues,” he says. “Everything that happens here affects all of us, whether you’re Jewish or not.”
But like most things in life, this exhilarating week in Israel comes at a price: All alumni are expected to return home and “create a community in their own image,” using the Jewish values they have learned on their trip. Previous participants, for example, have hosted topical salons on Israel, spoken at events for the BBYO youth group, and worked closely with the foundation to seek other ways they can become more engaged.
“There are no free trips in the Schusterman Foundation – you pay up front and you pay it forward,” Cohen smiles.
“I think when you take remarkable people to a remarkable place, those individuals can surprise you in the most amazing ways.”