In 2008, as an undergrad at Columbia University, George Stern taught teen inmates at Rikers Jail in New York as part of his coursework for a class on the U.S. prison system. In response to an assignment he gave his students, one teen wrote about his fear of not being able to find a job and returning to a life of dealing drugs.
For George, it was a defining moment in which he knew he wanted to play a role in reforming an education system that he believed was failing high-need students. Soon after, he joined Teach For America and became a math teacher at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs, CO.
This week, along with more than 70 of his fellow Teach For America corps members, George is traveling in Israel on a 12-day leadership development program supported by our Foundation and the Samberg Foundation, in partnership with Teach For America. As participants on REALITY Israel, they will explore Israel through a service and education lens and engage in self-reflection and learning.
“Our goal is to empower these exceptional leaders to act on deeply held values to enact positive social change and, where relevant, lead richer, more meaningful Jewish lives,” said Adam Simon, Associate National Director of our Foundation and director of REALITY.
Among George’s fellow participants are Amy Berkhoudt, a first-generation college graduate and a high school teacher in Detroit who volunteers with the Detroit Youth Food Brigade, pairing high school students with local businesses and urban farms in the area; Nina Safene, who co-founded Colorado’s first single-gender public school, Girls Athletic Leadership School; and Katherine Hagan, an 8th grade teacher in Las Vegas who is launching an arts camp for at-risk students with funding from Downtown Project, an organization started by Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos.
During the intensely packed experience, participants get an inside look at Israel’s methods of approaching complex societal challenges, including how schools address issues of co-existence, religion and minority populations.
In their first few days on the ground, they got a lesson in leadership through a goat- and sheep-herding exercise and ate at Liliyot, a restaurant and highly successful social venture that strives to teach at-risk youth the skills of the food service industry. They also met with leading Israeli educators and social entrepreneurs, including Einat Wilf, Member of Knesset (Parliament) and Chair of its Education, Sports and Culture Committee; Nir Tzuk, Managing Director of Ashoka Israel. Next week, they will convene with their counterparts in Teach First Israel, a similar program that launched in 2010 and now has 143 teachers working in 33 schools across Israel.
“Israel is a classroom for people who want to learn about leadership in the face of extreme challenges,” said Andrew Mandel, Teach For America’s Vice President of Special Projects. “Many of the social justice challenges Israel faces mirror those in the U.S., and our participants get the opportunity to grapple with how best to address those complex issues.”
Now in its fourth year, REALITY has brought more than 200 corps members to Israel. The impact of the experience, which is open to all corps members, has proven to be profound. According to the REALITY Israel Experience: An Impact Study, the program strengthens the link between participants’ values and passion for public service while deepening their commitment to education reform and the Teach For America movement. Participants also gain deeper understanding of key Jewish concepts about the importance of repairing the world and powerful insights about their leadership capacities and potential.
Past participants, such as Daniel Sass, a teacher and soccer coach at Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, Md., have brought parts of their experiences into the work they are doing in their communities. After going on the 2011 REALITY trip, during which he met a teacher working with refugee students in the Golan Heights, Sass recognized parallels with his own work and became involved with an organization that uses soccer as a platform for dialogue and education with marginalized youth. Today, in addition to teaching, Sass coaches Baltimore’s under-18 soccer team, all 20 of whom are refugees. Sass credits REALITY and his experience in Israel with inspiring him to take on the role.
“The same cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that moved me in Israel was now presenting itself in the form of my varsity soccer team, and I was given the task of making them coexist as teammates,” Sass said. “It took me by surprise and forced me to reexamine the needs of the community in which I teach.”
Beyond the 12-day immersive experience, REALITY participants become part of a robust community that includes both online and off-line experiences, such as reunions, webinars and micro-grants for professional development opportunities. Some participants are also creating Jewish experiences, like Julie Oxenhandler who recently made Shabbat dinner for 19 teachers and students in Baltimore and also won an award from the Baltimore Jewish community for her teaching about the Holocaust.
Building on its success, REALITY is expanding to include two new Israel-based programs that will launch in the next year. REALITY Global will be geared to corps members in the global Teach For All network, a collection of independent social enterprises working to expand educational opportunities in more than 30 countries. REALITY Pro will offer an Israel-based experience for Teach For America professionals with affiliations and interests in Jewish life.
For photos of the the 2012 REALITY alumni Israel trip, click here.