September 11, 2014
This story comes to us from REALITY, a Schusterman initiative and a values-based leadership program that invests in young professionals, empowering them to enact positive social change in their communities.
Debra Feinberg is a 2014 REALITY Leadership participant and a recent alumna of Teach for America. Her two years in the Charlotte corps were met with great success, most notably, creating an innovative financial literacy curriculum that culminated in leading a team of students to pitch a business proposal to the billionaire tycoon Warren Buffett. Presently, Debra is combining her passion for social justice and travel by participating in education initiatives around the world.
Six weeks ago I landed at Ben Gurion Airport excited for an opportunity to explore Israel and my Jewish roots. The plan was to spend a month traveling through Israel on my own and then spend twelve days with REALITY, a Schusterman initiative that promotes exploration of leadership, equity and social justice for a handpicked group of Teach for America corps members.
As my second year of teaching in Charlotte, North Carolina was coming to an end, REALITY caught my attention as an opportunity that could help inspire my next move in life and bring me closer to answering the ever pressing question: Where would I take my leadership?
One week after arriving in Israel, the bodies of the kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found and a period of riots and air raids followed. Hearing the sirens sound for the first time was a tense experience and I quickly found myself caught in a debate of ethics, morality and politics, compounded by a feeling that my presence at the epicenter of the conflict made me more accountable to seek a deeper understanding of Israel and the mission of the Jewish people.
Luckily, a unique opportunity presented itself and I signed up to audit two classes at the She'arim College of Jewish Studies for Women in Jerusalem. A course on Jewish Philosophy, taught by the school’s Director, Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, focused on the topic of performing mitzvot and really had a strong impact on me.
In the class, the professor shared her belief that “God is hidden in the world, and when Jews behave as they should and perform mitzvot, they allow everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to see the world differently, to show what is hidden.” She went on to share how God gave each of us a toolbox of our strengths that direct us in our mission; our purpose is to identify the strengths within ourselves and when those strengths are used correctly, we show God to the world: Tikkun Olam.
Performing mitzvot has always been the most meaningful part of my Jewish identity, but to understand it in those terms gave it new significance; suddenly, I was taking inventory of my toolbox and I was really excited about the possibilities for my future.
At the same time, I remembered what brought me to the She’arim, and realized the Rebbetzin had left me more confused then when I had arrived: how could Israel show God to the world with death and destruction obscuring the view?
Shortly after taking the class, I joined up with REALITY, which forced me to look even deeper into what sort of a leader I am and how I intend to align my abilities with my values. It was turning out that Israel’s turmoil was a breeding ground for my personal clarity.
On the last day of REALITY, I was charged with the goal of creating an action plan and sharing these next steps with an accountability partner. Originally, my plan for this year was to travel the world and reflect on what I want to do with my future; but my time in Israel made me realize that the only way I can get closer to that answer is by actively developing the intersection between my identity, values and leadership.
Traveling, my first love, was still paramount, “but now,” I told my partner, “I have a newfound desire to make this next year purposeful, intentional, and service oriented. I hope to use my traveling to further my Jewish education in order to better understand my identity and the world around me.” We gave each other two Shabbats from our return to put our plans into action; then, we’d touch base to make sure we were following through.
A jetlagged induced coma took up my first several hours back on American soil, but the moment I awoke I set about scouring the Internet for possible opportunities. The stars aligned and somewhere in the heavens Pavarotti let out an operatic note when I came across The Gabriel Project, a two month volunteer and learning fellowship through the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC).
Based in Mumbai, India, the Gabriel Project is an initiative that tackles poverty, hunger, illiteracy, malnutrition and child labor by incentivizing families in Mumbai’s slums to send their children to school rather than work by providing children who attend class with the meals they’d otherwise have to earn by working.
I peeked into my metaphorical toolbox and saw everything I needed: teaching background, social work experience, love of children, sense of adventure, desire to better the world…and I knew it was the perfect mission, encompassing all my goals in a unique and challenging setting that will push me to find the answers I am looking for while also putting my existing skillsets and passion for tikkun olam to meaningful use.
Beyond that, the fellowship provides amazing coursework, including Hindi and Social Justice in the Jewish Tradition, as well as immersing me into the Jewish community of Mumbai. Who knew?
By the time the second Shabbat rolled around and my accountability partner checked in, I’d put in my application. One month later, I’m excited to share that I’m the newest Fellow to be accepted to JDC's Global Jewish Service Corps. So, where am I taking my leadership? For now, it’s off to Mumbai!
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.