The reflection below comes to us from Karim Abouelnaga. Karim is a REALITY participant and the founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect. He recently returned from the REALITY Israel Matters Deep Dive event, a two-day, discussion-based gathering that focused on issues affecting modern Israel and U.S.-Israel relations. See photos.
What is one thing you learned during your REALITY trip that surprised you?
I first heard about the REALITY trip at the 2015 Forbes Summit in Philly. I remember being excited to go to Israel and learn more about the country, the conflict and the culture. I figured it would be a great perspective to have since I was raised a Muslim and both of my parents are Egyptian.
When I became teenager, I distanced myself from my religion. Although I believe religion can be unifying around a shared set of beliefs and values and help us to carry out good in our world, religion could also be incredibly divisive. I recalled several times during my childhood when my mother wouldn’t want me to hang out with kids I thought were cool or date girls that I liked because they were Jewish. My parents were both children during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and neither of them participated in the dialogue or the resolution. Egypt was one of the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In that moment, however, it became clear to me that peace and affinity were clearly two different things.
My personal desires to hang out with and date whomever I chose caused philosophical rifts between my mother and me. This ultimately pushed me away from associating too deeply with my religion. My mother’s views have since evolved, and she never went out of her way to limit my contact or interactions with people that I cared about. Moreover, some of my most influential role models, mentors and friends who helped me get to where I am today are Jewish. These people include my childhood friend Sam Deutsch, role models and champions Jon Dressner, Lev Sviridov, Andrew Tisch, Bill Ackman, and Robert Reffkin, and one of my closest business advisors Jacob Lief. Not to mention my second-in-command at Practice Makes Perfect, Lauren Reilly.
And yet, surprisingly, I left Israel with a deeper commitment to being more Muslim. While our tour guide Michael Bauer was sharing his perspectives on Israeli culture, he mentioned that most Jews were non-secular. In fact, many Jews celebrated Passover and observed Shabbat more so because of their cultural significance and not their religious significance. The example he used to illustrate this was how Jews in America would convene for Thanksgiving and put up trees for Christmas. My family did those things too. For the first time, I felt like it was ok to decouple religion from culture to maintain a part of my identity. In fact, distancing myself from being Muslim would water down any influence I could potentially have to act as an ally to Israeli people and, one day, hopefully bring about peace in effort to end the unnecessary bloodshed. Only then can we strengthen affinity towards one another.
What is one new thing you learned during the Israel Deep Dive?
After leaving Israel this past April, I realized, like many of my peers, that I had even more questions than with which I arrived. The Deep Dive helped to unravel some of those questions and feelings. Previously, I felt a bit hopeless that peace would be possible in my lifetime, but those feelings dissipated during one of the Deep Dive sessions. I learned that unlike 30 or 40 years ago, when people wanted peace and there was very little understanding of how it could potentially be achieved, today we have an intimate understanding of several options for achieving peace in the region. Unfortunately, though, they are unlikely to be achieved in the short-term.
My entire life has been dedicated to improving our country’s education system for our most disadvantaged families and I know that nothing worthwhile is going to be achieved over night. As such, I saw this as a promising revelation and am far more optimistic about the way forward and committing the time and energy necessary to come to a solution.
What is one recent thought that has kept you up at night? How has your thinking changed as you have learned more about Israel, explored Jewish values and met other REALITY peers?
I started my company when I was 18 because I believed our world could do better. I felt society had a moral imperative to provide pathways out of poverty for kids who did not choose their circumstances or conditions. My evaluation of the system and those ladders ultimately left me dismayed. Instead of becoming cynical, I was compelled to make it my life’s purpose to raise awareness, collaborate with others and galvanize support so our society could make good on ensuring that all kids had a fair chance at success.
Unfortunately, the older I get and less idealistic I become, the more I’m confronted with the real constraints of wide-spread social change. Vision and strategy are only two of the many forces at play to affect real change. Overcoming inter-personal and financial barriers are slightly more complex and will often slow progress. Despite this, my team and I have an unwavering commitment and deep sense of resolve to ensure that those barriers do not impede our ability to improve the educational experience for all children.
The more I learned about Israel, explored Jewish values and met other REALITY peers, the more aware I became of my own values. One of the core values of Judaism is Tikkun Olam, which literally means to repair the world and connotes taking social action. This is a value I’ve lived my life by. I have a strong desire to create a legacy that continues to improve the lives of others. Moreover, my Shabbat dinners and events with my REALITY peers have been great opportunities to unplug, recharge and celebrate with many like-minded peers.
What is next for you? What projects are you working on? If you could convince people of one thing in 2017, what would it be?
I’m currently going into my seventh year as the CEO of a company that is committed to creating equity. My work has never been more important than now. If I’m as invigorated by my work and God continues to bless me with the energy to carry it out in a meaningful way, I will continue to lead my company in expanding our reach and influence. Practice Makes Perfect is on a mission to provide high-quality academic summer programming in high-need communities and we’re on track to reaching a few thousand kids across NYC this summer.
If I could convince people of one thing in 2017, it would be that you’re never going to get enough experience to be ready to create something new. The time to act is now. The skills that you need to be successful will most likely be acquired while you pursue your purpose.
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.