It was Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. I was preparing to facilitate a conversation with a group of fifty Latin American leaders—each a vivacious, intelligent forces of nature — who I was traveling with on a once-in-a-lifetime REALITY journey to Israel.
I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated by the task before me: I had to explain why I converted to Judaism, describe my personal connection to the faith and community, and to open the Shabbat ceremony—all in just five minutes.
I was nervous.
I knew that I was in the middle of a monumental, possibly life-changing experience, fulfilling my dream of coming to Israel after nine years in the Jewish community. It was a pilgrimage in honor of many generations of Jews in my lineage, an acknowledgement of my roots. How could I express the depth of my feelings, in so little time, with my palms sweating?
The time finally came. This is impossible, I said to myself, I’m not ready. But just as I was about to panic, I was miraculously saved by the bell—someone else stepped in and opened the Shabbat. A lovely man named Esteban invited us to play a game I will never forget, called “THE Best Thing Ever.” In this game, you call out random, seemingly small events in your daily life and the rest of the group screams out in response as if each mundane thing is “the best thing ever.” The magnificent atmosphere of Latin American joyfulness and spontaneity burst open like a piñata.
Someone said: “I took a nap!” The group let out a resounding “YES!” Someone else offered: “I had a really good cup of coffee!” YES! “I got two hugs today!” YES! “I lost my cellphone and have been technology-free for three days!” YES!
Caught up in the playful energy, my edgy side took over and said, hear this: “I got my period today!” And I couldn’t believe it—that statement was actually met with a loud “YES!” from fifty Latino men and women I barely knew. I was floored. My roommate in Israel, perhaps in solidarity, even said “me, too!” which was greeted by an equally enthusiastic “YES!” from the crowd.
After diving into the deep end like that, suddenly I had nothing to lose. It was a breakthrough moment for me: I had completely overcome my fear of being so raw and authentic that I felt like an open book. I was able to tap into the wonder that was in my soul at that moment, of being in such a magical place with extraordinary people. I told the group how scared I had been about sharing but how safe I felt in that environment, that I was glad to be a woman in this time in history and be able to freely express myself, that I was so happy I could be open about what had previously been banned and rejected (menstruation).
I told the group about the Jewish man who I was going to marry and for whom I converted. I told them about the moment in the conversion ceremony when the rabbi asked me if I would remain Jewish if my fiancée and I split up, and I said yes.
I said yes because I fell in love with the Jewish faith, the rituals, the community, and the wisdom. I said yes because in the process of conversion, I had discovered my Jewish roots, realizing that I come from a long line of Sephardic ancestors who had to hide away as Marranos (“pigs”) in the Caribbean. Hidden ancestry is a very common trend in Latin America—who knows how many Latinos have Jewish heritage, and they just don’t know? And while my engagement to my former Jewish fiancé was called off (we loved each other but did not get along), I ultimately did marry the most wonderful man and have continued to embrace my Jewish faith on my own and with his partnership.
Later on, I shared a song I learned in my conversion journey called “Hine Ma Tov,” about the joy of being together as brothers and sisters. We sang it as a group (after I shared the lyrics in our WhatsApp group and asking to be forgiven for using technology during Shabbat— “but for a very good cause,” I pleaded), and some even added Latin rhythms to spice up the tune.
That was only the beginning of a very musical evening. When we got to the Western Wall, I was walking around in awe of the surrounding beauty and the diversity of the people when I suddenly heard angelic voices—it was a circle of young women holding a special Shabbat singing service. My heart jumped with joy when one of them invited me to join the circle, and sing and dance with them. I felt included and welcomed into the very heart of this Shabbat holiday in the pearl of Jerusalem. I felt like I was truly part of a tribe. I felt whole.
Moments like this are unforgettable, and they speak to the culture of playfulness and authenticity in the REALITY journey. This trip invited me to reflect on many topics – my identity, heritage, resilience, and leadership.
Identity. As our extraordinary guide Michael Bauer told us: “You are Jewish if you say you are…But to keep an identity you must do certain things, you must cultivate it; otherwise, it gets lost.” As I sang in that Shabbat circle, I was reminded of an important part of who I am, of who I have chosen to be. It reminded me of the freedom we all have to define who we are and what is important to us. We are free to be multi-identity, multi-nationality, multi-religious. I realized that part of my identity is to be a bridge between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, to bring greater understanding to the culture in which I grew up that often misrepresents and misunderstands Jews. I recommitted to cultivating my Jewish identity in connection to my other identities, and to create ties of brotherhood and sisterhood. Judaism has so much to give to the world.
Heritage: The REALITY journey invited me to reflect on heritage, as the Jewish culture is strong in preserving and remembering history. What stories are mine to tell and share with future generations? What other instances of “never again” (aside from the Holocaust) do I want to help acknowledge? Perhaps we are in the middle of one right now in Colombia, where three social leaders are assassinated per week on average in this post-conflict turmoil.
Resilience: As much as I feel helpless, I am reminded that we can always begin again. I have gained inspiration in Israel’s resilience, in how it has healed from its traumas, how it has consistently turned darkness into innovation, how it has reinvented itself as the “Start-Up Nation.”
Leadership: My REALITY journey also allowed me to reflect on my abilities as a leader—or a shepherd, to use the analogy we explored on the trip. In a particularly fun exercise on our first day, we were challenged to bring a group of sheep from Point A to Point B, and in the process realized how much intention and drive it takes to get everyone on the same page.
Jewish wisdom is rife with metaphors of leadership: The biblical tale of Moses is not about one single hero, but four members of an inter-dependent team: Moses the visionary, Jacob the communicator, Jason the executor, and Miriam the charismatic. During the exercise, we each identified with one of these types and tested this theory in action, attempting to build a boat out of wood, barrels, and string. Amazingly, we managed to pull it off by playing on each of our strengths, enabling each person to flex their individual skills.
But after this journey, one thing is now clear to me about leadership: A leader is someone who shapes and stewards identity, as Ben Gurion did, inviting Jews to reinvent themselves and write a new story after experiencing the most unimaginable pain. A leader also protects the holy, such as the city of Jerusalem, a gem for various religions, an important historical legacy for human kind. A leader navigates complexity. Proposing a solution to the Middle Eastern conflict may seem easy, but it is wiser to listen and understand with the head, the heart and the soul before speaking up.
After these lessons and experiences, I am more clear than ever that my mission is to enable leaders and change agents to make a difference by standing strong in their own identity, as well as stewarding collective identity through a clear purpose, vision and mission. I want to support leaders who can protect the holy: our sacred sites, our values, our cultural and environmental patrimony, and our relationships. I aspire that the new generation of leaders to be able to navigate complexity and to access the wisdom of Judaism and many spiritual traditions, to inform our actions in a way that heals the world, as in tikkun olam.
After this unbelievably rich journey, what remains is a deep well of gratitude. Like Miriam’s well, it follows me everywhere these days, even across the deserts of routine and uncertainty. I have renewed courage as a change agent, new determination to serve as a bridge of understanding between cultures and to train leaders. I want to carry this feeling of being welcomed, of being celebrated, of being free and real that I experienced on that Shabbat. I want to take part in tikkun olam, surrounded by the community, abundance, and joy that is now imprinted on my soul forever.
I will carry these powerful moments with me wherever I go – from these explorations of my identify to the fullness of the Shabbat circle as a community.
Thank you, REALITY Adelante! Thank you, Schusterman Foundation! And thank you, Israel, for an incredible journey.
Anamaria Aristizabal participated in REALITY Adelante '18. She works with New Ventures West, a world class coaching school, as a coach and coach trainer. She is a leadership trainer at George Washington University's Center for Public Excellence and Byron Fellowship, both leadership development initiatives for global change agents. She is an Art of Hosting practitioner and trainer, with extensive experience designing and facilitating powerful learning journeys for different groups. Anamaria is a member of various organizations that aim for personal, organizational and societal transformation, such as the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) dedicated to offering learning circles that foster systems thinking. Learn more about her Leading Change initiative.
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.