Creating Caring Leaders and Ambassadors

By Rabbi Ofek Meir

“If I am not for me, who is for me; and if I am (only) for myself, what am I. And if not now, when?”
Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

Can a trip to Israel for a month be a transformative experience? Can two teenagers from completely different backgrounds find a connection that will ultimately change their world outlook? It is the experience of the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship program that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

Recently the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa said farewell to ten inner-city youth from Houston’s 18th district, who spent four days visiting the school and the city, and living with host families. One participant was Toni Ramos, an 11th grader from Heights High School in Houston who stayed with Mullan Nasseraldeen from Daliyat al-Carmel, a 10th grader at Leo Baeck High School. Even though they came from vastly different worlds they found a deep connection. Toni told us that this meeting dispersed any preconceived notions she might have had and instead she found that she has a second home even a second family in Israel. She learned about the Druze culture and got new insights on the complexities of a country with diverse cultures, an understanding she can no doubt apply to her own country. Mullan on the other hand had a bit of the wide world come to her and her home. She was deeply touched to hear about Toni’s life and the obstacles she has to overcome as a minority in her own country. Mullan told us that this meeting reinforces her belief that with self-confidence, a belief in a better world and determination one can make a difference.

The program was conceived after a visit by the late Mickey Leland a United States Congressman from the 18th district in Houston, Texas, who came home from a trip to Israel moved by what he had experienced. Being a serious Catholic and a warrior for social justice, Leland was impressed by both the religious and social aspects that he encountered in Israel. He wanted to create a leadership program for inner city youth that would broaden their horizons and inspire them like he had been inspired. Together with Houston Jewish and African American leaders the program and Foundation was created. The Samuels family in Houston has been engaged in the program since its inception. Rabbi Robert Samuels z”l, my Rabbi and teacher, made aliyah from Houston and became the second Headmaster and Managing Director of the Leo Baeck Education Center. He created the partnership between the program and the school. The participants spend a month living and working on a kibbutz, visit historical and religious sites, meet with kids from different ethnic groups in Israel and spend four days in Haifa hosted by families and the Leo Baeck school.

Over the 39 years of this program’s existence, the feedback from the 400 participants shows how this program has influenced their lives. The students have said that the program helped them to develop independence and broaden their world view. In an article from Jewish Herald-Voice (Houston, Tex. 2011), it was reported that the program greatly enhanced the rate of the student’s acceptance at the Universities of their dreams. But perhaps from a Jewish perspective, the biggest accomplishment is that the participants see themselves as goodwill ambassadors for Israel.

As Darryl Balckburn a Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Intern in 2006 put it:It took someone generous enough to send a seventeen-year-old kid across the earth for me to realize what an incredible place the state of Israel is and we are now ambassadors. We are all non-Jewish and we are able to come back and just be a voice to both non-Jews and Jews about our experience.”

The Leo Baeck Education Center and its high school sees it as a privilege to be part of this program that is changing the way people relate to Israel and is growing leadership in unexpected places. We are looking forward to next year when we will celebrate 40 years of the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship Program.

Rabbi Ofek Meir is Headmaster and Managing Director of the Leo Baeck Education Center.