“Is it possible to fall in love with a country you have not been to?”
This was the question I asked a friend who was part of the inaugural Israel Immersion Program in December 2012. My Flex Evening 2014 (FE14) cohort was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to not only be part of the first-ever US-Israel Center (USIC) Immersion Program, but to be given that same opportunity again the following year right before we graduated.
I’ve always admired classmates who find the balance between the rigorous demands of school while maintaining a full-time job, all the while never neglecting to squeeze in some fun and participating in various Rady activities in the process. I’ve never been one of those people, save for the occasional Home Plate shenanigans before, during, and after class. Somehow, however, I’ve always known that applying in the Israel Immersion Program was something I was going to try at some point in my life. And five years after taking my last final exam at Rady, here I am telling you all about the experience.
Learning that I was accepted in the USIC Immersion Program gave me the same ecstatic feeling I had when I found out I was going to be part of Rady’s FE14 cohort – so much so that after being assigned Startup Nation as a required reading for the trip, I’ve pre-immersed myself in various other books about Israel: Our Man in Damascus, Rise and Kill First, Son of Hamas, Israel: An Introduction, and Mossad. After the first briefing, I began hiking again to prepare for Masada. I may have gone overboard when I also started binge-watching Fauda, Mossad 101, and Hostages on Netflix. In doing so, I even managed to pick up a few Hebrew words. Finally, to obtain a more balanced perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I borrowed the documentary 5 Broken Cameras from the library, which I made an effort to watch the evening before my flight.
My fascination with the country has a lot to do with being raised Catholic. It’s always been a dream of mine to do a pilgrimage in Israel and visit all the Christian sites in order to walk the same path as Jesus did. As I grew older, however, my curiosity turned into the country’s sophisticated national security and full-on espionage stratagem. Now that I am pursuing a career in Health Information Technology, my interest in Israel has evolved into knowing more about its high-tech industry and how it can be leveraged for the greater good. Simply put, Israel contains the trifecta of my favorite things: Tech + Jesus and a splash of the Mossad.
Call me biased, but even our TAs said that FE14 was one of the best and most fun-loving cohorts Rady has ever had, so I was a bit skeptical when I found out none of my contemporaries would be part of the trip. After the first mandatory class, I knew that it might be asking a lot to find more Amy Gundersons or Matt Archers to spice up the immersion experience, especially since five years after graduation, this bunch is definitely going to be a lot younger than I am. Besides, the trip was only a week long, so I had no high hopes of meeting a new set of Gossip Girls to spend future milestones with.
But as with any startup success story, my trip began serendipitously. My proclivity for isolation has brought me to sit with Dipixa at lunch for the first meet and greet, and Ben during the Israel welcome dinner. It’s amazing how both of these unconscious decisions, driven mostly by my preference for more intimate social interactions, determined how fulfilling this trip would be. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the program as much had I not spent time gallivanting with these like-minded souls.
Dipixa said it best when she wrote that the most memorable part of the trip were the people. From sharing deep, dark secrets with the Assistant Dean, Christie, and Robert; bumming a drag from Diego and Erez; recognizing Leandro (the map) from Mauro (and failing to be his wingwoman); pulling a prank on Chris; embarrassing El Bryan, the El Presidente on Venmo with his BTP moment; rooming with Olesia and admiring her courageous travels; sitting on benches with Daniel; exchanging photos with Felix; singing Coldplay with Sahil; giving Jaden his third official call sign; harassing Sean in his bathrobe; working out with Katy; figuring out that Valerie IS Janzino; woman-crushing on Mimi; speaking Italian to Mauricio; singing happy birthday to Lijun; taking photos of Ming, the self-designated photographer; praying at Holy Sepulchre with Shashita; doing what I do best and making Jasleen, Juliana, and Rumpa a wee bit uncomfortable; spending long walks and heart-to-heart talks with Ben and Dipixa; and adoring Ayelet even more than I already did.
The Company Visits
When I was still in business school, corporate social responsibility was a “nice-to-have” when we evaluated companies. With the Israeli startups we visited, I was very pleased to learn that the social aspect was actually what a lot of the business models were based upon. Furthermore, this new set of Rady MBA candidates I went on the trip with always challenged the speakers with how the startups plan on giving back to society.
The two companies that are near and dear to my heart are BKind and Brainsway. As a Diversity and Inclusion Champion at work, I find BKind’s pay-it-forward gesture of spreading kindness as a way to be inclusive. Often times, people know to focus on diversity, but they overlook inclusion. BKind, in its own way of spreading kindness around the world in a tactile manner, eradicates our propensity to hide behind our screens. And with Brainsway, helping people achieve mental health is a fundamental initiative I will always want to be a part of any day.
The pride that each speaker exuded as they explained how Israel is a startup nation was infective. Each provided different flavors of what it meant to them and their companies to be a startup nation. As for the overall Israel vibe, the cities were alive, no matter what time of day or night. Despite the negative news coverage we get stateside, I found comfort and security in walking the well-lit streets of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv, even in solitude, as the cities were constantly bustling with seemingly happy people. I also felt very welcome in the Israeli-Arab community of the Bedouins with their tremendous hospitality. Most importantly, as an introverted (sometimes shy) individual, what I admired most about the culture was the Israeli chutzpah and is truly something I desperately want to emulate. Being direct without being rude, and accepting failure as a mere opportunity to try again, were great ingredients to creating successful startups – IMHO, these were the trip’s prized exposure that were extremely relevant for people seriously considering taking their Lab 2 Market ideas to the next level.
The Historical Sites
The Old City of Jerusalem was exactly how I imagined it to be and so much more. But there were a lot of unexpected and pleasant surprises I found along the way, such as the hotel’s proximity to the Dead Sea; the late night solo walks (I’m scared of everything, especially people); the visit to Nahalal and the Necropolis of Bet She’arim; and crawling inside what was purported to be Jesus’ tomb.
I’ve always found Mediterranean food to be too healthy. Yet, in Israel, I’ve never had such decadent and generous spread of courses, only to find that the amount of good food I ate were only appetizers. Both the welcome and farewell dinners were something I want to be able to find in San Diego. I’d even drive to LA or fly to San Francisco if I could find something up to par with the authentic Israeli dishes we had. There was never a shortage of food, even for vegetarians like Dipixa or people with food allergies, there was always a succulent dish to be had.
The Gneezys always know how to do things right. Negotiations weekend was perhaps the most memorable part of my Rady experience, but Israel Immersion now takes the cake. Whether the class is with Ayelet or Uri, I somehow always come out far richer and more knowledgeable than I actually think I am. What they teach is beyond the concepts of the class – it is the overall experience that makes one feel whole. It’s as if prior to participating in their classes, you don’t even realize that something is missing from your life until you leave the class extremely fulfilled. I, for one, have learned invaluable social, professional, and life skills from both of them, which I carry with me wherever I go.
The Trip of a Lifetime
I do believe that students are terribly missing out if they leave Rady without participating in the USIC Israel Immersion Program. In hindsight, I probably would have enjoyed this trip a lot more had I shared this experience with Pete or Abby. As an alum, though, I’m fortunate to be given another chance. I am definitely grateful for the opportunity to relive the Rady experience and expand my network outside of my tight-knit FE14. The best part? I got to be nostalgic without having to worry about grades.
So is it possible to fall in love with a country you have not been to? As Ayelet said prior to the trip, I will be even more in love with Israel after I visit. She was not wrong. I’m already trying to find a way to convince my boss if I can work remotely for 3-6 months from Israel. Our VPN firewall rules do not allow network access outside of the U.S., so this will be challenging, but as I’ve learned from Uri, it does not hurt to negotiate and ask for anything. After all, I’m still קינדסומ תשפחמ.
As for my concerns that this group may not be as fun, I think Rady has a knack for putting together an eclectic mix of people. One is bound to find lifelong friends even in a short, week-long intensive period of time. Dipixa, Ben, and I have already maintained a group chat and are planning to hike and brunch regularly like basic sabiches. I can’t wait to be part of their future milestones just as I have with my Gossip Girls.