It was a recruiter's dream: 64 top young business minds from around the world gathered for ten days. But these MBA students and young professionals weren't interviewing for jobs — they were painting, packing and gardening their way across Israel as part of Hillel's first Business Alternative Break in Israel.
Business students and adults with special needs pose in front of a mural painted during the Alternatve Break to Israel.
The Business Alternative Break in Israel, held December 28-January 6, 2009 brought together participants from nine countries to explore the intersection between business and tzedek. Building on the themes of social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility, participants divided their ten days between hands-on service and meetings with Israeli businesspeople.
"We wanted this trip to show tomorrow's global business leaders how tikun olam can be a part of their professional journeys," said Michelle Lackie, the trip's organizer and director of Hillel's Weinberg Tzedek division. "We wanted participants to experience first hand how keen business skills can affect social change."
Trip participants met with Israelis who had successfully done just that. In meetings with Magdal Faucets and Lia Chocolates, two Israeli companies that hire adults with special needs, participants discussed the benefits of a company giving back to its community. And in a conversation with Joe Gitler, a former software entrepreneur who switched careers to head the Israeli non-profit Table to Table, participants explored how the entrepreneurial spirit and skill set can be applied to address social issues.
"Listening to Joe Gitler, I realized the advantages of first building skills in the business world and then applying those skills to address our communities' problems," said Israeli participant Roi Frenkel. "It inspired me to start thinking about creating a ‘tzedek start-up' of my own one day, after I've established myself professionally."
In addition to meetings with top business leaders, the participants spent much of their trip doing hands-on service alongside some of Israel's most vulnerable populations. Participants engaged in a variety of projects, including doing factory work with blind and mentally challenged adults, landscaping a garden at a kindergarten for Ethiopian children, and painting a youth center for at-risk teens.
"The Israel we saw on this trip is far beyond the Israel we know from travel brochures," said Hillel Rio participant Albert Saadia, who worked with the Ethiopian immigrant community during his trip. "We really saw Israel behind the scenes and got to know its different layers. And we met some of the amazing people working to make the ‘behind the scenes' Israel better every day."
Adding yet another layer to this experience was the truly international nature of the group. Of the 64 participants, 28 were North American, with the remainder (and the majority) from a combination of Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and Uruguay. For many, this diversity introduced a powerful sense of Jewish peoplehood into the experience.
"One might think that communicating amongst ourselves would be an issue," said American participant and Santa Clara University MBA candidate Nazgol Ashouri. "Not for a second – we were the most unified group I have ever been a part of. Our unity stemmed from our roots – our Jewish roots… Knowing that regardless of the various countries that we were from and the different languages we spoke that we are all connected through Judaism."
The Business Alternative Break in Israel was part of Hillel's initiative to engage graduate-level students around the world in Jewish life. This trip was one of two graduate-focused immersive experiences piloted this winter; the second targeted North American law students.