Blake Leew traveled to Israel in February 2014 as part of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy Israel Program – organized and coordinated by CIJA.
It was one of those split-second decisions that changes your life forever.
During the second term of my MBA program I received an email informing me of five available spaces in an upcoming study-abroad trip to Israel on comparative public policy. Within minutes, and without even taking time to read the course description, I dashed off a reply expressing my interest, fervently hoping that I had been quick enough. As it turned out, I had squeaked into the very last spot.
From the moment we landed in Tel Aviv it was clear that this would be a course like no other. Each day was filled with new surprises and experiences and, together, our group listened, learned and broke bread with some of the most accomplished men and women in Israel. We met a former Director of the Mossad, an IDF colonel in charge of planning the security barrier, an Arab-Israeli serving in the Knesset, and a Palestinian negotiator who had been at Camp David. We visited the Western Wall, a Kibbutz within minutes of the Lebanon and Syrian borders, and stood beside the Sea of Galilee. We heard how Israeli innovation policies had helped to create a vibrant high-tech sector, a topic of particular interest to business and policy students from Calgary who were fascinated with how so much abundance had been created in the middle of a desert with no natural resources.
On the last day of the trip we visited Yad Vashem. The group grew silent as the exhibits and the architecture overtook us. I felt that I had never really learned about the Holocaust until that day and, as I looked out at the Jerusalem Forest, I was overcome with a desire to know more. Our guide told me about a program called the March of Remembrance of Hope that was coming up later in the year and recommended that I apply. My trip to Israel thus became a trip to Germany and Poland as well.
In Europe, I traveled with a diverse group of students from all over Canada who represented vastly different backgrounds and academic fields. Together we journeyed to the darkest places on Earth, our hearts breaking over and over. Students made themselves a promise to never forget both the extreme good and the extreme evil that man is capable of, committing themselves never to be a bystander in the face of oppression. Our guides on the trip were two of the finest men I have ever met. One was a survivor who was orphaned, impoverished and left with chronic pain because of the Shoah but who nonetheless built a good life for himself and his family. The other left Chile at the age of 18, the day after he was married, to fight for Israel in the War of 1967. Any time I am having trouble doing the right thing because it is too hard, I need only to think of them.
After I came back from Europe, my life began to change in very concrete ways. With an understanding of the crucial role public policy plays in helping to create value, prosperity and freedom, I enrolled in the joint Master of Public Policy-MBA program. I became more engaged in my community, donating more time and making larger charitable contributions than ever before. Finally, because Jewish philanthropists funded a substantial share of my trip costs, I looked for ways to give back to that community and became inspired to learn from it. I started volunteering at a local shul and going to events in Calgary. I quickly amassed and devoured a Jewish library with more than forty titles, a priceless trove of wisdom that has given me guidance and inspiration ever since.
This past fall, I attended my very first High Holiday services. During Tashlich, I listened to the Rabbi ask us what we needed to throw away. I thought of all the inspiring people I’d met during my travels and of what I needed to let go of in order to be more like them. As I watched breadcrumbs float away down the Elbow River, I resolved to rid myself of selfishness, indifference, and complacency. Later, during Yom Kippur services, my thoughts inevitably drifted to the limited time each of us has on this Earth to make a difference, and of how fortunate I had been to have the experiences that motivated me to change while I still had time.
It’s stunning to reflect on everything and to think of what might never have been if I’d replied to that fateful email just a few minutes later. I can’t find words strong enough to express what the trips meant to me or to give adequate thanks to the generous donors who made it all possible. I want them to know that, if it weren’t for them, I might never have heard of tzedakah, or tikkun olam, or have read the words in Pirkei Avot (2:12) that have rung in my ears ever since: It is not my obligation to finish the work, but neither am I free to desist from it.
When our group received a reply from the donor who had funded the Israel trip, his advice was simple and humble. All he wanted in return was for those of who were able to pass on the generosity to others. My most fervent prayer is that I don’t let him down.
Applications to the 2016 March of Remembrance and Hope are open until January 22nd, 2016. Apply online at www.remembranceandhope.com