September 1, 2015 by Debra Gittler


I couldn’t have imagined this week would be as powerful as it has been. Thanks to the Schusterman Foundation’s Reality Global program, I’m just finishing a weeklong visit in Israel with 45 other leaders in social entrepreneurship—we are from 10 countries and umpteen languages; working in education, tech, human rights, finances, environment; access, quality, equality; Jewish, Christian, atheist, and other; Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Oceania; running a start-up or exiting leadership or maybe even starting up again…

REALITY empowers exceptional young people to enhance their leadership skills through an immersive personal and professional development journey through Israel grounded in the Jewish charge to repair the world.


I won’t go through the entire itinerary—there were too many activities and frankly, it’s not what we did, but how we felt and reacted and responded and discussed that matters. We were all leaders of powerful initiatives, all individuals deeply committed to changing the world, but we didn’t make this a networking trip. Some special chemistry or unique timing or simple luck allowed this group of over-achievers to come together and just be people together, to experience deeply together, to share a single view from so many distinct perspectives. Together.

Of course, meeting the Nobel Peace Prize winner President Shimon Peres was meaningful, but was it more powerful than standing on the border as we heard bombs fall in Syria?

We heard from a former member of Knesset about the tension between being a Jewish state and a democracy; but was that more insightful than watching a friend and colleague cry while confronting his own spiritual identity?

We wandered Yad Vashem to hear the stories of Holocaust struggle and survival, but was that more informative than seeing the grandchildren of survivors hold hands as a stranger points out her grandfather in a photograph upon the museum wall?


So yes, we learned about history ancient and modern, about movements old and new. But mostly, we were given the opportunity to see the Middle East, the world and our own lives through a new lens.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that there is a fair comparison between Israel and El Salvador, and yet, I couldn’t help but reflect on El Salvador through this lens of Israel. These two countries have much in common. Tiny lands, no natural resources, history of violence and turmoil. Israel’s population is larger—much to do with large migrant increases in the last decade. The comparison might not be fair, but it’s tempting.

Two moments struck me most—two comparisons that contrast.

1. Genocide.

In Yad Vashem, the memorial museum to the Holocaust, we discussed at length the struggle between the Jewish people as the other. We discussed genocide. And I tried to imagine the violence in El Salvador through that lens. How long until the 18 vs 13 war is recognized as a war between sub-groups. How long until the gangs qualify as ethnic groups? Is their divide any different than Sunni and Shite? Than Reform and Conservative? It’s easy to dismiss the comparison—gangs are not religions. But here in the Middle East, religions aren’t religions, but cultures, peoples, ethnicities. Judaism, we learn in Israel, is not a religion but a people and a nation.

If we could look at the murders in El Salvador as genocide, would people listen? If the announcement of El Salvador’s worst day—52 murders in 24 hours—was framed as ethnic cleansing, would there be international outrage?

If we presented the violence in El Salvador as a modern response to social exclusion and oppression stemming from colonialism; as a peoples who have struggled for hundreds of years for the right to their land, for the right to work with dignity, for the right preserve their identity, would their be global mobilization demanding peace?

I know I can’t be naïve enough to compare El Salvador to Israel. But just now, I can’t be naïve enough not to.

2. Human Capital.

Israel is a country of immigrants. Of peoples who were displaced and marginalized. Israel is a desert land that was barren, a people who were disparate. And now it is an international start-up capital. Like everywhere in the world, Israeli society is struggling with growing inequality: high costs lower the quality of life for the average person; insecurity is constant; social exclusion and political divide is rampant.

And yet, this tiny country and tiny population are powerful. Not because of their violence. Perhaps because of their position—Israel’s place in history and modernity are unparalleled. But while here, it’s impossible not to believe that no matter where the Jewish State was placed, it would be a successful nation.

So yes, I know it’s not fair to compare these two totally different countries, but I’m overwhelmed that a small, resource-poor, small-population country can offer so much and so many opportunities. In Israel, strong political will, strategic long-term investments and vision, and mostly, enormous investment in human capital create an incredible barometer for success.

What would it take to see the human potential maximized to the same degree in El Salvador? What would it take to see bustling modern towns and increased opportunities in El Salvador? What would it take to convert El Salvador—a densely-populated, resource-poor country—into a land of opportunity?

Education. Investment in people. Opportunities for expression, identity and creativity. And in order to make space for such opportunities, the educational system must promote a different kind of thinking.

In Israel, the combination of progressive educational methodologies and obligatory army service means young people are encouraged to think out of the box from the time they are small children. They are encouraged to be actively engaged in their education and their country’s safety.

Seeing El Salvador through this new lens, I’m overwhelming saddened by wasted human potential. El Salvador could be better, because the people deserve better. Violence alone doesn’t have to diminish potential…

Next Steps.

Being in Israel motivates me now more than ever that El Salvador is important. That we must bear witness and announce to the world what is happening. That we cannot be quiet as El Salvador suffers. Through this new lens, I’m not naive enough to believe that we can radically change El Salvador. But we can—and will—certainly keep trying.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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