November 22, 2011
KANSAS CITY, Mo - - Describing and summarizing all he saw, heard and experienced during a recent six-day visit to Israel in brief, concise verbiage and thoughts is pretty much impossible, Avila president Ron Slepitza, Ph.D., admits. The issues and complexities of the culture within the country and those in surrounding territories and countries simply don't allow for brief summation.
But, of the many extraordinary things Slepitza witnessed and experienced during his pilgrimage, which came about because of his involvement as partner in interreligious dialogue programs with the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, was the high level of entrepreneurial development in Israel, both in terms of its scientific, engineering and education systems.
Slepitza and other university presidents from the Kansas City area spent considerable time touring and in conversation with presidents and administrators of Israeli universities.
"It was very clear from our visits that the universities are strong," Slepitza said. "Their students are focused, and there is an attitude of possibility, innovation and determination among them."
Slepitza said he credits much of that to the system in Israel which requires all males to serve three years of military service upon graduating high school and all females two years.
"For too many of our youth, there is not a strong sense of focus, ambition, or direction for their future," Slepitza said. "In Israel, their youth discover talents, develop skills, learn leadership and team work, and develop life-long relationships through their military experiences. Further, they not only learn self-discipline and to be grounded in values; they are taught to question authority, to examine issues and questions, and to find solutions. All of this promotes a can-do attitude."
Israelis who have gone through military service stay connected with their units by serving together one month per year for the next 20 years as part of their obligation as reservists. This builds deep bonds of life-long friendship and reliance.
"For their military to be successful, they must be really efficient in using all the resources they have," Slepitza said. "They have to be entrepreneurial, they have to adapt, and they have to be relentless in considering where threats and opportunities lie. These are powerful life lessons learned by most at this early age."
By the time Israelis complete military service and reach college, which is completed in three years, they know what they want to do and are fully invested in the country's political and social issues. Universities all have a set of entrepreneurial enticements encouraging innovation. The government subsidizes public universities up to 90 percent, holding tuition costs to $3,000 per year.
This could help explain why Israel is the only country on earth where land that once was desert is receding, where salt water can be converted to drinkable water, where they recycle 70 percent of their water, and have green and sustainable farming and other technologies are second to none. Necessity breeds innovation; but living in a state that's existence is constantly at risk helps them address the "big issues" of the peoples' lives.
"There were fresh vegetables and fruits like nothing you've ever seen," he said.
Slepitza said he felt completely safe during his entire stay, largely due to an expansive police and military presence on the streets. That proved to be a good thing as the political tensions that have existed as long as Israel has been a country certainly weren't lost on the visitors.
"The most interesting thing I saw was how close and interconnected everything is," he said.
As Slepitza said, Israel is a young country, but one steeped in thousands of years of tradition and history that includes conflict not only between Jews and Arabs but among various Christian groups as well. That makes problem solving all the more difficult. Memories are long, and their weight is heavy.
Slepitza drew an analogy of the U.S. and Soviet Union back in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s and '80s. Only, imagine being able to look out your back door and see the Soviets a few hundred yards away. That's how Israelis and Palestinians live every day.
"The question becomes: How do you make sense of things?" Slepitza said.
Israelis and their neighbors have struggled with this over thousands of years, so of course, Slepitza and his traveling companions weren't going to find answers in a matter of days. But one thing is for certain – getting an up-close look at the questions, and country, was fascinating indeed. Israel has much to offer, and we can learn quite a bit in dialogue with its people.
Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.