It was Ira Stahlberger’s first time in Israel, but even before heading back to Chicago on July 1 he had already booked a family trip to Israel for his daughter’s bat mitzvah in December.

The senior vice president of talent marketing for sports and entertainment agency WME-IMG had met Israeli Olympic and Paralympic gold medalists, learned Israeli self-defense martial art Krav Maga and spoken with the owner of Bnei Sakhnin, the first Arab soccer team to win the Israeli National Cup.

He’d hiked up Masada, strolled down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, floated on the Dead Sea and sampled local cuisine ranging from Georgian to Armenian to barbecue.

“My expectations were extremely high and I wasn’t disappointed,” Stahlberger told ISRAEL21c on the final day of the eight-day Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation REALITY Sports tour for global change-makers.

Among the 50 sports personalities on the tour were Andrew Siciliano, host of DirectTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket Red Zone and the NFL; Ronny Turiaf, former player for the L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat; Benoit Huot, a nine-time gold medal Paralympic swimmer; and Katie Haas, vice president of Florida business operations for the Boston Red Sox.

Most were experiencing Israel for the first time.

“My father immigrated here as a Holocaust survivor after World War II, but we never visited so it was pretty moving to go to [Holocaust memorial and museum] Yad Vashem,” said Stahlberger.

“What surprised me in general was how close and small Israel is, from Tel Aviv to Haifa to the Golan to Jerusalem. And I felt that the sense of purpose and community here is really palpable.”

Benoit Huot, a Canadian Paralympic swimmer with 20 medals from five Paralympic Games, said the group’s farewell lunch at Kadma family boutique winery in Kfar Uriah was a delightful end to his first visit to Israel.

“I’m a wine guy and I have discovered an amazing quality of wine here in Israel,” he told ISRAEL21c. “Over the past couple of days I’ve learned the culture as much as I could and I have loved meeting Israelis.”

Huot said he chose to participate in REALITY because he is retiring from athletics and was intrigued by the chance to join a leadership program with people from different backgrounds.

“This has been one of the most amazing journeys in my life,” he said. “I will become an ambassador for your country and culture when I get back home.”

The REALITY mission “offers a unique opportunity to learn the playbook of a country that has managed to thrive against the odds and have global impact beyond its small size,” according to the Schusterman Foundation. “The program is one of the only integrated Israel experiences of its kind that is designed to tell the modern story of Israel through the first-hand study of its history, diversity and sport achievement.”

Sporting activities included SUP (standup paddle surfing), beach exercise and ATV driving.

The group was taken to see social-impact programs such as ENP SPACE Scholastic Assistance Program and Empowerment in Bat Yam, which works toward the successful integration of Ethiopian-Israelis in grades 7-12; and Hagal Sheli (My Wave), which uses surfing as a vehicle for personal growth and advancement for disadvantaged teens.

REALITY Sports participants meeting with students from ENP SPACE Scholastic Assistance Program in Bat Yam. Photo courtesy of Schusterman Foundation

These visits struck a chord with Briana Thevenin, director of the Victor Cruz Foundation, whose mission is to promote positive change in the lives of youth through innovative STEM education programs. She also runs an organization focusing on professional sports management and philanthropic consulting.

“It’s all about paying it forward — a huge message for almost anyone running a nonprofit,” Thevenin told ISRAEL21c. “We have experienced a lot of stories about the holy land and its people and their perseverance through tough times, which reinforces that same messaging.”

Thevenin had been on the REALITY Sports mission last year and was returning as a facilitator.

“I am a woman of color in the sports world — very much a minority — but I’ve met people on this trip who want to help amplify my voice and the voice of people like myself. That has been very powerful for me,” she added.

Seth Cohen, senior director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, said that REALITY “is an initiative that explores Israel as a prism of complexity and inspiration for emerging global leaders who speak the languages of the future. Sports play a unique role in our world as a tool of community-building and collaboration. We couldn’t be more excited to have such inspiring and diverse sport leaders explore Israel and share their lessons with the global sports community.”