Tag Archives: Group Study Exchange

These are far more than mere ‘friends’

This blog features commentary on “politics, policy and life experience,” but you likely know that already. I want to talk in this post about the third of those items.

I want to share a life experience with you in two parts.

The first part involves an event that occurred 10 years ago this month. I had a wonderful chance today to relive that moment with four of my best friends in this whole world.

I want to back up just briefly to a time prior to that experience.

The Rotary Club of Amarillo, of which I was a member, is part of a West Texas district that runs from the top of the Panhandle to the Permian Basin. In 2008, the district leadership paired up with another district in Israel. Rotary International, the worldwide governing body of the civic organization, had established a program called Group Study Exchange. It charged each district that took part to select a team leader to take a group of young professionals to the partner district.

That year, our Rotary district decided it would send a team to Israel. It needed a Rotary member to lead that team. I applied for the position. I interviewed for it. The committee that heard my pitch — along with those of three other Rotary members — selected me to lead that team.

My first task was to select four non-Rotary members to join the team that would travel to Israel for four weeks in May and June 2009. I completed that task. I selected three young women and a young man to make that journey. They are pictured with this blog post.

Fernando, Aida, Katheryn, Shirley and I then trained for several weeks. We learned the customs of Israel. We sought to acquaint ourselves with the nature of the country that seems to be in the news almost weekly. Often, the news is grim, filled combat, turmoil and assorted forms of violence in that volatile region of the world.

We were sufficiently trained over time. Then we took off from Amarillo’s airport. These four individuals would meet with professionals in Israel, share experiences and knowledge with them. Thus, the name of the program was brought into play.

We spent four weeks traveling through Israel, seeing the country from top to bottom — Nahariya to Eilat and everywhere in between; we sampled their cuisine; we visited holy sites; we stayed with families that opened their homes to us; we saw a marvelous nation up close and in a way that most foreigners never get to see it.

After a month in Israel, we came home. We went our separate ways. We have stayed in touch, however, over the past decade.

Which brings me to the second point of this blog post.

We have maintained friendships unlike any other I have ever known in my nearly 70 years on this good Earth.

And today, we gathered at the home of one of our team members to salute each other, to remember that marvelous journey, to express our love for each other and to revel in what I believe is the rare fete of continuing the relationship that began when we met as total strangers a decade ago.

In my more than 20 years in Rotary, I have met many Group Study Exchange team members and team leaders. They all tell me the essentially the same thing: Their relationships ended when their tours ended. They went home and rarely have shared any time together upon their return.

That’s not nearly the case with this group of friends my wife and I have made.┬áToday capped off one of the most remarkable life experiences either of us have ever known. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we did immediately after returning from the Holy Land. That doesn’t matter. We still know what each other is doing. We maintain an interest in everyone’s lives. We still cheer each other on, we offer emotional support when the needs arise and we still communicate via various messaging platforms available to us.

The best part of this experience? It’s far from over. Our lasting friendships won’t allow it to end.

Remembering the journey of a lifetime

One of the many wonderful aspects of social media is the ability to share wondrous anniversaries with those along the media network.

Today is one of those days.

Nine years ago today, I walked off a jetliner at David Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. I accompanied four of my best friends in the whole world to the Holy Land as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. The GSE had a couple of key objectives: One was to build and promote international friendship between Rotary districts; another was to help promote Rotary membership to young professionals.

I traveled to Israel with these four young West Texans: Fernando, Aida, Shirley and Katt. They weren’t in Rotary. I was a member of the Rotary Club of Amarillo and was selected by our Rotary district to be the team leader of this marvelous group of individuals. Some of them joined Rotary when we returned home.

We toured the entire country of Israel during our four weeks as ambassadors from our Rotary district. Our host Rotarians provided lodging for us and welcomed us into their families.

It was — and this is no overstatement — the trip of a lifetime.

We learned so much about Israel, its history, its place in the world, its people. We spent four weeks traveling through this oasis in the Middle East. We swam in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea.

We visited churches, mosques and synagogues. We mingled in a multicultural society with our hosts. We also walked along holy and sacred ground in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Masada. We told our West Texas story to Rotary members.

We made friends for life.

I cannot possibly share a “most memorable moment” during that journey. It was full of them, from beginning to end.

My goal here is merely to recall that dreams do come true. Mine did on this day nine year ago when we landed in the Holy Land and saw it through the eyes of those who live in this wonderful and, yes, perilous region of the world.

We learned a greeting while touring Israel. “L’chaim” translates from Hebrew to “to life.” That marvelous journey, I am proud to say, made my own life much more complete.

Goofy mug shot offers warm memory

Every now and then I get asked about this picture.

It appears on my Facebook profile. I haven’t changed it since I posted it around 2010. A member of my family has told me that in her view “It’s the best picture ever posted in the history of Facebook.” She has ordered me to never change it.

I appreciate her comment and I’ve told her so … many times. I’m not sure whether I’ll keep it forever. I do intend to keep it well past the foreseeable future, though.

But here’s the actual reason why I like displaying it: The picture reminds me daily of one of the most glorious experiences of my working life.

It occurred in May-June 2009. I was selected to lead a Rotary International team to Israel. The program once was known as Group Study Exchange, which enabled our Rotary district to assemble a team of young professionals to interact with other professionals from another Rotary district. In 2009, our district interacted with a district in Israel.

I received the high honor of leading that team. I helped select four of them from our West Texas district. We met for several weeks preparing for the four-week tour of Israel. We departed in early May 2009 and spent the next month touring that country from top to bottom — from the Lebanese border to Eilat at the southern tip of the country — along with another team from The Netherlands; we forged friendships along the way with our Israeli hosts and with members of the Dutch team. Indeed, just a year ago my wife and I caught up with two Dutch team members on a trip we took to The Netherlands and to Germany.

Oh, the picture? It was taken at the Dead Sea. We drove through the Judean Desert to this remarkable body of water on the Israeli border with Jordan. It sits more than 1,000 below sea level. Its salinity is many times greater than the ocean. Swimmers’ buoyancy is beyond description.

We slathered ourselves in this Dead Sea mud. From the waist up we covered ourselves in it. Our Israeli friends told us the mud contained some sort of “restorative value” contained in its mineral content. The idea is to let it dry. Then you wash it off with fresh water.

It’s supposed to make you look and feel younger. I remember washing it off and asking our team members, “Do I look younger?” Many of them laughed in my face. For what it’s worth, I felt younger … and that’s all that mattered.

The picture reminds me of that glorious adventure and the enduring friendships I made with the young people I accompanied across the ocean and with those we met along the way.

That is why I don’t intend to change this picture.

Mourning the loss of a dedicated servant

I am a sad fellow tonight.

A few hours ago I received word of the death of a man who played a significant role in granting me the honor of participating in a life-changing event.

Ted Holder is gone. I will miss him. I also will forever honor his memory and will thank him for the rest of my life for the part he played in changing my life.

Ted was a member of the Levelland, Texas, Rotary Club. In late 2008, he was serving on a West Texas Rotary District committee assigned to select a Rotary member to lead a team of young professionals to Israel. The journey would be taken under the auspices of Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange.

The GSE team would comprise four non-Rotarians. They would be “led” by a Rotary member. The group would interact for four weeks with professionals in the host Rotary district. The 2009 Rotary GSE host district for our team would be located in Israel.

But first things first.

Our Rotary district needed a team leader. I was one of three Rotary members who applied for the honor to select and then accompany this team to the Holy Land.

We gathered in Lubbock to interview with the Rotary district committee. Ted was one of the committee members.

We made our pitch, all sitting around the same table at the same time. I gave it my best shot. After a lengthy interview, we all dispersed. I drove home to Amarillo.

Later that day, I got a call from the committee chairman, who informed me I had been selected to lead the Rotary GSE team. I was stunned. I choked back tears.

It would be quite a while later that I heard from a member of the committee about what Ted had said about my presentation. You see, Ted was a police officer; he served several years as Levelland chief of police. As you might guess, he didn’t much like media types. I was a media type at the time of my interview; I was serving as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News.

One of the committee members confided to me that Ted had told the panel that he “think much of the media, but I sure liked John’s presentation. He gets my vote.” The individual who told me this seemed to suggest that Ted’s endorsement of my pitch to the committee was decisive in the committee selecting me.

Well, the rest is pretty much history. I have shared much of that marvelous experience with you already on his blog. What most of you didn’t know is much about how that experience came to pass.

Ted Holder helped changed my life by granting me the high honor of representing Rotary District 5730 on a journey for the ages. My GSE teammates, I am quite certain, agree with that.

I am happy to report that the last time I saw Ted, about a year ago at a Rotary meeting, I took a moment to thank him — yet again — for the honor he granted me.

We have a lost a good man.

My heart is broken


Information travels quickly — especially, it seems, when it involves a message you don’t want to receive.

I just got word from a friend of mine that another friend — someone many of us grew to love — has died.

His picture is here. His name is Menashe Livnat. He was an Israeli gentleman who served 10 foreign visitors as their guide, father confessor, counselor, troubleshooter, fix-it man. He was everything to us. He became our friend for life.

I first laid eyes on Menashe the evening of June 10, 2009. I had just traveled from Amarillo to Israel with four friends; I was team leader of a group that comprised a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team that would stay in Israel for four weeks with host families. Menashe was at David Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet us, along with another Rotary GSE team from The Netherlands.

We exchanged handshakes and greetings, along with a few gifts we brought over from West Texas.

Then we were off, on our way to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime — which I have described several times over the years on this blog.

Menashe made it happen for us.

He was coordinator for the host Rotary district that welcomed us to Israel. He made sure we got to where we needed to be. We met with professionals in Israel, exchanged ideas on how we did our jobs.

We went non-stop for virtually the entire length of the exchange tour.

Menashe was the Indispensable Man.

We grew to adore him and his wife, Miri.

My friends and I each, I’m quite sure, have countless stories of what Menashe did for us during our time in Israel. As we toured through the country with our new Dutch friends, we learned much about ourselves and each other — and about Israel. Menashe was there every step of the way, even when he wasn’t physically present.

I’ll share this particular event.

There was one time during our tour in which we hadn’t seen Menashe for several days. We had encountered some hiccups along the way. We were growing tired. Our hosts had filled our days with activity from dawn to well past dusk.

Then he appeared at the place where we were gathering. Menashe was like a vision.

Menashe and I managed to get some private time and I told him we were running out of gas. He said “no problem.” He then canceled the activities for the next day and then we spent an entire day swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at Caeserea. He found time to allow us to relax, catch our breath, soak up some sun and think of nothing but how to enjoy the relaxing day in a beautiful Middle East vacation spot.

Menashe embodied the Rotary International motto of placing “Service Above Self.” He was a big-hearted, generous man who enabled five Americans and five Dutch to take in the experiences only found in one of the world’s most exciting and intriguing regions.

The news of his passing saddens me terribly.

I will miss this good man.

Marking the end of a life-changing journey

Sixty-five years of living has brought me many blessings … and the occasional curse.

I want to mark one of those blessings with this blog post.

Six years ago today, I bid so long to four young people with whom I’d spent four marvelous weeks in the Holy Land. We were there as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. I am a member of Rotary and I had the high honor of accompanying these four individuals to Israel.

The link I’ve attached to this blog gives you a slight hint of what we experienced. We went to many of the locations noted on the video.

But this post really isn’t about that. It’s more about them, my dear friends, who traveled with me the entire length and breadth of one of the world’s most fascinating countries.

Aida, Fernando, Shirley and Katt all hail from West Texas. One of them has moved to Dallas, but we stay in touch. We all do. They’ve become four of my best friends.

The GSE is designed to acquaint young professionals with colleagues abroad. It’s also designed to recruit young Rotary members, to keep the service organization alive and vibrant.

Our journey began at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport on May 9, 2009. It ended on June 7, 2009 when we bid adieu to three of our team members at David Ben-Gurion International Airport. One of them stayed behind in Tel Aviv.

We’d laughed and cried together. We enjoyed sumptuous food. Prayed together on the Mount of Olives. We stayed in Israeli hosts’ homes, met their families┬áand were treated to sights and sounds the usual tourist doesn’t get to see.

We peered into Gaza, stood on the Golan Heights, and swam in the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the “Med” Sea.

We walked where Jesus walked in Jerusalem and where he preached near Galilee. We toured churches, synagogues and mosques.

I cannot possibly list all of what we saw, heard and felt.

We made new friends with members of┬áanother GSE team from The Netherlands that traveled through Israel with us. I’m still in touch with a couple of that team’s members.

It was one of those life experiences that you just cannot quantify. You can’t put a price on what one learns on a journey such as that.

I was delighted to have taken that journey with those four young people.

My time in Israel didn’t end at Ben-Gurion airport. I stayed on another week with my wife, who’d flown over to join me. We acted like typical tourists, staying at a B&B in Jerusalem. I got to show her some of what I’d experienced.

Would we return to Israel? In a heartbeat.



Israel journey was a life-changer

Most of us have life experiences that stick with us, well, forever.

I’ve had the usual experiences: marriage to a wonderful girl, producing two wonderful sons who’ve grown into fine men, wearing my country’s uniform during a time of war, embarking on a rewarding career that has taken me to places I never imagined seeing.

Another one stands out. It’s a rare event that occurred five years ago this week. It was when four young people and I boarded an airplane for Israel. We were part of an extraordinary adventure. We spent four weeks in the Holy Land, touring one of the world’s most interesting countries from top to bottom. We lived with families and became, at one level, part of their families — if only briefly. We weren’t tourists. Thus, we saw more of a fascinating place than most people ever get to see.


I am a member of the Rotary Club of Amarillo. Our Rotary district had set up an exchange with another Rotary district in Israel. Our district needed a Rotary member to lead a team of four non-Rotarians on this exchange. I was one of several Rotarians who interviewed for the team leader spot. The interview took place in the fall of 2008 and the committee assigned to consider the applicants chose yours truly to lead the team.

I was stunned.

Then we got to work picking a team. They would comprise four individuals ages 25 to 40. We found four outstanding young professionals who had their employers’ blessing to take four weeks off to learn from their peers in Israel.

The program is called Group Study Exchange and its aim is manyfold: It’s meant to build relationships among nations in a people-to-people way; it exposes professionals to like-minded folks in other countries; and it helps build interest in Rotary, encouraging team members to join Rotary and become active in their own communities.

Three young women and a young man formed the team and together we began to prepare for this journey. They are Katt Krause of Amarillo, who was office manager for her family landscape contractor business; Aida Almaraz Nino of Hereford, who was a social worker at Boys Ranch; Fernando Valle of Lubbock teaches post-graduate courses for school administrators at Texas Tech University; and Shirley Davis of Levelland, teaches math at South Plains College.

We prepped for several weeks, meeting mostly in Lubbock. We learned about Israelis culture. We talked about the do’s and don’ts of embarking on a journey such as this. We prepared our presentation that we would deliver to host Rotary clubs.

At one point during our preparation, violence broke out in Gaza; Israel responded with a heavy counterattack against terrorists who were throwing missiles and mortars at cities in southern Israel. There was a serious thought that the trip might be canceled because of security concerns. The Israelis, as they usually do, put down the violence. The trip was on.

Then the day came to depart. It was May 9, 2009. Our flight was long and grueling, but we landed at David Ben-Gurion International Airport and were greeted by our Rotary hosts and by another GSE team, from The Netherlands, with whom we would travel for the next four weeks.

Our adventure exposed us to so many treasures. We were shown Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites. We went deep into the Judean Desert. We walked among the ruins of Masada. We swam in the Dead Sea. We went to Nazareth. We swam in the Mediterranean Sea. We looked out over the Red Sea at Eilat. We saw antiquities all along the way.

Our journey ended with a Rotary district meeting in Jerusalem, the holiest of the holy cities in Israel. We received a spontaneous prayer from an American monk on the Mount of Olives. We walked through the Old City. We saw the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem.

Our hearts were broken and filled with joy all at the same time.

The families that greeted us, housed us, entertained us and showed us their country became our friends.


The most rewarding part of the trip arguably is the friendships I forged with the young people with whom I was given the honor to accompany on this magnificent experience.

I pretty much think about different parts of our trip daily. Random parts that have to do with my day. Dead Sea, Masada, advice and conversations with hosts I had, inside jokes, beautiful sites. I gained so much from our adventure. It helped me grow and learn a lot about who I am. I love Rotary and what it gave to me. It’s an amazing organization, and on our trip we truly witnessed the 4-Way Test.
I will be forever grateful to Rotary International for what it gave to me.
— Katt Krause.

We laughed at each other’s jokes and found ways to lighten the mood whenever we could.

The Dead Sea trip, basking in the sun and salt water while feeling the burn sensation of the exfoliation, peeling layers of skin and any scabs I may have had. Also, the total body mud masks that everyone participated in that temporarily changed our identities to that of an aboriginal warrior. — Shirley Davis.

It moved us beyond measure in ways that occasionally sneaked up on us.

Living and seeing life through the Israelis’ eyes was an experience that will, for sure, never be forgotten. One of the best moments, for me, was during our last days in Jerusalem. Walking where Jesus walked. We had traveled Israel for almost a month without seeing a drop of rain, and the moment when the monk prayed with us and for that short moment … it sprinkled! Rain over us! That was absolutely amazing! Loving the people and being loved by them, also, was an experience that’s sometimes hard to explain. I will always feel a special bond with the family I traveled with and the family I made while in Israel. — Aida Nino.

We built relationships that we all believe will last a lifetime.

Even though five years have passed, the emotional connections made with Rotarians and their families in Israel are as vivid as the country. We experienced more than hospitality, as a GSE team we were afforded rich cultural experiences and real daily life of the country. I will never forget walking through Jerusalem, shedding tears next to a family at Yad Vashem, eating with a host family or spending the day with the GSE team in the Red Sea off the coast of Eilat. Be’er Sheva welcomed us with open arms and Haifa and Tel Aviv showed us where Israel has been and where it is headed. GSE and Rotary afforded me an opportunity to understand and appreciate people across the world, especially the warmth of humanity. I am forever grateful for the experience. I went on a trip to Israel with a newly formed GSE team and came back with more than friends. I came back with a family. — Fernando Valle.

I have maintained contact with a couple of the Dutch GSE team members in the years since that amazing journey. Although we don’t see each other as much as I would like — and I assume the others as well — I consider all four of my fellow West Texans among my very best friends in this world.

We shared an experience few folks can understand fully. Perhaps other GSE teams that ventured to other far-off lands understand how it is.

This one was for the books. I am grateful beyond measure for the experience it provided to me and for the friendships it has built.

What a journey it was.

Mourning a far-away friend

I am in mourning this evening.

News came in this morning over Facebook of a death that has hit me hard. I feel the need to share briefly why I am grieving.

My friend’s name was Shlomo Bleiberg, who lived in Be’er Sheva, Israel with his wife, Liora. Shlomo was a physician, a big bear of a man and a kind gentleman who opened up his home and his heart to a group of strangers who had come to visit his country for a month in May-June 2009.

I was one of those strangers. I had the honor of leading a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team to Israel more than four years ago. Our flight was late arriving at David Ben-Gurion International Airport, and we were met by our Israeli hosts along with a GSE team from The Netherlands, with whom we would travel through the country for the next month.

We scurried off to Be’er Sheva, our first stop. One of our hosts was Shlomo Bleiberg.

We weren’t with Shlomo for very long, just a few days. But in that time he endeared himself to us forever. He was a kind man. It turned out we were fortunate he had extensive medical training, as one of our GSE team members, Shirley Davis of Levelland, suffered a sprained ankle on the second or third day of our trip. Shlomo treated it, wrapped it and told Shirley to take it easy on the tender ankle.

He would take us swimming in the Dead Sea and would accompany us to Masada, two of the most popular sites in the Holy Land.

Now he’s gone. I think I can speak for all of our team members that we wish we could be there for Liora. All that’s left is to mourn our friend.

I mention this because these exchanges sponsored by Rotary International routinely produce the kind of friendships and warmth that last long after we part company. Indeed, part of Rotary’s famed Four Way Test compels us to act in ways that “build good will and better friendships.”

Our time spent in a far away country did all of that for us who had the honor of taking part in this grand adventure.

Shlomo Bleiberg was a big part of an experience that changed all of us.

Rest in peace, Shlomo.