The Harry Kay Leadership Institute: A Historic Mission Comes to Fruition

Passport that doesn’t expire until 2024, check. Detailed 12-day childcare calendar for my family with every moment of our kids’ lives spelled out and color-coded, check. Anxiety paired with a pit in my stomach at the thought of going abroad for the first time in ages, check. Exhilaration to return to the holy land for the first time since I was 16 years old, check. COVID PCR test scheduled for 72 hours before departure, check. Daydreams about street falafel, visiting the Kotel, consuming new knowledge, views, and sights, making new connections, and floating in the Dead Sea, check.

These are a few of the many thoughts racing through my mind — and my husband’s — as we prepare to travel to Israel with more than 30 other Twin Citians who are part of the Harry Kay Leadership Institute (HKLI)’s Cohort X, otherwise known as the COVID Cohort. Our journey began together in the fall of 2019, which feels like a mere century ago considering what has transpired in the world between then and now.

Forty of us came together after being nominated by community leaders to participate in this flagship program for locally produced Jewish leadership development, led by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations. The HKLI goal: to foster bi-city collaboration by developing leaders who have a broader vision of the work of the two communities and who have built close ties with one another.

Through limited in-person meetings at first, that evolved into socially distanced outdoor meetups, bonfires, and many Zoom sessions, including a weekly Torah study session initiated by two of our cohort members, our group learned quickly how to creatively collaborate, and the true meaning of resilience. Nobody has demonstrated this more consistently and eloquently than our HKLI leader, Lauren Kaplan, who had COVID herself, whose son was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID in 2020, and who was responsible for rescheduling our Israel trip three times, on top of being a mentor and guide for 40 adults, answering countless questions and providing unwavering counsel to our group during times of uncertainty.

Some background on HKLI. Harry Kay, the namesake, and benefactor of our program was born in 1917, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who, like many of their contemporaries, struggled through the Great Depression. He dropped out of school to help his family, working with his father in a small diner where he became acquainted with the food industry. At the diner, he learned to peel large quantities of potatoes by hand, giving him the idea to process potatoes more efficiently, a value proposition he knew many large companies would relish.

His entrepreneurial vision led him to develop a way to process potatoes, and he invented the machinery to do it. In 1953, he moved his family to St. Paul with just enough money to build his first potato processing plant, and by the time of his death in 1983, he’d created Processed Potatoes Inc. As Harry became more successful, his Jewish identity became increasingly important to him, and he deliberately organized his estate with the hopes of having a true impact on the Jewish future. And that he has. Since its inception, the Harry Kay Foundation has provided more than $25 million for a variety of causes in Minnesota and Israel.

During our time together as a cohort, we’ve learned about topics ranging from local Jewish organizations’ missions and educational institutions’ objectives to how to further develop our own professional leadership strengths and goals, draw inspiration from the people and world around us and be better stewards of empathy for others. We’ve also focused on defining our personal values, thinking about where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.

The culmination of our 2.5 years together as official members of the Harry Kay Leadership Institute Covid Cohort will take place during our two-week mission in Israel. Our original trip itinerary, which was supposed to take place in October 2020 and postponed due to the pandemic, included an excursion to Kyiv, Ukraine, where we had planned to do house visits with Jewish residents there and immerse in their community and culture. While we will not travel to Ukraine, our hearts and minds will be with the people there, and undoubtedly will be a focal point of many of our conversations during our travels.

When I made the decision to become part of HKLI, a former cohort member said to me, “You will get out of it what you put into it.” And another former cohort member said, “Do whatever you have to do to go to Israel with the group, no matter what obstacles get in your way.” Admittedly, there were moments during the pandemic when I almost gave up on HKLI. Like many, surviving a single day was simply all I could focus on at times. Thankfully, both of their comments hung with me while I was feeling stuck, and became an inspiration to power through the tough days, and find incredible meaning in the lessons learned and leadership skills developed during this experience.

Even if we get quarantined in a hotel in Israel due to circumstances out of our control, we’ll have each other and it is all part of the unique HKLI adventure. Our cohort is so grateful for this opportunity, for the new people we’ve met and for the education generously provided by this program that will in turn help us be stronger advocates and leaders for the Jewish community in years to come. Wish us luck as we embark on a once-in-a-lifetime mission! If you’d like to follow us on this adventure, we’ll be providing updates on our HKLI mission blog.

This article is sponsored content from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation as part of TC Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.