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SDJA football standout Ilan Leisorek takes leadership roles on and off the field

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Ilan Leisorek on the football field.
(Maya Baltinester)

What makes an effective leader?

Literary giants and great thinkers have pondered this question for centuries. From Machiavelli to Shakespeare, and Aristotle to John Wooden, the answers vary greatly.

San Diego Jewish Academy (SDJA) football standout Ilan Leisorek has developed his own philosophy. The incoming SDJA senior believes carrots to be a more effective tool than sticks in getting people to do what they might not otherwise want to. He stresses that communication is key.

“What I’ve learned is the way that you approach somebody when you’re going to lead them, it’s most important to lead by example, but also the tone of your voice,” Leisorek said. “You want to make them feel that they have the option of doing it or not, so you want to make them want to do it, not force them into doing it.”

Leisorek’s approach isn’t based on theoretical models.

His understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – is in large part the result of some of the work he’s done on the ground.

And Leisorek has already done a lot of work.

Last season he emerged as a leader on the football team, playing a key role as a defensive back/wide receiver, leading SDJA to its first appearance in the San Diego Section Division VI championship game.

He was a sophomore when he ran for and was elected school president for a term he assumed as a junior. Leisorek became SDJA’s first non-senior school president. He won his reelection bid earlier this year.

Leisorek was also named a team captain on the football team.

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SDJA School President Ilan Leisorek
(Nicole Trotta)

“He’s an exceptional leader,” SDJA coach Justin Mc Kenzie said. “He’s the school president, so they look to him for leadership in everything. He’s one of those guys who you can count on.”

Undersized, and routinely underestimated, the 5-foot-8 and 135-pounder was named an All- Coastal League first-team defensive selection, and the team’s defensive MVP.

“He’s a great kid,” Mc Kenzie said. “He’s a hard worker. Very intelligent. He’s probably going to do great things in whatever line of work he decides to do once he finishes college.”

Leisorek didn’t play football at SDJA until his sophomore year. His parents wouldn’t allow him to play freshman year. He hadn’t played since he was an 11-year-old, competing in Pop Warner.

Leisorek also plays on the soccer team and runs track and cross country for SDJA, but nothing compares to football in his view.

“I just love the adrenaline rush,” he said. “It’s a brotherhood.”

Mc Kenzie compared Leisorek to an 8-man high school version of Julian Edelman, the New England Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver known for inspiring teammates with his gritty playing style.

“Obviously, being a kid from the Jewish Academy, a lot of people overlook him,” Mc Kenzie said. “He’s not the biggest, not the tallest and not the strongest, but he’s very quick and very smart.”

The idea of playing collegiately never crossed Leisorek’s mind until he started playing last year. He is open to the possibility, but he acknowledged he’d face tall odds.

“For me, most of it is the experience,” Leisorek said of what the most important aspect of playing football at SDJA is to him.

“I work hard at school. I’m not relying on athletics to get me anywhere. I’ve never considered myself that good in order to go to college, but it is something that would be really cool.”

Leisorek has other reasons for playing at SDJA. Among the most compelling, is the sense that he’s playing for something bigger than himself, and a uniform he wears with pride.

“I’m not just representing me, my school and my team, but the Jewish community,” he said. “It says ‘SDJA’ on the front of our jersey, so we’re representing the Jewish people in our community when we’re playing.”

Leisorek had never attended private school until transferring to SDJA as a freshman after attending Solana Pacific and Solana Highland elementary schools, and Carmel Valley Middle School.

The Mexican-born Leisorek is part of KEN, a tightly-knit Latin Jewish community in San Diego.

“Those are my closest friends, family friends,” he said. “Most of them went to (SDJA) so they persuaded me to go to the Jewish Academy, so I gave it a try and now I’m trying to help it.”

Leisorek works as a youth counselor at KEN and will be the group’s vice president next year.

Leisorek has been a go-getter since he was in middle school, when he started attending seminars on selling goods imported from China, which led to a business selling smartphone cases and hoverboards.

He’s also developed an interest in national and international politics, which led to him running for school president.

“Looking at all the leaders around me and everything they do - their mistakes, the good stuff - it doesn’t necessarily make me want to be president, but it makes me want to have change at least in the small community where I can make a change, which is at school,” Leisorek said.

He believes the leadership skills he developed in student government have translated to the football field.

“I feel like knowing how to lead the school has helped me be able to lead the football team because even when there’s no captains on the field, someone has to step up,” he said.