Over 10,000 Discovered Israel, and Themselves, Last Year on MASA
"My Masa, My Journey," Changing Young Jewish Lives
When Adrian Rubenstein, 23, graduated from college last year and couldn't find a job in his field in either of his two hometowns of New York City or Leuven, Belgium, his father suggested he go to Israel. A year later, Rubenstein is finishing what he called "a dynamic, very interesting" internship with the French Chamber of Commerce in Israel, a resume-builder he found through Career Israel and Masa Israel Journey. Reflecting on his experience, he said he gained not only a line on his CV, but a new way of seeing Israel and Judaism.
"Living here has shown me the diversity of Israel," he said. "I've met people with lots of interesting ideas about religion, from different religions and different types of Judaism. Belgium is very secular; living in Israel has shown me that religion is very personal and can be what you want it to be. I plan to be more involved in the Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Belgium when I get home."
Rubenstein was one of thousands of young adults ages 18-30 who streamed into Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha-umah International Convention Center tonight to commemorate the end of their long-term trips to Israel with Masa Israel Journey.
Masa, which is funded jointly by The Jewish Agency for Israel and by the Israeli government, provides grants and scholarships for Jews from around the world to participate in any of over 200 programs through which they can intern, study, or volunteer for a period of 5 to 12 months. The program aims to strengthen the relationship between Israel and young people who grew up abroad. In the past year, over 10,000 young people came to Israel through Masa.
Highlights of the end-of-year program, called "My Masa, My Journey," included an address by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; a discussion with Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency; a performance by the internationally-acclaimed Israeli dance troupe Mayumana; and a panel talk by some of Israel's most prominent athletes.
After viewing a short film clip about Sharansky's life, the audience sat in rapt attention as he related details about his years in a Siberian prison, including the method by which he and other prisoners turned their toilets into makeshift telephones, and communicated via Morse code through the walls.
"What is happening with young Jews coming to Israel," he said of Masa, "is that they discover here they have roots, they have a state. They have a family. They may be critical of Israel, but they say 'I'm speaking up, because Israel is me.'"
Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the importance of becoming a spokesperson for Israel once the Masa participants return to their countries of origin. "You're taking back with you something very, very precious," he said. "The truth. You can speak the truth about Israel, and that's what I want you to do. Defend Israel by saying the truth and by being proud. Proud of being Jewish, proud of your heritage, proud of your homeland."
Speaking up and speaking the truth is just what Nellie Alimi, 23, of Paris, plans to do when her Masa program is over. Through the organization Gvahim, Alimi has been performing a Masa-sponsored internship at a high-tech company. "I want to stay in Israel, but I got a job offer in England I plan to take," she said. "But I know that even outside the country, I can represent and defend Israel."
Alimi said that she had formerly spent a year in Israel as a university student, but that her experience as an intern gave her an opportunity to experience Israel surrounded by adults. "Students are full of hopes," she observed, "but grownups deal with reality. Many of my coworkers are more pessimistic than I am, and said that I'm naïve about peace and about the future of the country. I was forced to define and defend my ideas, and to show them that I may not know what it means to lose someone in the army, but I do know what anti-Semitism is, and we can bring peace – you don't have to be pessimistic."
Hadassah Mendoza, 25, of Miami, was inspired by her Taglit-Birthright trip to return with Masa, with the stipulation that "I couldn't justify staying in Israel for so long unless it was contributing in some way to my resume." Through Masa and Israel Government Fellows, the Political Science graduate has been performing an internship at Israel's Ministry of Trade and Labor.
The value of staying in Israel for several months or a year, she said, is "instead of just planting a seed [such as on a short trip], now I have roots here, and a relationship with Israel. Going to Masada and the Dead Sea one time is not the same as shopping at the shuk for your food and running after buses. And my Hebrew is better now; it's a good sign when you can negotiate with a taxi driver in Hebrew and feel good about it."
One of Masa's younger participants was Max Rudolph, 19, of Portland, Oregon; he spent nine months on the Young Judaea Year Course, which combines volunteer services with Hebrew-language studies. "I was a High Holiday Jew, and that probably hasn't changed," he said of what he has learned. "But I understand more, and yes, now I want to marry Jewish. And I'll defend Israel on campus if there is slander against it. I definitely plan to come back to Israel to visit."