“What do you mean Jewish identity comes before solving Israel’s image in the media?” barks an Israeli soldier.
“All I am saying is that we have to come together in the Diaspora first to help come together as an Israeli nation,” responds a native Russian hoping to make aliya.
“But what about the religious and secular divide? We need to come together as a religion before we can even think about coming together as a nation,” argues an American yeshiva boy.
Amid the silent desert air rages a fiery debate over the future of the Jewish people. The task was simple: rank several issues from most to least important. The outcome sparked a cross-cultural debate from Jewish voices from around the globe.
Last weekend, 100 Jewish participants between the ages of 21 and 27 ventured to the Negev for the MASA-Partnership2Gether Face-to-Face Encounters program. MASA is a joint project between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel. With over 250 programs, MASA brings young adults between the ages of 18 to 30 to Israel for five months to a year. The weekend seminar named Mifgashim, run by MASA and the Jewish Agency, is the first of a three-part series.
“The Mifgashim Seminar series introduces Israelis to Diaspora Jews,” says Program Director Ilan Levene. “Many people come to Israel on a MASA program and do not even meet Israeli peers in the entire five months to a year duration. The connection with Israelis is so important. You cannot truly connect to the land of Israel without connecting to the people.”
The seminar brought together 42 Israelis and 58 MASA program participants for a weekend of campfires, desert biking and thought-provoking discussions. Housed in the Nitzana Educational Eco-Village, participants ate, slept, and learned together for two-and-a-half days.
Twenty-one-year-old Israeli Yael Shavit from Modi’in traveled to Nitzana for her second Mifgashim seminar after attending one last year in Arad. Shavit discovered that both conventions helped shape her Jewish identity.
“As an Israeli, I feel like this convention really opened my eyes to Judaism outside of Israel,” says Shavit. “By seeing Judaism through the eyes of Jews from abroad, I am starting to ask myself big questions about my own Jewish identity. I found a new way to embrace Judaism.”
A maximum of three participants per MASA program were chosen to attend the convention, which hosted participants from the United States, Russia, England, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Hungary, France, Australia, Britain and Sweden.
MASA Educational Program Manager Avital Elfant believes that this program, unlike other MASA seminars, provides participants with a deeper connection to Israel as a whole.
"Everyone who comes on a MASA program is looking for something different," says Elfant. "In two weeks, MASA is going to have a Shabbaton on security and diplomacy. While that is great, you can do that in a college campus anywhere. The Mifgashim series can only be done in Israel. The participants get more out of it than just knowledge. They gain experiences with Israelis beyond the falafel guy on the street."
MASA Gvahim participant Sandy Dray hails from Toulouse, France. She joined her MASA program to immerse herself in Israeli culture before making aliya. As a future olah, she attended the seminar to meet more Israelis.
“I think the convention confirmed my choice to stay in Israel,” says Dray. “The minute I landed in Israel, I knew I was home. I love how happy all the Israelis are for me that I want to live here full-time. It means a lot to me. This weekend brought me tons of new Israeli friends, which is important since I’m making aliya.”
Through the convention, Dray believes that both Israelis and non-Israelis gained valuable insights into each others' lives, free from the disruptions of technology and other outside forces.
“I think we both have to learn from one another,” says Dray. “I think Israelis want to know why we want to come to Israel, either for a short time or forever; and we want to learn and understand how they live their Judaism here in Israel.”
In addition, Elfant adds that many Israelis rarely have the chance to communicate with international Jews due to Israel's geographical location.
"For the Israelis, we live within a bubble," says Elfant. "We are surrounded by Arab countries. It is almost impossible to meet Jews from around the world. They have no idea what Jews around the world think and the struggles of being a Jew in the Diaspora."
American college student and MASA participant Shane Skikne comments that this convention is the first time since he moved to Israel that he was able to communicate with Israelis on a deeper level.
“It sounds crazy because I live in Israel, but I have had such a hard time meeting Israelis since I’ve been here,” says Skikne. “This is not just the first time I’ve made Israeli friends, but it is also the first time I’ve communicated with them on a higher and deeper level.”
To elevate and encourage the discussion, the group of 100 was divided into five groups of 20, split evenly between MASA participants and Israelis. The groups remained together the entire convention and even shared rooms with other group members. The small group setting enabled participants to delve deeply into tough questions about Judaism. The lively debates that ensued highlighted the cultural differences of Jews around the world.
“We work hard to develop a broad spectrum of topics that can trigger discussion,” says Levene. “Many of the discussions get heated because people care. People are passionate about who they are and who we are as a people.”
Israeli soldier Matanya Nahum enjoyed the open dialogue because it demonstrated that even though Jews come from different places, they still share a common thread throughout the world.
“The bottom line is that we are the same nation,” says Nahum. “The way we live our lives from day-to-day is so different. We must share our life experiences with each other and be involved in each other lives. This is why we must reinforce and tighten the connection between the Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora.”
The Nitzana convention is simply an introduction. To reinforce the ties between participants, the staff allows only Nitzana convention participants to attend parts two and three of the series. The second convention will take place in Tel Aviv on December 5-7, and the third will be held in Jerusalem on January 3-4.
As the weekend wound down, many program participants said that the friendships cultivated in Nitzana will continue long past the conventions.
“I went from having no Israeli friends to having ten invitations for Shabbat dinner,” said Skikne. “This is more than just a weekend retreat. This is a bond for life.”