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Post-college volunteers compare practices with Israel
By SHARON USADIN
21/11/2010
Masa Israel Journey brainstorms practices in leadership development, as US volunteers take interest in service opportunities worldwide.
 
During his Peace Corps service in Paraguay, Matthew Lebon unexpectedly found himself working on a permaculture farm – a sustainable, minimally wasteful type of food cultivation. He was so captivated by it that he signed up for a Masa Israel ecological farming program near Modi’in.

Lebon, 25, completed his Peace Corps program two months ago and will arrive at the five-month Eco-Israel program in February, which he heard about through an e-mail advertisement sent to Taglit- Birthright Israel alumni.

“I got really into permaculture and learning about it,” Lebon said on Friday. “The idea of educational farms like this one is to promote and innovate sustainable ways of living to bring awareness to people and connect them with the land, in hopes that they will disseminate this information in the same way I was inspired by my experience in Paraguay.”

Lebon plans to take the tools he acquired during his two years in the Peace Corps to his new service opportunity in Israel, a trend many of his North American Jewish peers seem to be following – in both directions, particularly during today’s less than robust economy.

Taking note of this interest by young adults in both volunteer and paid service opportunities worldwide, Masa Israel Journey, a joint project of the government and the Jewish Agency, brought representatives from 19 leading American services organizations to Israel last week for a seven-day “study tour” to brainstorm the best practices in leadership development and community service.

“The fastest-growing segment of Masa in recent years has been the post-college population, and to some extent we think that’s because of the economy,” said Avi Rubel, Masa’s North American director.

“We’re seeing that slow down a bit now, possibly because the economy is getting back on track. But in Israel, to come on a Masa program is definitely something that’s more and more attractive.”

He added, “We wanted to bring a group of organizations that have a lot of experience in building leadership development to come and look at our programs for a week and let us know how we can best build programs.”

Masa organized the American- Israeli think-tank in collaboration with City Year, a Boston group that facilitates volunteer work in local schools and communities. Other Jewish and general American organizations represented in the study tour were Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the American Jewish World Service, UJA Federation of NY, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Avodah, Hillel, Jewish Funds for Justice, the New Israel Fund, Repair the World, Uri L’Tzedek and Ve’ahavta.

“It’s a collective exploration as to how to develop leaders through long-term volunteer programs. Pretty much every discussion has focused on that question,” said Max Klau, director of leadership at City Year.

While Masa did bring these American organizations to Israel for the weeklong trip, Rubel said there was no hidden agenda aimed at those participating.

“The focus of the people here is to think about how to use models that they’ve encountered and how we can transfer those to the Israeli context,” he said.

“This is a think-tank type of thing – this is not a recruitment type of initiative,” Rubel continued.

“That being said, we are talking to the different people here about doing two things – recruiting from their populations, but feeding our populations into theirs.”

Each day of the trip had a different theme, ranging from service and leadership in nonprofits to community development, policy, coexistence and education. The group visited Masa program sites associated with the different themes, such as the Yahel Social Change Program in Gedera during Tuesday’s “Community Development Day,” where they observed volunteer work with the local Ethiopian community.

Leslie Jaffe, an independent consultant from Austin, Texas, who works closely with Jewish Funds for Justice in New York and the Rockwood Leadership Institute in California, most enjoyed Wednesday’s “Coexistence Day” when the group visited Tikkun Olam in Jaffa and met four recent female college graduates volunteering in Jewish- Arab relations.

“I was so incredibly impressed with their state of being, their level of intellect, their willingness to get in here and struggle with their own personal views about what’s going on here in Israel,” Jaffe said. “They were coming in and doing the work here and thinking about how that would shape them and how this would contribute to their future fields.”

After visiting the sites and speaking to participants, the group typically convened in a conference room to discuss the positives and negatives of what they had observed and hear presentations from the Israeli site director as well as one North American participant from the group.

Other sites visited included Masa’s programs at the Givat Haviva Institute, which also focuses on Jewish-Arab relations, the Otzma – Israel Teacher Corps and the World Union of Jewish Students.

The participants who spoke to The Jerusalem Post said that they were able to give and take much from their weeklong experience, and emphasized the importance of the project’s location in Israel, as opposed to gathering together somewhere in the US to talk about service.

“Everybody agrees that there’s unique power and complexity to service in Israel – the politics, the history, the level of culture in society,” Klau said.

“There’s a complexity here you don’t find in other places. And that was part of our purpose here – learning how to deal with that complexity.”

Jaffe agreed.

“It’s a very different experience to discuss leadership through service when you’re walking through the absorption center rather than sitting at a table in California,” she said.

“We could’ve done it in California or Pennsylvania or New York, but it would have been in a very different context,” Jaffe continued. “The context here is about creating an understanding around the idea that North American Jewish kids can have an on-the-ground experience of what it means to be in Israel.”

Although they didn’t participate in the study tour, former and current alumni of both Masa programs and American service organizations, like Matthew Lebon, were hopeful that last week’s visitors were able to learn as much from each other as the alums had during their own service experiences.

“In Israel there’s a good institutional framework for volunteerism, for programs where they have people abroad come,” said Shai Fierst, 29, who volunteered through Masa at the Arava Institute’s coexistence school and then went on to serve in Suriname for the Peace Corps.

“And for an organization like Peace Corps, which also sends volunteers abroad, it’s great to exchange ideas and really go over what works for them. The Israeli organizations can emulate organizations like Peace Corps, and Peace Corps can try to take from the Israelis,” Fierst said.

Meanwhile, Sam Buchbinder, 24, in part credits his Masafunded semester at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he was able to witness inequalities among Israeli ethnic groups firsthand, for his ability to become a better classroom instructor in the Central Bronx through Teach for America.

“Israel and the US have similar issues of having a wide array of ethnic backgrounds in their countries, and that’s where a lot of inequalities stem from,” he said.

Laurie Felder, 27, agreed, using her personal experience as a Masa Israel Government Fellow for the Ministry of Health and her upcoming Peace Corp term in public health as a testament to the potential of these American and Israeli service organizations working together.

“Learning to deal with a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures and backgrounds will help me immensely,” she said. “Israel Government Fellows and Masa really helped me to further that learning, and that’ll be a big part of serving in the Peace Corps.”
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