Finding the tribe and leading it – Masa’s new leadership program

As community leaders and polls warn of a growing gap between Israel and the Diaspora, an innovative plan is attracting young Jews from around the globe.

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April 28, 2019 21:22
Masa

Young people today are 'not looking for a year off, but a year on': Participants in the Masa leadership program. (photo credit: AXEL ANGELS)

 
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Moses might have been chosen by God, but he was a terrible leader. Not only did he wander in the desert for 40 years, effectively killing all the people he was meant to help, he also became famous for hitting rocks and losing his temper.

Leadership, good leadership, is so vital to human affairs, it’s surprising how few of us pay attention to the way leaders are made. We trust that those in power must have gone through a vetting process to ensure they would be, at the very least, competent. There’s no reason to think this idea is valid.

The late war correspondent Marie Colvin reported in 2001 that teenage members of the Tamil Tigers were saying their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was “the greatest leader in human history.” He wasn’t. Prabhakaran was killed during a 2009 military operation that shattered his organization, ending a conflict that had been costing lives since 1983.

History holds an ample number of stories about leaders who made terrible, catastrophically poor decisions. The Aztec King Moctezuma allowed himself to be taken captive by the Spanish, effectively giving them the upper hand in control of the New World. Zedekiah, the last king of Judea, fared no better after he ignored the warnings of Jeremiah and rebelled against Babylon, a decision that led to his sons being killed, his eyes being put out, and the fall of the Jewish kingdom in 587 BCE.

Despite this terrible record, leaders remain so vital to human affairs that even anarchist writer Donald Rooum pointed to their importance. Anarchists, he explains in his 1991 book Wildcat: ABC of Bosses, are “opposed to being bossed, not to being led.” Leaders, he says, “are people whose initiatives are followed voluntarily. When bosses claim to be leaders, this is a swindle.”

Will the Jewish people have leaders in the next few generations, or bosses?

Masa CEO Liran Avisar Ben-Horin isn’t shy about saying that, at least in North America, “The average Jewish youngster is exposed to Judaism in a series of unpleasant experiences, for example, being forced to attend Sunday school.” This negative emotional connection between being bossed and Jewish identity becomes more difficult to endure when powerful trends around the world are eroding traditional identities. “These are global processes that humanity is going through,” she says.

The negative attention Israel is receiving on campuses across North America also doesn’t help. From a powerful source of Jewish pride and identity, Israel had acquired a darker reputation as one of the world’s most conflicted spots. “Fifteen years ago you’d do an event focused on Israel and 80% of the Jewish community would show up,” Ben-Horin says. “Sadly, today Israel is seen as a divisive issue, and some community leaders don’t know how to touch it.”

Yossi Beilin, fully aware of these trends, pushed in 1984 for the creation of Taglit, a unique program that allows Jewish and Jewish-affiliated youths from around the world to discover Israel and their own Jewish connection.

In 2011, Jewish-American cartoonist Sarah Glidden went on the program and ended up creating How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Her journey is perhaps the ideal one imagined by those who run the program, as it helped turn Glidden away from being a jaded, highly critical Jewish-American liberal focused on the wrongs, real and imaginary, committed by Israel.

In the course of the program, Glidden becomes aware of the post-Holocaust Jewish refugees who were barred from entering the land of their fathers, and of the terrible cost exacted by Arab aggression against Israel. Far from being converted into a die-in-the-wool Zionist, though, she was able to get out of the experience exactly what it was meant to give – understanding.

Masa – created in 2004 in a partnership with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency – is a different kettle of fish. If Taglit is focused on delivering an effective Israeli experience “in 60 days or less,” Masa is geared toward offering worthwhile programs that can lead Jewish youngsters to stay in Israel for about a year. This was the original vision of prime minister Ariel Sharon when he created the program. Masa currently attracts roughly 12,000 young people each year from 60 different countries.

What Masa did next was brilliant, and is related to milkshakes.

Harvard scholar Clayton M. Christensen is famous for the concept that says when we are busy with something, anything at all, we are hiring it to do something for us. We might think we buy a loaf of bread because we’re hungry. And that’s true. But what are we hiring the bread to do for us?

If you’re a busy parent who wants to hire bread to make a school lunch, you buy pre-sliced white bread. If you hire the bread to make yourself feel wealthy and special, you might queue up to be handed a fresh artisan loaf that was kneaded by a slim-bearded hipster and baked in a hand-made kiln.

In his 2012 book How Will You Measure Your Life? Christensen writes about how he helped a fast-food company sell more milkshakes. The company tried new flavors, sales, and offers of larger portions, but people kept on buying the same number of shakes.

When Christensen asked people why they bought shakes, they often said they were driving to work and wanted a light snack that wouldn’t be messy along the way. Having discovered what job the shake was hired to do, Christensen suggested that the company create shakes with little chunks in them, to make the experience more interesting for drinkers. He also suggested placing vending machines that sold shakes outside the restaurants so drivers wouldn’t have to leave their cars. That idea worked, and more shakes were sold.


What Ben-Horin discovered is that Masa competes for the job of formative one-year experiences in the Jewish market. Sure, you could go to Israel for one year and gain new skills, but you could also join the well-established Peace Corps. New Zealand offers an internship program in tourism, and China offers a variety of programs in law, business and web design. There is also a program called Top Israel Interns created by, you guessed it, Masa.

Young people today “are not looking for a year off,” Ben-Horin says, “but a year on.” Jewish identity has to be relevant to the bottom line of getting work in a competitive job market, or young people will just pass it over.

This is a remarkable change from the established Zionist concept of leadership, which leaned heavily on self-sacrifice and the value of being a halutz, a pioneer. Joseph Trumpeldor explained the concept to Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1913, as a person who is “willing to be forged into everything needed for the national machine. If a wheel is needed, I am that wheel... I am the pure ideal of service.” That was more than 100 years ago.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Sarah Mali, vice president of the Masa Leadership Program, defined the core of the program as adaptive leadership, a term coined by Harvard scholar Ronald Heifetz.

Like Rooum, Heifetz believes authority does not equal leadership. As Mali puts it, “If the existing experts could solve the problems, they would.”

Never before did rapid climate change and social upheaval presented the world with such unprecedented challenge. Never before did a country attempt to leave the European Union, as Britain has. Never before did a teenage girl arrange mass protests to protect the environment, as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has. “Humanity faces many questions to which we do not have an answer,” Mali says, pointing out that innovation must be shared at a pace, and in a way in which the community will tolerate it, if it is to be effective.

In other words, Thunberg is not a leader because she’s an expert on climate change. What makes her an effective leader, without any official rank or title, is that she has achieved a purpose. When thousands of children across Europe refuse to attend school unless climate change is dealt with, that is a massive change, and one of the shocks needed if humanity is to tolerate the painful changes necessary for us all to prosper.

“Evolution,” Mali says, “takes time. We need coordination for adaptation so that we can thrive.” The Masa program is an accelerated process in which those who have the spark can find not only their unique purpose, but also learn how to best serve that purpose in the communities and institutions they will eventually inhabit.

Jewish organizations now face two serious issues. First is that few young people want to remain in groups for long, unless they are pushed up in the hierarchy. So every few years, Jewish chapter heads and community leaders need to be replaced as the people who filled these positions opt to start their own businesses or seek jobs that offer more flexibility.

The other issue, according to Ben-Horin, is that between 75% and 90% of Jewish leaders will retire by 2024. The problem doesn’t necessarily affect big names like Ron Lauder, Charles Bronfman, or Michael Steinhardt. The mystery is, who will lead Jewish communities and federations across North America when those shaped by the creation of Israel and the Six-Day War retire? Who will eventually lead the Jewish communities of Europe, Russia or Mexico?

One potential future leader is Adah Forer. Speaking with the Post in a Jerusalem coffee shop, Forer describes how, while serving as leader of UC Berkeley Tikva-Students for Israel, she was able to demand a public apology from ethnic studies lecturer Hatem Bazian for posting antisemitic tweets in 2017.

“When I was president of Tikva, it was a very small group, so I was basically leading by example,” she says. “If I can inspire someone, I think I did my job as a leader.” Forer is currently attending the Israel Government Fellows program, an initiative of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. She speaks highly of the Masa leadership program, saying it was a unique opportunity in which to meet Jewish future leaders from around the world while being exposed to innovative views about leadership and education.

Another young leader shaped by the program is Jordenne Parker, coming from an interfaith background and growing up in Las-Vegas and Redlands, CA, her Jewish upbringing was limited to her immediate family "I was the only Jew in the class," she says, "Masa gave me the chance to connect with both people who experience their Jewishness in religious terms as well as those who are not religiously Jewish, it was a wonderful experience." 


Noting that Texans share the Yiddishe mama need to feed guests to make them feel welcomed, she notes that Texans "generally show positive support for Israel." Now working as the Operations Manager at Texas Hillel Foundation in Austin, she is extremely happy she decided to enroll to the Masa leadership program as it opened her eyes to the path she is currently on.

In the 2018 film Vice, Christian Bale, in the role of Dick Cheney, asks Steve Carell [As Donald Rumsfeld], “What do we believe in?” only to be answered with roaring laughter. In the film, GOP leaders are portrayed as people who believe in nothing, and who will stop at nothing to gain power for power’s sake.

The Masa leadership program dares to pose a different vision, one in which young people dare to challenge themselves and others to seek new paths, illuminating their journeys for the Jewish world in the turbulent times ahead.

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