(photo credit: Sasson Tiram [file])
Los Angeles resident Josh Hack, 24, gave up his job in the biomedical field to spend a year volunteering in Israel, but it was his Masa scholarship that made the endeavor possible.
On Monday, Hack will join more than 4,500 Masa participants at the year-end gala event featuring an educational experience on the Burma Road with Palmah veterans, a speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and various musical and multimedia performances highlighting participants' experiences.
Some 7,000 young Jews are currently volunteering, studying or interning in Israel and receiving money from Masa, a joint venture between the Jewish Agency of Israel and the Israeli government. Masa offers need-based scholarships of up to $10,000 to Jews between the ages of 18 and 30 towards more than 120 long-term Israel programs.
The gala event at Latrun will feature some experiences of Masa participants who hail from various countries, age groups and ideologies but are in Israel for similar reasons. "People are doing some incredible volunteer work, and no one really knows about it," said Masa executive director Elan Ezrachi.
Participants will also march on the Burma Road with about 20 Palmah veterans who volunteered to tell the story of breaking the siege to Jerusalem in 1948. "We hope this will be a unique meeting between young people of today and young of those days to learn about leadership, dedication, and Zionism," Ezrachi said.
Hack, a participant on the Tel Aviv-based program "Tikun Olam," said he always had a connection to Israel from short tourist trips throughout the years, but living among Israelis has been an "eye-opening experience" for him.
Hack lives in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Tel Aviv and volunteers as an English tutor at a high school with a high immigrant population, including many children of foreign workers. "As a tourist, you never think about the non-Jews who live here," he said. "In terms of seeing populations that are hidden away, this program has given me the opportunity to peak under the surface and see what's going on in Israel."
Masa and the government joined forces two years ago to launch a large-scale initiative to invest in the next generation of Jews around the world. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor shared similar goals of creating transformative experiences for Jewish young adults to get them closer to Israel, or to ensure they will be active in the Jewish community in years to come. They saw spending time in Israel as the best way to achieve the goal, said Ezrachi.
"It's based on the notion that when people spend a significant amount of time in Israel, something happens to them in the duration which contributes to them as active Jews in their community or as olim," he said.
Ezrachi said the goal was to increase the number of young Jewish adults coming to Israel from the steady 4,000 before Masa was established to 20,000 a year. "Providing we reach 20,000, the full budget set aside is $100 million," he said. Half of the money is from the government and half from the Jewish Agency.
In his speech, Olmert will affirm the dream and legacy of Sharon and confirm the continued importance of the Masa initiative for the government. Officials claim the $50m. promised yearly by the government to Masa by 2008 is a worthwhile investment because participants are living in Israel and contributing to the economy, said Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency.
Although Ezrachi notes Masa is not an aliya initiative, it is the natural progression for some after living in Israel. "We know that from veteran programs, the rate of aliya over time is about 25 percent," he said. He assumed this percentage might drop in future years when program numbers increase. There are "no strings attached" to make aliya after receiving the scholarship.
Although Hack has no immediate plans for making aliya, he said it is not out of the question. He first hopes to pursue a master's degree in global media and communication. "I see myself living here in the future, but I want to get my education out of the way."