(photo credit: Sasson Tiram [file])
Financial concerns dampened excitement surrounding the year-end Lag Ba'omer Gala Event of Masa, the joint project between the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government which has brought some 7,000 young Jewish adults from around the world to volunteer and study in over 120 service and educational projects around the country.
While some 4,500 young Jewish adults who were in Israel this year in the framework of Masa joined together to celebrate the project on Monday, financial concerns were on the minds of many participants.
According to volunteers who agreed to speak with The Jerusalem Post, many participants have not received the need-based scholarships they were promised, leaving them financially stranded.
Lauri Matzki, a third-year rabbinical student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles who is spending her third year in Israel at Jerusalem's Schechter Institute, applied for the Masa scholarship in June 2005. It wasn't until January 2006 that she got a letter telling her she would receive the scholarship, noting that 15 percent of the funds would automatically go to her host institution, the Schechter Institute. At that point, Matzki returned student loans received from the United States government because she was expecting the Masa money. She said that as of Monday she still had not received the money, and was forced to reapply for student loans at the University of Judaism.
"To this day, we still haven't been given any money," Matzki said of her and her fellow Masa participants. "It has been a headache, and the money was not there when I needed it."
Furthermore, she said, Masa officials told her the money would be transferred to an American bank account next week, but payment for the transfer will come out of her scholarship. With up to four transfers for the full amount, she could lose around $400 from the total sum of the scholarship.
Out of the 23 people studying at the Schechter Institute in 2005-2006, Matzki said, 13 received Masa scholarships, but not one has received the money.
In response, Masa executive director Elan Ezrachi said that the organizations responsible for the individual programs were responsible for the participants on many issues, and were the conduit for the scholarships. The organizations receive money from Masa, he explained, and hand it over to participants. Ezrachi conceded that in certain cases, with certain organizations, it took a long time and there were delays in the transfer.
"The [participants] are victims of the delays of the organizations which they are part of," Ezrachi said, emphasizing that Masa cannot transfer money before the issues are resolved, leading to the delay. The "temporary issues," however, were being resolved, he promised.
Shoshana Becker, the director of Otzma Israel, a 10-month leadership volunteer program that unites the UJC and the Jewish Agency, said that her program decided that whoever received money for Masa would be credited that amount toward the tuition price, and that Otzma would then wait to receive the money from Masa.
"We expected the money closer to the beginning of the program in August," she told the Post. "Thank God we have the backing of the UJC and the Jewish Agency, but even that won't last too long, because at some point, we'll be going into next year's budget. We can't [spend] that money."
She said that the most important thing to Otzma was that participants not be hurt by the bureaucracy.
Becker's concerns were echoed by Yossi Garr, head of the United Synagogue's Nativ program, in which Conservative young adults in America come to Israel for a year of study and community volunteering. Garr told the Post that as a big organization, Nativ had leeway; he indicated that the United Synagogue would back the program until they got the money from Masa.
Like Becker, Garr said that in such programs, one would expect that the money would come before or when the program starts. After all, "Even though there's some frustration, for some of these kids, the Masa money can make or break their coming to Israel."
The gala, however, was not without fun and excitement. The event included a hike along the Burma Road on Monday and community service activities.
A veteran Palmach fighter, Elishov Yochanan, walked the Burma Road along with the Masa participants. "I'm glad we fought for this land, and I'm happy to see the youth walking with me," he said. "It's beautiful to see."
The event also included a comedic musical performance, including a song about the journey of Masa and a performance of the song "Yahad" by the Israeli band Gaya.
Speaking to the participants, Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim emphasized that "each one of you is now an ambassador for Israel, and hopefully we will see you back in Israel soon."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert followed Boim in calling for the participants to make aliya. While he acknowledged that many of them come from countries in which Jewish populations are accepted and life is comfortable, he told the crowd that there was only one home for Jews, and that was the State of Israel.
"I am proud Masa has given you the opportunity to learn this better than before," he told the audience of thousands. "You have completed your year with Masa in Israel. Go back to your home, stay awhile, then pick up and come home." Israel, he said, depended on those willing to build the future of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. "There is nothing that we want more, that we need more, than to have you in the State of Israel."
Speaking of the gala event and Masa in general, Ezrachi told the Post that "The idea is to create the feeling of empowerment, that we're part of something larger in terms of numbers and diversity. There is a sense of peoplehood which is very meaningful."
There was also an ironic twist to the activities along the Burma Road, which included an environmental presentation by the Jewish National Fund explaining how long it took for various items to disintegrate. Many participants were disturbed to learn the Styrofoam plates on which lunch was served would never disintegrate.