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Masa is looking to grow. The program that brings college-age Jews from around the world to semester and year-long volunteer/study programs in Israel is financially ready to absorb more than double the number of participants who came this year.
For a program that seeks to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora, it is perhaps an embarrassment of riches. The Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister's Office each contribute $2,500 per participant per year, a contribution that makes up the budget for the program. While the budget is capped at $100 million, or 20,000 participants, per year, only 8,000 came on the program during the 5767 (2006-2007) academic year.
With participation increasing by over 1,000 each year, the problem is not finding participants, emphasized executive director Dr. Elan Ezrachi, but that it was simply so new that many people don't yet know of its existence or potential.
"Programs such as this take time to ripen," said Ezrachi of the three-year-old program, which funds the participants' volunteer work in educational and community service projects throughout Israel. "We have to develop new projects to raise the supply and attractiveness of the program, and to aggressively market it in the world," he told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
As part of this effort, Masa brought two dozen journalists and editors from Jewish newspapers in English-speaking countries, from Cincinnati to Melbourne, for a week-long tour of Masa volunteer projects in Israel.
"The maximum of 20,000 is based on a guess, since nobody knows whether we can hit it," Ezrachi explained. "We're beginning a demographic feasibility study checking not only how many kids [are eligible for participation], but how many are predisposed to the possibility, culturally and psychologically, of coming to Israel."
If the study concludes that the potential annual participation is no higher than, say, 18,000, "they [JAFI and the PMO] might increase the per-person budget," Ezrachi surmises.
The Masa framework brings many existing programs, from volunteering in Magen David Adom ambulances in Netanya to teaching disabled children how to surf to working as a volunteer firefighter in Haifa, and connects them with young Jewish volunteers from around the world. Some new programs, such as the 80 participants this year who are teaching English in the Holon school system, have grown out of the connection Masa fosters between Israeli towns and service projects and the overseas volunteers.
Masa's expansion is expected to take place among several groups. Orthodox participation, amounting to some 3,300 Masa participants out of 8,000, is "close to maximum capacity," Ezrachi believes, since Orthodox young adults come to Israel in much higher percentages than any other denomination.
But "in the non-Orthodox community there will be a rise, depending on our ability to break through many parents' refusal to allow their children to delay college," Ezrachi continued. "As Masa grows, it will expand to populations who are less affiliated or those less committed to the practice of visiting Israel," Ezrachi said.
He added that grassroots encouragement to visit Israel on the part of rabbis and youth groups would be the deciding factor in bringing non-Orthodox youth to Israel. Already, Ezrachi says, "they're mobilizing. We have very good contacts with the Union for Reform Judaism, which has started institutional cooperation to advance this in the Reform Jewish world."
In terms of age groups, the largest increase is expected from post-college Jews, particularly Taglit-birthright israel alumni. "I estimate the growth for post-college participants, today numbering fewer than 1,000, to reach 50% every year until it hits around 6,000," said Ezrachi.
Regionally, Masa believes the former Soviet Union, South America and France will be a source of significant growth. Some 400 participants come from the FSU today, compared with none in the program's first year.