When WUJS closed its doors in Arad in August of last year - after 40 years in the Negev - and uprooted to Jerusalem, program coordinators were uncertain whether the same type of success could be replicated in the center of the country. But having made it through its pilot year, it seems that the half-year program geared toward post-college Diaspora Jews is once again standing on solid ground.
"We feel that our last year has been positive," says WUJS director Mike Mitchell, adding that the relocation to Jerusalem is thought of as a key component in the long-term sustainability of the program.
"The idea was to maintain the core values and principles of the program but to apply them to a more attractive location," he says.
"The numbers in Arad had been decreasing for several years, [and] we made the assumption that Arad just wasn't popular for that age group [21+]," explains Mitchell, citing a drop from approximately 70 participants in 2006 to roughly 65 in 2007 and 50 in 2008. "The final mahzor [semester] in Arad had 14 people." But 2009 has seen a rebound in the numbers with 100 participants across two semesters, and there is already a waiting list for 2010.
"There are a lot of programs that offer similar things to WUJS - [internships, Hebrew study, field trips] - but there's a reputation that WUJS is a serious program where you're independent but also in the structure of a group," says Rebecca Kupchan, 22, a recent graduate of Brandeis University who is on the Peace and Social Justice track of WUJS that began in September.
Kupchan, who had specifically sought out a program based in Jerusalem, says, "I honestly don't think I would have been as excited about committing to a program in Arad. I would have had to be more committed to the ideology of the program because I really don't know what there is in Arad."
"Where is Arad?" asks Allison Spielman, a participant on the Tel Aviv-based internship track, who says that she too was looking for a centrally located program. "I like that we're near the university, we're near the airport [so it's easy to travel], we're an hour away from Jerusalem."
Also 22 and a recent college graduate, Spielman says that the fact that WUJS is smaller and more intimate than other programs offered through the Jewish Agency's Masa framework was a selling point and that the structure of WUJS makes it easy to explore various avenues such as teaming up with its arts program alongside her particular track, where she interns in marketing and public relations.
"Being closer to the center of the country, you can take the educational classroom outside into the field in such a dynamic way," adds Mitchell. "There are many more places at your fingertips. We've been able to attract more teachers from the field of English-speaking education, more guest speakers and more interesting people. Our [arts track] participants are able to interact with more aspiring Israeli artists and to enjoy more artistic facilities [because] we are closer to cultural centers. And for people who want to find an internship, they are going to maximize their options," says Mitchell.
And while many philanthropic Jewish organizations have been adversely affected over the past year by the global economic downturn, Mitchell says that WUJS has in fact become more financially stable over the past year. "We're basically financially self-sufficient; we run according to the numbers that come on the program."
Barbara Sofer, director of public relations for Hadassah - the group that oversees WUJS and Young Judea - says that everywhere in the Jewish world budgets have been reduced and people are having to cut corners and become more efficient. "In the Jewish world last year there was a lot of uncertainty about the way things were going." But, says Sofer, the dramatic change of location for WUJS last year and the recent move of Young Judea's year course from Jerusalem's Givat Masua to the Baka area this summer are in no way a sign of financial troubles.
"We sell, buy and move depending on the goals at the time," she says, explaining that while economics was a factor, this dovetailed with the idea of putting all of Hadassah's programs in close proximity to one another so they could easily share resources, benefiting from each other's guest speakers or special events.
A third Hadassah subsidiary to soon be joining the new Baka-area community is Merkaz Hamagshimim, which serves as an absorption center as well as a community meeting spot, currently based in the German Colony.
"I think the beauty of Hadassah is that we can make changes to improve [our programs]," says Sofer.
But some WUJS Arad alumni have lamented the change that uprooted the program from the desert to the country's capital.
Tanya Strusberg, who participated in the WUJS arts track in 2004, says, "I think ultimately [the move to Jerusalem] has destroyed the essence of the program. In Arad it had a really special atmosphere to it. When you live in a town with very little - there were only two pubs - you really have to rely on each other, so the bonds between participants were really strong."
Strusberg, who was nearing 30 at the time, says, "There was a lot of attraction in going to a remote location and not being in an Anglo bubble [like Jerusalem]."
She believes that Hadassah could have taken greater efforts to save the Arad program by doing more in-depth market research to figure out why the numbers were dropping, adding that "WUJS is one of the only programs offered to 20- to 30-year-olds. For people my age it was a gem to find something like that. That is something I think they could have marketed much more strongly."
But Sofer says the market research showed that the desire of Diaspora Jews was simply changing and that the post-college demographic preferred to spend time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
"I think we have a really popular, vital program for people who want to increase their exposure to Israel and also consider moving here," says Sofer, adding that if anything, the move to Jerusalem has improved its flavor.