Every year Masa Israel Journey enables thousands of young Jewish adults to come to Israel on various programs and experience the country as a local, diving deep into Israeli culture. However, the dynamic of these programs is starting to change; as more participants gravitate towards smaller cities, the focus is shifting from “my Israel” to “our Israel.”
A service and learning program incorporating gap years, study abroad, volunteer work and other post-graduate work contexts, Masa is starting to radiate waves of change throughout the Jewish community in moderately-sized metropolises, such as Beit She’an, Petah Tikva and Beersheba.
Together with the Jewish Agency, Masa is the leading organization providing long-term experiences in Israel for Jews aged 18 to 30. Since its 2004 founding, it has helped more than 100,000 people from more than 60 countries. The 10-month-long teaching fellowship places participants in Israeli schools as teaching assistants in English classes. In addition to the 25 to 30 hours of work in the schools per week, participants serve as community volunteers, attend enrichment programs, take ulpan Hebrew classes and travel.
Masa CEO Liran Avisar explains the motive behind the program.
“Our goal is to develop the commitment of young Jews to this collective creation of the Jewish state, building frameworks for young Jews around the world to be able to do service here,” Avisar explains.
At the same time, the immersive experience enables them to create a life of their own here in Israel.
“When they take the chance and come to these places, they get a very authentic, strong, warm experience because they become part of these communities. They know everyone around. They have lunch with people in the community, they go for Shabbat dinner, they see their friends on the streets,” Avisar continues.
The program transcends individual experiences and serves the community as a whole. Participants come to make an impact in their given communities.
“Here are people who want to take a year and change the world. That’s the only reason for them to choose spending a year in service. They could go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or elsewhere. But they choose service here,” Avisar says.
Integral to the choice of coming to Israel is the eagerness to give back to its people. Masa hopes to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility.
Avisar further explains, “It’s not just about Jews, it’s about Jewish values.”
Sara Eisen, Masa’s global chief communication officer, sees the motive as a “continuum of pioneers who built the country.” The goal is to share the responsibility in the upholding of this country, for those living in it and for people around the world.
The teaching fellows become local celebrities in their communities. They’re in school with the kids all day, then they may go to soccer practice with them and teach their parents at night. This type of long-term program is described as “formative and transformative.” Avisar remarks, “It’s about providing them with the opportunity to make a difference in a really broken spot in Israel. For me it’s a huge privilege to get up every morning in this country and be able to fix broken spots.”
Jessica Davis, a teaching fellow working at the Tahkemoni state religious elementary school in Beit She'an, works with children in grades four through six. She explains her decision to come to Israel, “I wanted a fuller experience in Israeli society. I also wanted to live and work in a community where I knew I made a real difference.”
Originally from Pennsylvania, Davis had to get used to a different classroom dynamic.
“Israeli kids are really different from kids in the US. In the US, the kids are really quiet and raise their hands when they want to speak. Here they just speak whatever they want. They’ll get up and talk to the teacher in the middle of class,” Davis remarks. She described her experience in the beginning as a mutual understanding with the pupils, teachers and herself that they were all learning. They were learning English while she was trying to better her Hebrew.
“It’s given me an opportunity to really understand Israeli society in the way people think and work here… becoming part of a community in Israel. Knowing that I’m doing something that really helps people means so much,” Davis says. In some of these communities, there’s not much exposure to English. Having the teaching fellows placed in the schools sparks interest, not only for the children but for the adults as well.
“I teach an English class for adults, and we see each other in the streets. Some of the students are older women with homes and they cook dinner. One woman lives next door to me and she’ll call me saying, ‘Hey – I know you’re home, I made pizza!’ with English she learned in the class,” Davis relates.
Program participants have a comprehensive Israeli experience.
They shop at the local grocery store, become friends with the people in the community and speak Hebrew for the most part. It’s had a huge impact on these small communities on both ends of the spectrum, Davis says.
“The best part is knowing the work we’re doing here is really appreciated. There’s a lot of support. I have a new family and new friends.”
Tamar Zilbershatz, the director of the gap and service programs, explains the importance of these exchanges on the receiving end.
“It raises questions for the kids. Why did the volunteer come? Because of the Jewish people. Why the Jewish people?” Zilbershatz answers, “For the Israelis, it might be their first time interacting with people from the Diaspora and understanding that they share things with those people who seem to be from a foreign land. This brings the realization that the Jewish people is a broader concept than they thought.”
While the program’s main goal is to improve English education, it impacts the community as a whole. It broadens the prospective of the global network and forges a lasting memory that someone cared enough to spend a year with them in a small city.
Masa Israel Journey is making a difference in the lives of its participants and in the lives of residents. The beauty of this program lies within the shared experience and cultural exchange. Participants are sent to areas they might not have heard of before, live amongst the people and leave a lasting impact on the community.
Avisar concludes, “The Masa experience lets participants see the good, the bad, the ugly and the complicated.
When they see the full reality of the Jewish state… I think they’ll love Israel more. They’ll feel more responsible for it. They’ll see what still needs to be fixed and want to be part of it.
“They’ll be able to develop their own narrative about what Israel is.”