Masa-Israel: The journey of a lifetime

Every year, 30,000 11th-grade students – from both secular and religious schools – take the Masa journey, with between 1,200 and 1,500 students going each week throughout the school year.

MASA ISRAELI participants at the Khan Be’erot camping area at the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon). (photo credit: GUY YEHIELI)
MASA ISRAELI participants at the Khan Be’erot camping area at the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon).
(photo credit: GUY YEHIELI)
Sometimes the journey of a lifetime can take just six days. Masa Israeli, known outside of Israel as “I BELONG,” is a non-profit organization that has been launching hundreds of thousands of Israeli teens, soldiers and regular citizens on life-changing voyages of self-discovery of their personal, Jewish and Zionist identities since 2005. In 2018, Masa Israeli received the Knesset speaker’s Quality of Life Prize for promoting the rule of law, the values of democracy, and protecting human rights.
The Hebrew word masa means journey, and the six-day journey throughout the Land of Israel corresponds to a thematic progression of six circles of identity, including self-identity, identification within the group, the community, the land, the state, and finally, with one’s Jewish identity. The trip begins from the North or South of Israel, continues through the coastal plain, and culminates in an ascent to Jerusalem.
Every year, 30,000 11th-grade students – from both secular and religious schools – take the Masa journey, with between 1,200 and 1,500 students going each week throughout the school year.
Masa Israeli strengthens the Jewish and Zionist identity of Israeli youth. It was founded 14 years ago on the heels of a survey that found that a majority of young Israelis did not visit Jerusalem prior to conscription, had never been to the Western Wall, were not interested in meaningful army service, and were considering emigrating from Israel.
Masa Israeli is unique in that it is completely apolitical and not affiliated with any party or religious organization. Its board members span a wide range of political and religious points of view. The organization’s president is Gen. (ret.) Eliezer Shkedi, former commander of the Israeli Air Force, and retired CEO of El Al. Shkedi himself had a personal stake in the organization due to the experience of his son, who went on a Masa Israeli trip as part of his air force pilot course.
Says Shkedi, “After completing the journey, he came home and told me, ‘Of all the activities and educational activities in which I have participated, Masa Israeli was the most amazing and significant that I have ever experienced.’”
Shkedi explains that Masa Israeli does not coerce or attempt to convince participants. “It is not a journey where they tell you what to do. You have to figure it out on your own – for yourself, for your family, for the society in which you live, for the country, the land and the people.”
He adds that one of the conditions of his accepting the organization’s presidency was that Masa Israeli would continue to be an inclusive organization that accepts people from all branches of Judaism.
“Everyone is part of Masa Israeli,” he declares, and explains that the organization has long been supported by numerous education ministers from different political parties.
Miriam Peretz, Masa Israeli board member, prominent educator, and past winner of the Israel Prize, whose son Elyasif is a Masa Israeli mentor, explains that what is essential about Masa Israeli is “the ability to hear different opinions from different kids who are going on the same journey but who see it through different eyes.”
ON THE first two days of the journey, participants withdraw to remote wilderness areas, including the Ramon Crater and the Judean Desert, to learn more about their inner selves, removed from their regular habitats. The desert experience leads to introspection.
“The most important thing that students learn is that they need to turn inwards, toward themselves, to address the major question that they have,” says Peretz.
On the third day, they visit towns in Israel’s periphery, where they assist the aged as well as new immigrants and volunteer with charitable and educational organizations, such as senior adult centers and pre-schools for children with special needs.
Day Four is dedicated to a process of examining the bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, as the students explore biblical and historical sites. Explains Peretz, “When we speak of King David, we tour the archaeological site of the City of David in Jerusalem, or we visit Tel Azeka, overlooking the site of the battle between David and Goliath. We live it. When we speak of the battles of 1948, we go to Latrun and experience the battle.”
On the fifth day, participants explore their connection to modern Zionism and the State of Israel, and visit Mount Herzl.
Masa Israeli reaches its pinnacle on Day Six, as students welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall, experience Shabbat, explore the meaning and significance of being Jewish and the relevance of Jewish identity to their other experiences.
The Masa Israeli journey appeals not only to participants’ intellectual side but speaks to them emotionally. The story of Israel is one of passion and feeling. Masa Israeli touches people’s hearts – their emotional connection to this country – and the relationship with their fellow Jews, regardless of their differences.
This year, Masa Israeli is beginning a pilot program with 3,000 12th-grade students, titled “Masa Tikvah (Hope) Yisraelit,” in partnership with President Reuven Rivlin. This program will focus on the major challenges that are facing Israeli society: conflicts and tensions between Arabs and Jews, relations between secular and religious Jews, Israel’s periphery versus the country’s center, and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Susan Zilberman of New York is an enthusiastic supporter of Masa Israeli, and explains that the organization can help bridge the gap between Israel and the Diaspora.
“Because Masa is non-denominational, it doesn’t fall into the problem of anything exclusionary,” she says. “Masa is neither Right or Left, Orthodox or Reform, and that’s what so fantastic about it. It appeals to everyone and unites everyone. The best thing that we can do for a nation is to educate its youth.”
Says Eliezer Shkedi, “Masa Israeli is perhaps the most amazing organization that I am involved with today. It provides an important message. All of us – secular, haredi, Reform, Conservative, Chabad – we are all one.”
This article was written in cooperation with Masa Israeli.