“I sometimes get the feeling that the Jewish world regards young people primarily in the future tense: that they will be in big positions or be big donors one day far from now,” says Sarah Mali, vice president and head of the Masa Leadership & Impact Center at Masa.
“My take,” she says emphatically, “is that they all have something to give right now, that their resourcefulness and creativity is exactly what we all currently need.”
Masa was founded by the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, and is the global leader in providing immersive experiences in Israel for young Jews from Jewish communities around the world, including study, volunteer, and career development programs throughout the country. “My job is to be responsible for the educational impact and the experience of being in Israel, for Masa fellows and for our alumni,” says Mali. One of the primary goals of the Masa program, she adds, is to ensure that Masa fellows experience a “transformative time” in Israel and engage with Israel as home.
Mali notes that the Masa experience helps Jews of diverse backgrounds appreciate Israel and Jewish life in the present and empowers them to actively shape the future of the Jewish people. “The experience of being here is not only profound in and of itself, it’s also enduring in its impact on fellows and their Jewish communities alike,” she explains.
To help prepare Masa fellows for future leadership roles in their home communities, Masa runs two five-day leadership summits annually, including the Masa Wilf Leadership Summit funded by the Wilf Family Foundations, for select Masa post-college Fellows. These summits explore the core assumptions of leadership and provide a fresh framework for thinking about and practicing leadership based on the adaptive leadership model developed by Profs. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School. Adaptive leadership helps individuals and organizations adapt and succeed in challenging environments, and it increases their ability to take on gradual and meaningful processes of change.
Mali explains, “We introduce our fellows to the idea that everyone can exercise leadership, that leadership is a muscle, that it’s not dependent on your position of authority and we introduce our fellows to challenges facing the Jewish world. We give them the mindset and the tool set to be able to make progress on those challenges so that when they return home they’re equipped with the understanding that they can exercise leadership and have the tools to be able to do good things to advance the issues they care about.”
At summits, Masa offers post-college fellows the opportunity to engage with Jewish organizations in North America to help shape their Jewish communities when they return, either as volunteers or as professionals. According to recent Masa research, 13% of Masa leadership fellows become Jewish professionals in Jewish organizations upon their return to their home communities, and 36% become active as volunteers in Jewish communities in North America. “Our goal at the Masa Leadership & Impact Center is to increase those numbers,” says Sarah. “We have a pool of talent here in Israel – of amazing, resourceful, courageous self-starters who can really make a difference.”
Masa introduces its fellows to careers and volunteer opportunities within a variety of organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America and Hillel International. Mali notes that for many of their fellows who are unfamiliar with organized Jewish life, learning about these organizations is their first exposure to a formal Jewish organization. “They’re coming to terms with their Jewishness. They’re exploring what it means to be Jewish. They ask, ‘Well, what can I do with my Jewishness afterward?’ Consequently, we partner with key institutions that can help bridge the way of our fellows into Jewish communal life.”
Some Masa fellows come from strong Jewish backgrounds and for them working with Jewish communal organizations is a logical progression. There are other Masa fellows, says Mali, who would not have otherwise connected to their Jewishness or the Jewish world as their passion had they not participated in a Masa program. People who come from this type of background contribute to greater diversity within Jewish organizations and by virtue of their different perspectives often introduce new ideas and innovations that might not otherwise have reached these organizations. “There’s a nice synergy there,” she says.
Mariana Antoniuk typifies this type of synergy. She was born and raised in São Paulo, and holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education from the prestigious Catholic University of São Paulo. She was working as a principal in a high school when she decided to come to Israel and volunteer to help Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees living in south Tel Aviv. Arriving in Israel in August of 2015, she attended the Masa Wilf Leadership Summit in November of that year and served as a teaching assistant at the following year’s Masa summits. Recalling what she learned there, she says, “They invited us to see leadership in a new way, as leadership being a verb and actions – the way you do it, and not just a position. I received a great deal of training through Masa.” Mariana stayed and lived in Israel following her Masa experience until 2019, when she and her husband – whom she met at the Summit – moved to Annapolis, Maryland. Currently, she works for The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, providing leadership training and professional development for professionals in the Jewish community.
The experience and exposure that Mariana had with Masa helped her choose a career in Jewish community life. “Working with Masa and being part of the summits and leadership training, I saw how important it is to develop the leadership inside Jewish communities as a way of training our community,” she says. Mariana adds that it is even more important in the United States where many Jews are not aware of their heritage, unlike her native Brazil where most Jewish community members are cognizant of their roots. “It’s important to me to be part of Jewish life here and help engage in new ways in building the leadership for the Jewish community.
“My interest in working with the Jewish community came from Masa,” says Mariana. “Before I came to Masa, I had no interest in working with the Jewish community. Masa was something that made me realize the importance of working for the community.”
Alex Sleisenger, a Los Angeles native and Masa Fellow in the 2019-2020 program, appreciates the value of working in his local community. Sleisenger, 29, worked in the Israel Government Fellows program and with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs during his Masa Career program. Upon returning to Los Angeles in the summer of 2020, he immersed himself in volunteer work for the community and credits his Masa experience. “I realized that I have a responsibility to make young people more aware of Israel and how important Israel is for the Jewish people around the world,” he says. “My time in Masa really did that for me. Living in Los Angeles, there are many different ways to continue doing that sort of thing. So, I just connected with people in the Jewish Federation and from there I became involved in a lot of different places.”
Sleisenger currently serves on four different communal boards as a volunteer, including the American Jewish Committee, the New Roots Young Professional board of the Jewish Federation, a homeless shelter, and Jewish Family Service LA. He has recently become active in Friends of the IDF. In his view, the most important thing that he shares with these groups is his Israel experiences. “I share my first-hand knowledge and experiences of being in Israel, which is not something that everyone has,” says Alex. “Whether it’s speaking about my time working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or interfacing with Israelis day to day, living in the country with Israelis. You know those aren’t experiences that many people have.”
Alex Sleisenger and Mariana Antoniuk are profound examples of the next generation of Jewish leaders who give of their skills and of themselves to their local Jewish community immediately. They may be young, but Alex says, “It’s never too early to get started.”
This week, Masa will be holding its Masa Wilf Leadership Summit with 140 Masa Fellows from more than 30 different Jewish communities in the hills and outskirts of Jerusalem.
This article was written in cooperation with Masa.