The real hands on experience

Tikkun Olam aims to give participants a glimpse of the country beyond Taglit-Birthright.

Tikkun Olam youth program521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Tikkun Olam youth program521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The organizers of MASA’s Tikkun Olam program certainly don’t sugarcoat the Israel experience. That was fine with participant Elliot Glassenberg, who says he struggled for years with his relationship with Israel.
“I knew that if I came here, I would need to find a community that I was comfortable with,” he says. “To be part of a solution and not a problem. I wouldn’t have been able to come on a program that had not let me embrace being critical of Israel.”
The program – one of over 200 that MASA Israel Journey offers – gives participants between the ages of 18 and 30 an opportunity to have a long-term, immersive experience in the country, living in the communities where they volunteer, with a consistent emphasis on gaining familiarity with the Jewish state – flaws and all.
Part of that is giving the participants an experience beyond that of Taglit-Birthright, in which approximately 80 percent of Tikkun Olam participants take part prior to their time at MASA.
“For many of our participants, Birthright serves as their first and only Israel experience [so far],” says Moshe Samuels, Tikkun Olam’s director. However, time constraints do not allow Birthright participants to spend time looking at the inherent intricacies of life here.
“This makes our program their first hands-on Israel experience, for which I give them a lot of credit,” says Samuels. “It’s not simple to have your first real Israel experience be through a program like ours.”
That observation is well-founded. The communities where the participants volunteer include mixed neighborhoods of Jews and Arabs, refugees, new immigrants and asylum-seekers, as well as lower socioeconomic areas. This allows the participants to live and work with individuals they would be unlikely to meet on a typical trip to Israel.
As Samuels puts it, “the people you volunteer with are the same people playing basketball outside your house.”
Tikkun Olam opened its doors in 2006, with locations in south Tel Aviv and Jaffa. It is a joint project of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, and the Union for Reform Judaism, with attendees from 11 countries.
The program is split into three tracks: coexistence, social action and an internship track. Next year, for the first time, Tikkun Olam will be partnering with the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offering students in the nonprofit management and leadership master’s program field placements in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
Among the NGOs with which the program offers volunteer and internship placements are the Peres Center for Peace, the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, the African Refugees and Developmental Center, and Mesila.
Every week, participants in each track spend three days volunteering and two days studying. Studies focus on Jewish and Israeli culture, as well as taking an in-depth look at local current events. For the first three weeks, the program involves five hours a day of intensive Hebrew study, offering three or four levels of Hebrew based on need. Ulpan is a staple of the program and continues throughout the year, since language is viewed as essential to a successful integrative experience.
In addition, the program offers periodic weekend and day trips, which give participants an opportunity both to see the land and to interact with demographic groups they might not otherwise encounter.
“Many programs tend to shy away from some of Israel’s more complex issues,” says Samuels. “These are topics that Tikkun Olam specifically focuses on, for we feel that such discussion is necessary to achieve true identification with what is going on here.
That is what we try to show our participants – not the postcard, not a dream, but the reality. Then we tell them, ‘If you’re not happy with the reality you see, you can change it.’” This change had particular meaning for Glassenberg, who participated in the program in 2011-12. Having graduated with a BA from McGill University and an MA in Jewish education and literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he had a steady job in New York by the spring of 2011, but was unsure of where his life was heading. He decided to take a break both professionally and personally, and spend a year in Israel to do some significant volunteer work.
As an educator, he felt that he had “talked the talk, but not walked the walk” with regard to Jewish-Arab coexistence. So he picked the coexistence track in Jaffa and set himself a full schedule. He volunteered with four organizations, including two schools with Arab and Jewish student populations, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center in Tel Aviv, and Bikurim, an organization that supports independent, multicultural literature in Israel.
His year, he says, was “very full, but very fulfilling.”
Glassenberg officially made aliya this past January and says that while he’s taking it one day at a time, for the foreseeable future he is here indefinitely. He now works for BINA, and he taught Hebrew to Tikkun Olam participants this past year.
His trajectory is not uncommon among Tikkun Olam alumni. Approximately 25% have made aliya, and many of the participants who return to their home communities become professionals in organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency. A significant majority of alumni end up going into service professions, even those for whom it was not a prospective career path when entering the program.
AMONG THE ideas Tikkun Olam endeavors to examine are Jewish identity and Jewish “peoplehood.” The program is pluralistic, with participants coming from all sides of the religious spectrum – from unaffiliated to Shabbat-observant. Samuels stresses that the program can accommodate anyone and embraces the varying opinions and challenges that are part and parcel of religious diversity.
Samantha Kanofsky, a 2011-12 participant in the coexistence track, describes herself as having grown up with a “hippie” form of Judaism in Berkeley, California. Her roommate, who grew up in a modern Orthodox environment, became one of her closest friends on the program.
“It was fascinating for me to be exposed to a more Orthodox way of looking at things, and for her to be exposed to a more Reform perspective. I had no idea that there was such a diversity of experiences out there,” she says.
Rachel Smith, a participant from the same year, shares similar feelings of surprise about the number of ways participants identified as “Jewish.”
“It meant something very different to each of us, which was unexpected but also exciting,” she says. Having gone to Jewish day school and Sunday school, she did not know how different everyone’s Jewish experiences would be. The celebration of Shabbat, for example, was “a process of discovery,” which greatly enhanced the meaning of the program’s day of rest, she says.
Kanofsky, meanwhile, describes Friday night dinner as the “glue” of her Israel experience. Most Tikkun Olam participants see Friday night as an opportunity to get together to recap the week and “cement the Tikkun Olam community.” What began as a process of learning from each other and assessing comfort levels morphed into a beautiful hybrid Kabbalat Shabbat service that everyone could be a part of, according to Kanofsky.
That experience, she feels, is a microcosm of what should be happening in the larger Jewish community: including each other not by watering down tradition, but by getting creative.
“I actually felt that it was one of the best communities that I had ever lived in,” she says, “both despite and because of our diversity.”
Kanofsky, who will be starting a job in the fall as volunteer coordinator at the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, says the strengthening of her own Jewish identity was an “unexpected benefit” of participating in the program.
“I had never thought that I would be a Jewish professional,” she says, “but I realized that as the Jewish community is very important to me, it is actually a very natural career path.”
A resident of Brooklyn’s Moishe House this past year, she believes she would never have sought to be part of a diverse Jewish community had she not participated in Tikkun Olam.
BETWEEN 20% and 25% of Tikkun Olam participants are Israeli – no small accomplishment, since Israelis were integrated into the program for the first time only in the fall of 2011. Although Israelis do not receive MASA funding, Tikkun Olam significantly subsidizes the cost of the program for native participants.
Samuels’s vision is that someday 50% of the program’s participants will be Israeli.
The concept of creating a meeting between Israelis and Diaspora Jews has proven to be enriching for both groups. Niran Avni, who grew up in Hod Hasharon, joined Tikkun Olam in 2011-12 after completing his IDF service and says the program completely changed his life.
He knew there were Jews outside of Israel, he says, but he’d had no interactions with Jews from the Diaspora aside from a fiveday stint as a counselor on a Birthright trip. His multinational apartment consisted of an American, a Mexican, and a girl from France, an arrangement that presented “initial difficulties – which faded very fast. We had so much more in common than we had in differences.”
The program, he says, inspired him to go work for the Jewish Agency as a shaliah (emissary) at UC-San Diego, where he will return for his second year this fall. “My friends told me about the influence shlihim had on their Jewish identity and their relationship with Israel, which is what I try to do today: show American Jews what Israel is for me.”
Avni is not alone in appreciating that integration. Chicago native Glassenberg says that having an Israeli roommate made him feel like he was “adopted into Israel right away. I became the adopted son of my roommate’s family, and meeting his friends made me feel like I was living in Israel, rather than just here for a year.”
The differences between the two groups also create a new lens for viewing current events. For example, coping mechanisms during last year’s Operation Pillar of Defense, when the sirens went off in Tel Aviv, differed significantly among Israeli and Diaspora participants.
“It’s one thing to hear about these differences,” says Samuels, “but it’s another to see them take place in your own apartment.”
The participants tend to maintain their connections with each other long after the program ends. Kanofsky, who is currently staffing a Hashomer Hatza’ir summer program, had one of her Israeli friends from Tikkun Olam come speak to the group about her experience serving in the IDF. Getting an insider’s perspective, Kanofsky says, challenged her own stereotypes and assumptions about Israeli culture, government and the army. She also recalls that when she turned 24 during the program, one of the Israeli participants invited the entire group to her parents’ house for an impromptu birthday dinner.
“It’s one of my favorite birthdays that I can remember,” she says.
LIKE MOST of the people on MASA programs, Tikkun Olam participants are searching to form a deeper connection with Israel – though their spin on “connection” takes a variety of forms. While Glassenberg, for instance, cites the program’s openness to criticism as enabling him to develop his understanding and love for the country, Smith credits her experience with changing Israel from an “abstract and mythical place” to a real one.
“I grew up being taught to love Israel, and I had a strong connection with the land,” Smith recalls, “but when I graduated college, I wasn’t really sure what that connection was rooted in.”
She says her time in the program both strengthened her connection to Israel and made it into something tangible. “I now want to go back to Israel constantly because I have friends there, and cities I know and love.”
Avni describes being consistently surprised by how much his fellow participants cared about Israel. “For me, as an Israeli, of course I care about my society and my country,” he says. “But the Diaspora Jews on this program, they cared more than I do, and for many it was their first time in Israel.”
A prime example of this is Gordon Sutker, a Virginia native who made a decision to join the IDF while he was in college in the US. But before he signed up, he wanted an experience that would allow him to question the harder side of Israel and of himself.
“Tikkun Olam shows you what is actually happening in Israel,” he says, “but it also allows you to be an active instrument of change.”
He describes the program as a “10-month chance to change [his] mind about making aliya, which didn’t really do it.” He recently completed his army service and now works at a hi-tech firm in Tel Aviv.
VOLUNTEERING IS an integral part of the Tikkun Olam experience, and participants in the social action and coexistence tracks each have three or four volunteer placements with organizations in southern Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
Kanofsky says she was most surprised by her work at the Open Clinic, located in the Physicians for Human Rights headquarters in Jaffa. She had assumed that the bulk of her volunteer work would be with Arabs and Jews, which she had experienced with volunteer placements at an Arab-Jewish community day-care center and at a high school catering to artistically gifted Arab and Jewish students. But her work at the Open Clinic opened her eyes to the migrant workers and African refugees living in Israel.
Her experience at the clinic, she says, made her realize that there are broader social issues outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: moral and societal challenges that Israel and the US share in terms of immigration reform and the merging of new immigrants into society.
One particularly meaningful experience she recalls is the time she served as a translator between a man from the Congo and an Israeli psychiatrist.
Using her college French, she translated the man’s traumatic migration story, which involved traveling through Egypt to get to Israel.
Avni, who also volunteered at the Open Clinic, was similarly moved by his work with patients.
Having served as a liaison officer in the IDF, Avni – who speaks Arabic and Hebrew – translated between refugees from Sudan and Israeli doctors.
Sutker volunteered at Bayit Vateva, a small kindergarten in Kiryat Shalom, and taught English at a high school through an after-school project for teenagers. During his army service, he recalls, he would periodically see his former students while he was in uniform, and it would be a pleasant reminder of the program.
MORE THAN anything else, alumni stress the importance of coming with an open mind.
Kanofsky suggests that a good way to learn about the country is through listening to people’s stories, be they fellow participants or the people who live in your neighborhood.
Smith’s advice, though, is perhaps the most straightforward: “Leave all your preconceived notions behind – and buy a bike.”