Masa: Building stronger connections between Israel and the Jewish world - opinion

Masa was founded by the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency to provide opportunities for Jewish young adults to have transformative, immersive experiences in Israel.

Masa welcomes new fellows demand for long-term programs in Israel rise (photo credit: MASA ISRAEL JOURNEY)
Masa welcomes new fellows demand for long-term programs in Israel rise
(photo credit: MASA ISRAEL JOURNEY)

I first traveled to Israel in 1974 as part of a United Synagogue Youth (USY) trip. It was a transformative experience that sparked my interest in Jewish life and inspired me to play a lay leadership role in the Jewish community, even as I pursued a career in finance and venture capital. In fact, I’ve now been to Israel more than 100 times – most recently as the chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee of The Jewish Agency for Israel.

One of my other roles is serving on the Board of Directors of Masa Israel Journey, which has allowed me to meet scores of Jews like myself, whose lives have also been forever changed as a result of their time in Israel.

Masa was founded by the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency to provide opportunities for Jewish young adults to have transformative, immersive experiences in Israel. While the Masa fellowships, which range from a few months to a year, feature elements of career advancement, education, volunteering, teaching and other important life experiences, their impact often extends far beyond, transforming young Jews from the sidelines into star players throughout the Jewish world. Thanks to a report recently released by Masa based on an Impact:NPO study, we now have definitive data that highlights the true impact that long-term, immersive Israel experiences have on young Jewish adults.

Data point by data point, the numbers indicate that long-term Israel programs have the power to safeguard the Jewish future by strengthening our greatest asset: the next generation of leaders. Long-term Masa program alumni in comparison to those whose Israel experience is nonexistent or limited to a short-term program are inspired to embrace and strengthen their Jewish identities, deepen their connections to Israel and the Jewish world, and lead a Jewish life, personally, professionally and communally.

One statistic from the report that jumps off the page is that one in five Masa alumni work for a Jewish organization, nearly four times the rate of short-term program alumni.

MASA ISRAELI participants at the Khan Be’erot camping area at the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon). (credit: GUY YEHIELI)MASA ISRAELI participants at the Khan Be’erot camping area at the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon). (credit: GUY YEHIELI)

How being in Masa helps Diaspora Jews

Simon Luxemburg is one example. Simon’s 2019 Masa Program helped him to grow professionally and personally. While studying at The Hebrew University in a Masa Academic program, Simon learned the value of investing in oneself throughout his new experiences and interacting with people from the global Jewish community. Today, he is the director of Jewish Student Life at Gann Academy, a Jewish high school in Massachusetts.

Long-term Masa programs also have a profound impact on individuals who lack Jewish experiences early in life, a phenomenon demonstrated by the “advocacy and new conditions” segment of survey respondents from the report.

Molly Brandes is no exception. Despite growing up in a Jewish household, it wasn’t until Brandes’ long-term Masa program in 2008 that she felt an immense connection to Israel and Jewish culture. Brandes went on to minor in Jewish Studies, strengthening her knowledge and connection to her faith. She frequently returns to Israel with her husband and recently brought their 10-month-old daughter for the first time. Molly plans to sustain these connections throughout her lifetime, passing on a familial passion for Israel among future generations.

SIMON AND Molly aren’t alone in their assessments of Masa fellowships.

Benjamin Levy worked in several different education roles in the Jewish community before entering his Masa program in 2007. Upon returning to the United States, he got his first job as a full-time teacher at Denver Jewish Day School where he now serves as the dean of Judaic Studies.

Without Masa, Levy said he may have walked away from the education field altogether. Instead, Levy – along with thousands of other Masa alumni around the world – has invested in his Jewish community, contributing to a brighter, more interconnected Jewish future.

Over 180,000 Jewish young adults have immersed themselves in the same or similar long-term Masa programs as Simon, Molly and Benjamin. Every single journey tells a story, each with tremendous personal impacts that are impossible to quantify.

Thanks to this study, we know definitively that Masa programs provide the best return on investment of almost any engagement tool existent in the Jewish world. And on top of fostering Jewish communal involvement, career growth, and long-lasting connections to Israel and world Jewry, Masa programs quite literally pay dividends years down the road.

Nearly half of the surveyed Masa alumni – 45% to be exact – regularly donate to Jewish-related charities or causes outside of Israel and 34% donate to Israel-related charities or causes. The worldwide Jewish ecosystem will continue to benefit from the hundreds of thousands of Masa alumni uniquely inspired to contribute to the global Jewish ecosystem through charitable giving.

All I’ve ever wanted is for young Jews to experience the Israel that I know and love. Now that we have definite evidence as to the efficacy of long-term programs in Israel, our best path forward is to continue to inspire and support the next generation of Simons, Mollys and Benjamins.

The writer is the chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee of The Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of Masa’s Board of Directors.