In the beginning there was birthright. Conceived by several American Jewish philanthropists a decade ago, birthright israel was launched in 2000 as an effort to give Jews around the world between the ages of 18 and 26 a free, 10-day trip to Israel as a means of sparking Jewish identity and countering the trends of assimilation and declining interest in the Jewish state. Despite the ensuing intifada, with its terror attacks on Israel and resulting drastic downturn in tourism, more than 100,000 young Jews have gone on birthright trips to date, and studies show that the experience has had a major, positive impact on their feelings about Israel and Jewish identity. If even a brief visit could achieve such results, how much more powerful would be programs that bring young Jews to Israel for a semester (five months) or a year of study, volunteerism, or a mix of both? That’s the premise of Masa (Hebrew for journey), the most ambitious project yet to give young Jews a formative year in Israel based on long-term programs — a kind of follow-up, or return trip, for birthright alumni, and a deep experience for as many 18- to 30-year-old Jews from around the world as possible. The goal of the project, which began two and a half years ago, is to give young Jews a strong connection to the people and land of Israel so that they will become advocates of Israel, potential Jewish leaders in their communities in the future, and possible candidates for aliyah, though that aspect is downplayed by MASA officials.
“We are less than aliyah and more than tourism,” says Elan Mizrachi, an educator and president of Masa, who credited Ariel Sharon with coming to understand that the best way to promote aliyah from the West was “to bring young people to Israel to explore, rather than to scold, yell or berate” diaspora Jews about the imperatives of settling in Israel. Thanks in large part to Sharon’s enthusiastic support of Masa, his government agreed to partner with the Jewish Agency for Israel, with each contributing up to $50 million a year to make Masa a reality — a total of up to $100 million a year.The significance of this decision was that “it was not just symbolic but indicated a commitment to the Jewish people for the Jewish future,” noted Israel Maimon, the secretary of the Israeli cabinet under Sharon and his successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “Israel used to receive money from the Jewish people in the diaspora,” Maimon told a group of two dozen Jewish journalists from the U.S., Canada, England, Australia and South Africa in his Jerusalem office the other day, “and now we are investing in the Jewish people.
This is quite a change.” But can this bold experiment succeed in altering the attitudes of a generation of young Jews largely unaffiliated with Jewish life, education and Zionism? Will Masa attract large numbers of this segment of diaspora youth or will it be providing subsidies to young people — primarily in the Orthodox community — who are already committed to spending a year of study in Israel? And will the issues of ego, control and lack of trust between key American Jewish philanthropists and the Jewish Agency, which many philanthropists view as a bureaucratic morass, prevent the otherwise logical merger of birthright and Masa?Those were among the questions in my mind as our group of journalists, guests of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, traveled throughout Israel for a week. We met with several top government officials and scores of young participants from almost a dozen Masa-affiliated programs as varied as spiritual seekers in the mystical city of Tzfat, service-oriented college graduates in the Otzma program, and college students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where all classes are in English. Spirit Of IndependenceThe programs seemed solid, and the enthusiasm of the participants was inspiring. What most impressed me was the spirit of adventure and independence among the young people we met, their growing love for and connection to Israel, their eagerness to volunteer their skills, and the wide range of opportunities afforded them from army service to kibbutz life to teaching English to Ethiopian Jews to courses in kosher culinary arts to career development programs.We went to Purim services at Pardes, a co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem; visited the dorm apartments in Beersheba of students of Nativ, the Conservative movement’s post-high school year in Israel; had dinner with students from the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS); enjoyed a performance by (and spoke with) students at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Tel Aviv; and more.
Throughout our travels we found young people who, whether they came to Israel out of commitment to a specific program or were taking a year off to search for themselves and their future, were deepening their ties to Israel and their Jewish roots.In all there are more than 150 Masa-affiliated programs to choose from, most of which have been around for a number of years, like the post-high school year in Israel offered by Hadassah’s Young Judaea and the dozens of Orthodox yeshivas with programs for American students. Masa has created about 20 programs of its own.Masa officials estimate that in the past, about 4,000 young people came to Israel for a year of study or volunteer work annually, about half of them boys and girls from the Orthodox community attending yeshivas.Masa’s goal is to increase that number to 20,000 by 2010 by providing financial aid to a wide range of participants and marketing the concept of a long-term program in Israel as a rite of passage, as the Orthodox community has done successfully over the last several decades.The program has grown steadily. This year, the second fully operational year of Masa, there are 7,800 participants from 50 countries (65 percent from the U.S.), with $22 million going for scholarships to 6,000 of them.
But it is difficult to determine how many of the participants would have come to the existing programs if Masa had not been created and how many were drawn by the financial incentives and high-powered marketing of the project.In order for their participants to qualify for Masa’s financial aid, the programs have to provide Hebrew instruction, Jewish and Zionist education, meaningful encounters with Israeli peers, leadership development and community involvement.Until now, Masa’s grants were made based on the financial need of the participants. But starting in September, every Masa participant from the U.S., for example, will receive a grant of at least $2,000. Applicants in financial need can apply for additional funding.A number of students we met with, especially those from the Former Soviet Union and South America, said they would not have been able to spend a year in Israel without the full financial aid made available through Masa.Still, while virtually everyone agrees that Masa is an excellent project in concept and goals, and a natural extension of birthright, there are critics who say the program is not being run properly, and major philanthropists are still smarting over how it came to be.Founded For ‘The Wrong Reasons’One administrator of a Masa-affiliated yeshiva said that three-quarters of the American parents who sent children to his school did not apply for grants this year because they could afford the annual tuition, which is in excess of $15,000. “But next year,” he said, “with every student getting $2,000 automatically, regardless of need, the irony is that those students who need the most help can no longer count on Masa.”The participating school administrators were “astonished” at the change in policy, he said, adding that at least for American parents faced with annual tuitions well in excess of $10,000 for the Israel programs, the $2,000 grant will not make a critical difference in their decision. “It’s a nice gesture, but not a determining factor,” the administrator said.
Ezrachi, Masa’s president, responded that the policy decision aims to create “a standard norm in which all American participants receive a gift/grant from Masa.” He said that to help those who are in financial need, Masa set aside a fund of $2.5 million, and he believed program organizers would also provide funds for those who require assistance.Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of Knesset and former diaspora affairs minister, told our group he supports Masa even though it was “created for all the wrong reasons.” Though he did not elaborate, he noted that Jewish Agency officials actually opposed birthright at the outset, presumably because they wanted to control the project. And those close to the philanthropists believe Masa was begun “to get the Jewish Agency back in the game” at a time when birthright’s success was exciting the Jewish philanthropic world and the Jewish Agency’s campaign to help Falash Mura in Ethiopia and poor Jews in the Former Soviet Union was lagging.One of the key founders of birthright, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, still bristles over how Masa came to be, asserting that at a time when the Israeli government was actually cutting back on its financial commitment to birthright, it was setting aside tens of millions of dollars to launch Masa. “I was extraordinarily angry that they started it in an underhanded way that was almost an ambush of birthright,” he said this week. “One would think they would coordinate with us; it was despicable,” he said, adding: “The Jewish Agency’s reputation is well deserved.”That reputation is of an agency bogged down in bureaucracy and still laden with political hacks who care more about their positions than about Zionist ideals. (Technically, it should be noted that Masa is a separate company founded by the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency.)Zev Bielski, the former mayor of Ra’anana, who is now in his second year as chairman of the Jewish Agency and a strong supporter of Masa, is working to change that image, which defenders say is outdated. A charming and popular man, he emphasized to me his ongoing efforts to make the agency more efficient and financially transparent. But some of the major American Jewish philanthropists wonder if he is tough enough to clean house.Competing ImpulsesMerger talks between birthright and Masa officials have been held, off and on, for several years, with birthright supporters insisting that it take over the enterprise and the Jewish Agency holding out for control.Insiders say that despite the bad blood between the philanthropists and the Israeli officials, a merger is not only desirable but inevitable, in part because the more young people who go on birthright trips, the greater the pool for potential Masa participants — a win-win for everyone. As one official of a charitable foundation supportive of birthright noted, “We knew from the start that it would be the second, longer visit to Israel that would be the slam dunk, but you need the first trip to get to there.”He and others noted that the key to Masa’s success will be in its ability to expand beyond attracting Orthodox and strongly Zionist participants who would be going to Israel for a year anyway, to foster entrepreneurial expansion and the creation of program choices to attract Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. That requires not just funding but creativity, strategic marketing and a wide range of niche appeals. In the end, the story of Masa reflects some of the best and worst impulses in Jewish life today: the valued goals of using major funding to spur Jewish identity and love of Israel, and the politics of infighting that can sap the idealism out of committed professionals and lay leaders.The silver lining is that dozens of the Masa participants I met and spoke with seem to be blossoming in Israel, and the programs are doing an important job of providing opportunities for personal and spiritual growth, underscoring that the best resource we have as a people is ourselves, and particularly our youth. For information on Masa, click on www.masaisrael.org