College seniors in the US who are looking forward to their first post-college jobs really don’t have much to look forward to these days. Conservative estimates say that as many as a third of recent college grads can’t get a job — any job, not just one in their field — and those that do find work find that they are being paid less than they would have been just a few years ago.

As competition for jobs heats up, getting that initial experience working in their chosen career is much harder for most graduates. Without experience, it’s unlikely an employer will hire them in this economy, unless they’re really lucky (or have connections); and without an entry-level job, they can’t get experience. A traditional alternative to an entry-level job has been to work as an intern for a large company, sometimes for nothing more than expense money. But even this avenue has become much harder to navigate, as students and graduates apply for internships in droves.

Sensing an opportunity to promote a closer connection to Israel — or even aliya — among college grads, Masa Israel in 2008 established an internship program in Israel for North American college graduates. Since then, over 2,600 grads have taken internship positions in Israel, and another 1,064 have applied for the program this year. Internships are available in a wide range of areas, including medical technology, business, real estate development, technology start-ups, law, science, cleantech, and many more. Not only does Masa arrange for internships ––it also arranges for stipends, providing grads with up to $7,500 in grants and scholarships for living expenses in Israel.

Interns often have the reputation of being “gofers,” being told by office staff to take care of menial tasks like getting coffee for employees or guests. But in Israel, interns are expected to pull their weight and do a full day’s work. That’s because many of the professions, such as law, education, social work, and of course medicine, include an internship component as a licensing criteria; in order to get a license, prospective professionals must work as interns, and are evaluated by their bosses on their ability to handle all the work that would be expected from a seasoned professional. That’s a boon for the Masa interns, who are often given much more responsibility than they would have gotten at a parallel internship in the US or Canada, providing them with better opportunities to get the crucial experience they need.

Masa, which is funded by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-UIA, is sort of a “graduate” program for students who have been through Taglit (Birthright), and want a deeper Israel experience. The purpose of Masa, a top executive in the organization told The Times of Israel, is not necessarily to promote program participants to move to Israel, “although we certainly would encourage that and extend all the help we could. But we have found that there is a much greater need to encourage a closer relationship with Israel among North American Jews, even if it does not lead to aliya. Most American Jews have never even visited Israel, and thanks to Taglit and Masa we have been able to raise consciousness among many young members of the community who might never have had an opportunity to have any Israel experience at all,” the official said.

The idea of aliya comes up among Masa program participants, and some members of the intern program have decided to stay, or are actively planning to move to Israel. But most of the interns go back home, where, thanks to the experience they netted on the program, they have a leg up on the competition in the job market. For example, Boston native Jenna Krueger interned at Hadassah Medical Center’s Cardiology Department and helped create a national database for Hadassah’s amyloidosis patients. The experience she garnered at Hadassah helped her get a job in cardiology in Boston. Drew Harlow of Florida, who interned at StarTau, Tel Aviv University’s Entrepreneurship Center, as a global investment manager, landed a job in Miami. And Rachel Scheinkopf, a New York transplant from Phoenix, is working at a new media ad agency after having interned at Israeli Internet start-up Rounds.com. Other students have decided to stay, working at companies like MATIMOP, a government agency that promotes business development and cooperation in a wide range of industries.

Masa has dozens of such stories, and program participants rave about the internship program at alumni events, as do the companies who hire the interns. For Masa — and for Israel, said Masa Israel North American Director Avi Rubel — what’s important is getting participants on the plane and giving them a taste of Israel. “The Birthright Israel program has given thousands of young adults an initial taste of Israel,” Rubel said. “We’re thrilled to see so many of them returning through Masa Israel’s internship programs. It’s great for their resumes, their Jewish identities, and for Israel.”