Young Diaspora Jews ponder whether to put a ring on it with Israel
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Young Diaspora Jews ponder whether to put a ring on it with Israel

In a commitment-shy generation, the 10-month Masa Israel programs are an unexpected launch pad for aliyah

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Students and volunteers from around the world celebrate MasaFest at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2012. (Louis Fisher/Flash90)
Students and volunteers from around the world celebrate MasaFest at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2012. (Louis Fisher/Flash90)

As her final McGill University semester was drawing to a close in the spring of 2010, Toronto native Lauren Abecassis-Kandravy received a random email from a Jewish students listserv she didn’t recognize.

The email described a 10-month Jerusalem-based Masa Israel program called Israel Government Fellows in which participants intern at government agencies and concurrently attend courses about Israeli society.

Approaching graduation and not having a job lined up in a limpingly recovering recession climate, the email’s description of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center-initiated program sounded like a plan for Abecassis-Kandravy.

“It was just a random email. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten another from that address,” she smilingly said, implying divine intervention while sitting in the Begin Center’s conference room with other government fellows graduates last month.

Abecassis-Kandravy, 27, participated in the 2010-11 cohort of the Israel Government Fellows program and interned at the Ministry of Finance in the international relations department. She said that while working at the ministry, she sat in at high-level meetings with ranking officials and politicians and would laughingly wonder to herself, “Why am I here?!”

“I was given so much respect and everyone listened to my opinion — and in the ministry, everyone gives an opinion,” she said laughing.

Four of the dozens of graduates from the Begin Center's Israel Government Fellows who have become Israeli citizens. From left: Rachelle Toobian Bell from San Diego, CA, Rachel Greenspan from New Jersey, Lauren Abecassis-Kandravy from Toronto, and Camille Morliere from Paris. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Four of the dozens of graduates from the Begin Center’s Israel Government Fellows who have become Israeli citizens. From left: Rachelle Toobian Bell from San Diego, CA, Rachel Greenspan from New Jersey, Lauren Abecassis-Kandravy from Toronto, and Camille Morliere from Paris. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

Abecassis-Kandravy’s internship led to employment at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. “The [Government Fellows] name definitely got me in the door; the experience got me the job,” she says.

She “stayed on” in Israel, as she puts it, and formally became a citizen in 2012. Now she works at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and just finished an MA degree in public policy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Abecassis-Kandravy’s story is hardly unique. With increased globalization and a recovering recession economy, for many North American college grads looking for an employment edge or unusual resume item, one of Masa’s 200 programs easily fits the bill.

While taking advantage of the chance to dip their toes into ‘real Israel,’ for many North American adults on the brink of ‘real life,’ Israel can become a home for now, if not forever

And while taking advantage of the chance to dip their toes into “real Israel,” for many North American adults on the brink of “real life,” Israel can become a home for now, if not forever. At the same time, for thousands of young Jews from conflict ridden countries who enjoy huge subsidies, Masa is now their main immigration launch pad, with up to 90 percent remaining in the Holy Land — and often eventually bringing their parents as well.

Israel experiences have been on the menu for Diaspora young adults for decades, from picking avocados on a kibbutz to yeshiva studies or a semester at The Hebrew University. So what’s changed?

In this era of immigration by choice over necessity, in which families are sprinkled over the globe and addresses are no longer permanent, what’s changed is nothing less than the nature of making aliyah.

If you reaffirm their Jewish identities, they will come

When Guatemalan Joseph Silbony participated in the Masa Career Israel program in 2010, it was his first time in Israel. He’d recently graduated and was at a cross-roads in life when a friend mentioned the program.

“I thought it was a cool opportunity to give myself breathing room and try something new,” said Silbony, 28, who went back and forth between Israel and his parents’ home for the next couple of years, returning home after Masa, then coming back for a masters.

‘I’d definitely say Masa was my gateway drug to Israel’

In retrospect he said Masa had a huge impact on his life. “I’d definitely say it was my gateway drug to Israel,” he said.

“I originally didn’t plan on making aliya. I thought I’d do a masters, then go elsewhere, but I kind of just didn’t leave and all of a sudden it’s been five years. So I said to myself, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I’m doing now,'” said Silbony, who lives in Tel Aviv and works in hi-tech and social media.

“I’m here for the foreseeable future. I’ve thought about leaving and can’t think of a reason to leave,” he said. “I would definitely say I never ‘made aliyah.’ I never had like a Zionist-love-for-Israel kind of thing. I really like it here. Tel Aviv is an awesome city. It was never an ideological thing, more a pragmatic thing,” he said, adding that today he is definitely proud to be an Israeli.

Silbony’s pragmatism is typical of today’s Western immigration, a predominantly aliyah by choice, not necessity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with a Masa student taking a selfie photo on his phone before the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 30, 2014. (Danny Meron/POOL/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with a Masa student taking a selfie photo on his phone before the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 30, 2014. (Danny Meron/POOL/Flash90)

Aware of the changing needs of immigration to Israel, after Natan Sharansky came on board as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in June 2009 he took the controversial step of shifting JAFI’s priorities from an emergency aliyah of necessity to strengthening Jewish identity for the entire “global Jewish family.” The emphasis on Israel experience programs falls under this rubric.

Sharansky was decried in media for closing down the aliyah department, but claimed JAFI had essentially made the duties of aliyah more dispersed among the entire staff and was, in effect, stepping up activity. Emissaries and those leading Israel experience programs were charged with fostering a love of Israel in their charges. An aliyah of choice would be a positive outcome of their strengthened Jewish identity, said Sharanksy, as would increased Israel-Diaspora ties.

But the roots to the new strategic plan for JAFI’s role in aliyah came earlier. Over a decade ago, seeing Birthright’s success since 1999 in forging a bond between the Diaspora and Israel, prime minister Ariel Sharon began looking for a way for Diaspora youth to more fully experience life in the Holy Land, said Masa director general Liran Avisar Ben-Horin.

So back in 2004, through Sharon’s vision and the initiative of the Jewish Agency’s then director general of education Alan Hoffmann, the umbrella organization Masa Israel Journey was founded and tasked with drastically increasing participant numbers, streamlining procedural bureaucracy for the Israel experience providers and amplifying publicity.

Today, more than a decade later and backed by matching funds between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to an annual tune of $50 million, the umbrella organization has succeeded in getting the myriad of Israel experience providers to ramp up their reach. Participation has multiplied to its current annual of 12,000, and a cumulative total of over 100,000.

Beyond the increased Masa numbers, there are signs that Sharon and Sharansky’s visions are paying off in terms of increased aliyah by choice. Of the approximately 26,000 who made aliyah in 2014, 40% belonged to the 18-41 age group and were potential Masa and Birthright participants. The second-largest age group, at 27%, were ages 42-65, the younger of whom may have also participated in Birthright. Interestingly, retirees, once a flourishing aliyah prospect, were the smallest age group at 16%. (Minors came in at 18%.)

Masa is now shooting for an annual 20,000 participation figure. And if history repeats itself, several thousand of them may eventually immigrate to Israel, each one for personal reasons.

Former Masa participant Arsen Ostrovsky, the director of research for the Israeli-Jewish Congress courtesy)
Former Masa participant Arsen Ostrovsky, the director of research for the Israeli-Jewish Congress courtesy)

“For me personally, Masa was an aliyah trial run,” said former Career Israel participant Arsen Ostrovsky, 35, who recently celebrated three years of Israeli citizenship. Back in Australia and rapidly approaching the cut-off age of 30, he left his work as a lawyer in a corporate law firm and decided to go on a long-term Israel program “to get a real sense and feel of whether aliyah was a legitimate option.”

His internship through Career Israel in the Knesset made it a win-win situation: “If I chose not to make aliyah, I would still strengthen my CV.”

Masa director general Liran Avisar Ben-Horin (courtesy)
Masa director general Liran Avisar Ben-Horin (courtesy)

Said Ben-Horin, especially during times of economic recession, many Masa participants choose internships to boost their future careers in a competitive global environment. Masa offers a variety of other programs, including religious studies, sports or trekking options.

Ben-Horin said that in terms of internships, however, Israel, a leader in hi-tech among other fields, now rivals world cities such as New York, Rome and London for youth who want to work for more competitive resumes.

For those who decide to remain in the country, their internships are also an advantage. Today Ostrovsky is the director of research for the Israeli-Jewish Congress, a position he attributes to the experience and connections he forged during his Knesset internship.

“I can tell you with certain confidence that I would not be where I am today… were it not for Birthright and also Masa,” said Ostrovsky. He added, however, that for him, “One of the most important successes of Masa is a sense of creating and nurturing connections between young Jews in the Diaspora.”

Immigration as goal or byproduct?

The program was not intended to be a “gateway for aliyah,” said head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky during a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “Masa helps young Jews develop the tools they need to reaffirm their Jewish identities,” said Sharansky.

Although only about 10-12 percent of participants from North American go on to make aliyah in the first five years following their program, for those who come from France or Ukraine, between 70-90 percent remain, he said.

When the question of aliyah becomes more relevant, said Sharansky, Masa can become a way to test the waters. Especially from France and Ukraine, which have a combined 3,300 participants this year, “it is one of the most powerful tools,” said Sharansky.

Begin Center's Israel Government Fellows program participant Dr. Camille Morliere, 29, from Paris, became an Israeli citizen three months ago. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Begin Center’s Israel Government Fellows program participant Dr. Camille Morliere, 29, from Paris, became an Israeli citizen three months ago. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

An Israel Government Fellows participant from 2013-14, Dr. Camille Morliere, 29, from Paris, became an Israeli citizen three months ago.

Morliere, who was not raised with a strong Jewish background, said she did the program with the mindset of preparing for aliyah.

“I hadn’t known enough to know for sure,” she said last month at the Begin Center. She said that following the IGF program, she now has a deep understanding of society and culture, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Indeed, Begin Center head Herzl Makov told The Times of Israel that a deep look at the complexity of the conflict is imperative and that participants are ready to cope with the difficulties of the situation.

“Olim who just come on vacation can’t have that,” Morliere said. A physician by training, she interned with the Ministry of Health and is now looking for work in policy. She said she’s being helped by program head Paul Gross.

A few weeks ago, Kiev-native Michael Shekhtman, 23, curled up on The Times of Israel’s couch after his intensive Hebrew ulpan lesson, wearing a pink shirt captioned, “Dance Bitch.” He said he was also raised completely secular and only caught the Israel bug a few years ago during a free Birthright trip with his university’s Hillel house.

‘I have decided to live this life, the life my family did not live, and not want to live’

“I was so impressed by the country that after 10 days, on our way to Ben-Gurion Airport, I started crying — not because I’m going to miss this country, because I was going to miss this country where I can be normal, not exceptional. Here, for example, jokes about my Jewishness just don’t make any sense,” said Shekhtman.

It took him two years to return, but Shekhtman finished his Beitar Masa program at the end of July and concurrently gained Israeli citizenship.

“Living over here is a serious and important step,” said the muscular almost two-meter giant who experienced anti-Semitic bullying as a school boy until he decided to fight back.

His aliyah is likewise a decision to change his fate.

“I needed to be 100% sure not to waste my time and the country’s money… I have decided to live this life, the life my family did not live, and not want to live,” he said.

A year of Masa is worth 12 years of day school education

During our interview in Jerusalem, Sharansky somewhat cynically said that American Jews don’t like to hear that they could save a lot of money on 12 years of day school tuition with a one-year Masa program.

He cited a 2010 Jewish Agency-commissioned study conducted by Prof. Steven M. Cohen which found that in all the big keeping-Jews-Jewish metrics — in-marriage, Jewish leadership, working in the community — Masa participants, especially those who had previously gone on a 10-day Birthright trip, overwhelmingly topped the charts. (An anecdotal note: the majority of those Masa participants now living in Israel who spoke with The Times of Israel for this report had also gone on a Birthright trip.)

Career Israel participants discuss the issues facing the Jewish population today, on a May 11, 2013 seminar in the Ein Gedi nature preserve. (Sarah Schuman/ Flash90)
Career Israel participants discuss the issues facing the Jewish population today, on a May 11, 2013 seminar in the Ein Gedi nature preserve. (Sarah Schuman/ Flash90)

According to the study, Birthright plus Masa can lead to as high levels of Jewish engagement for young adults with little Jewish background as for those who spent 12 years in an Orthodox day school.

“If 10 days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement – and it is – then 10 months in Israel is even better. This finding points to the strong policy interest in promoting return travel to Israel among Birthright alumni, and the even stronger interest in advancing long term return travel, such as that sponsored by Masa Israel Journey,” said Cohen at the report’s release.

Sharansky said that increasingly, the children of “important Diaspora Jews” are Masa participants whose parents tell him that the program is “very good.” But when he asks these wealthy Jews for a $1 million donation for the program, their excitement doesn’t go that far, he laughed.

‘If 10 days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement – and it is – then 10 months in Israel is even better’

Masa currently operates under a $50 million a year budget, which is built from matching grants from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. At its establishment in 2004, its budget was $10 million; funding for the past five years has remained between $40-50 million.

Most of the budget goes towards scholarships and almost every participant receives a grant of at least $500. The fee is a relatively hefty $12,000, although there are scholarship programs that can cover up to 100% of the costs, depending on need and circumstance. For example, Ukrainian participant Shekhtman’s tuition and living costs are almost covered.

All told, the 10-month program comes out on average to about $17,000, said Masa CEO Ben-Horin.

Message in a bubble?

 

Hilla Singerman, 19, spent last year on a Masa gap year program and made aliyah on July 14 with her brother Yaniv, 21. Her sister Rachel, 31, already lives here and for Singerman immigration “felt very natural — it was meant to be the next step.”

The Masa program was a means to be in the Holy Land. “I really just wanted to come to Israel, even if I was going to just show up at the airport and sneak onto a plane,” she laughed after an ulpan class in late July.

Siblings Yaniv and Hilla Singerman immigrated to Israel together on July 14, 2015. (Shahar Azran courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh)
Siblings Yaniv and Hilla Singerman immigrated to Israel together on July 14, 2015. (Shahar Azran courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh)

But Singerman cautioned that her Masa program, a mixture of learning Hebrew texts at the Conservative Yeshiva and volunteering with children in Yerucham, was “a romanticized version of Israel.”

“You see the best of the best,” she said, which makes some participants get a little confused. “You get swayed into thinking that what you’re experiencing on these programs, which is exceptional above and beyond, is the real truth,” she said.

‘You get swayed into thinking that what you’re experiencing on these programs, which is exceptional above and beyond, is the real truth’

She sought time with her sister, doing mundane real life things like grocery shopping, as a “a balance when experiencing these once in a lifetime experiences.”

Like others who spoke with The Times of Israel, Singerman said that for her, meeting a diversity of young Diaspora Jews and Israelis was a highlight of the program.

Doodling while thoughtfully answering questions behind his massive desk in the Jewish Agency headquarters, Sharansky said Masa offers Jewish youth a rare opportunity to really get to know peers from other countries.

Sharansky emphasized the importance of the program for global Jewry, saying Masa may be the only year of their lives that these Diaspora youth spend outside of their countries — and they choose to spend it in Israel.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, at his office in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2014. (Flash90)
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, at his office in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2014. (Flash90)

He recalled being moved by this year’s Remembrance Day in which some 5,000 youth participated in a ceremony held in four languages. Masa CEO Ben-Horin agreed, describing the event as a visible reminder of a global Jewish people that when unified, becomes a superpower.

Sharansky, more than most, is familiar with the power of world Jewry. Born in Donetsk in the Former Soviet Union and a Prisoner of Zion from 1977-1986 during which time he was locked in a forced labor camp in Siberia, Sharansky’s release was in part due to intense Diaspora pressure on world governments.

He mused that perhaps the main achievement of Masa is the participants’ increased comfort level while in Israel in being “just Jewish.”

“Everyone feels at home,” said Sharansky. “Here they have more confidence in expressing their views. Abroad, they have to worry, thinking, ‘People won’t like me for my views.'”

“Here there is no double life, they are just Jewish,” said Sharansky.

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