(August 2, 2019 / JNS) “To be a Jew is to be on a journey,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his commentary on the upcoming weekly Parsha (Torah portion) of Masei, which recounts the Jews’ 42 journeys in the Sinai Desert from Egypt to Jericho on their way to the Promised Land.
Indeed, staying put is not a particularly Jewish value—historically, physically or spiritually.
As Sacks explains, the Jewish story “began when Abraham first heard the words ‘Lech Lecha,’ with the call to leave where he was and travel ‘to the land I will show you.’ ” The journey continued in the desert under the leadership of Moses, within the framework of the pattern outlined in Parshat Masei.
“ ‘They set out from X and camped at Y. They set out from Y and camped at Z’—42 stages in a journey of 40 years. We are the people who travel. We are the people who do not stand still,” Sacks writes.
Later, with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people took on the dispersed character they are now known for—not in the derogatory sense of the “wandering Jew” stereotype, but more from the vantage point that despite the scattered distribution of a global Jewish population whose size pales in comparison to its Christian and Muslim counterparts, Jews keep surviving amid their eternal travels.
Of course, it is not just “travel.” Jews are often on the move due to persecution. When the Holocaust decimated Eastern European Jewry, those who survived resettled around the world. The same is true for the Jews who were expelled from Arab lands.
On a parallel track, the journey is what defines the life story of every single Jew. Just as Jacob wrestled with an angel, Judaism gives us the license to ask the difficult questions and grapple with issues of faith. Perhaps nothing is more Jewish than introspection. In addition to the “People of the Book,” Jews could also be known as the “People of the Journey”—from the collective to the individual.
And at each turn of these journeys, the Jewish GPS leads us back to Israel. This has especially been true since 1948, when the establishment of the modern State of Israel gave Jews across the globe opportunities to connect with their ancestral homeland in ways that had not been possible for 2,000 years.
For many Diaspora Jews, the era of modern Israel simply means that it has been easier to visit the Jewish state for a vacation. For others, it has inspired the far more permanent step of aliyah (immigration to Israel).
Yet there is also a crucial middle ground in the realm of Jewish journeys to Israel: an immersive experience for a meaningful amount of time.
For more than 130,000 young adults from more than 60 countries since 2004, that amount of time has been two to 12 months—specifically, with one of the programs of Masa Israel Journey. As the global leader in long-term experiences in Israel for Jews ages 18 to 30 worldwide, Masa offers a wide array of study abroad, internship, service learning and Jewish-studies programs.
Masa’s journeys are driven by the belief that a deep connection to Israel can be an extraordinary resource for injecting meaning into professional and personal lives. Participants connect with the country by “living like a local,” experiencing an authentic, unmediated and challenging journey into Israeli society and its people, culture, politics, economy, land and history.
Simultaneously, Masa participants of all backgrounds and interests can advance their lives and careers in unique ways that resonate with them. This largely results from Masa’s partnerships, which run the gamut from government, to nonprofits, to the high-tech and startup world, to American foundations of Israeli universities, to campus-based organizations, to groups that promote civic and career engagement. Just a few examples include Masa FastTrack Pro, a pipeline for elite young professionals to be placed in Israel’s booming job market, and the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, a 10-month program in which participants teach English while becoming integral members of the city where they live, teach and volunteer.
Masa understands that the Jewish journey—with Israel at its center—is not necessarily linear. Finishing college does not always need to mean enrolling in graduate school or entering the job market as the reflexive next step. There remains time and space for exploration and experimentation, and from a Jewish perspective, there is no better personal laboratory than Israel.
When we read Parshat Masei this weekend, let’s embrace the spirit of our individual and collective journeys. Because nothing is more Jewish than the journey.
Liran Avisar Ben-Horin is the CEO of Masa Israel Journey.