(February 28, 2020 / JNS) The relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews is nothing less than crucial to the future of the Jewish people. We are bonded as a family that shares an ancestry, even if we no longer share everyday traditions. Building and maintaining the bond across an increasingly diverse global Jewry require equally diverse avenues to create authentic connections. These types of deeply personal relationships are not created overnight or through one brief visit; it is a journey that happens through meaningful, ongoing engagement.
As chair of Masa North America, and having made aliyah myself almost 30 years ago, I have personally seen how engagement and personal connection make palpable impacts and create lasting change. Before moving to Israel, I myself participated in three different long-term immersive programs: a gap year after high school in Sha’alvim Yeshiva, a semester abroad at Hebrew University and a post-grad year of service with Russian immigrants. It’s clear to me that each of these experiences strengthened my bond to Israel and built the case for my ultimate decision to make aliyah. These experiences provided me with the opportunity to see Israel for myself and develop meaningful relationships with the country and its people.
I have also a witnessed the impact of cross-cultural exchanges professionally. For the last decade, I have run a company that trains haredi women to provide high-level professional work to U.S. businesses. For many years, the reservoir of talent in this specific micro-community remained untapped. Now, we are not only creating jobs and business opportunities; we are introducing the communities to each other and expanding worldviews. This mutually beneficial relationship is transformative, with the value created by the cross-cultural exposure being equally as meaningful as the commercial opportunity offered through the quality service being provided.
Similarly, by living in an Israeli community for a period of two to 12 months, Masa fellows become personally invested in the people, products and ideas they interact with during their experience. This is especially true of the post-college participants. Upon graduation, they need to find jobs, build their networks and emerge from their experience with impressive line items on their résumé.
To ensure that every individual can form an authentic connection with Israel, Masa offers diverse opportunities. Based on their skills, passions or professional aspirations, fellows can study abroad, take a gap year, volunteer, intern or work in an Israeli institution, business, nonprofit or community group. The wide range of experiences aligns with the vastly different interests and priorities of the modern Jewish Diaspora.
Masa Fellows have taken entry-level positions in the Israeli high-tech industry at startups and established companies working in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and market research. Graduate students have earned master’s degrees in behavioral economics, documentary film and prehistoric archaeology. College students have taken courses in pre-med programs, art and art history, as well as psychology. They have interned in hospitals, museums and government offices. And those who want to take a break from academics and simply gain some life experience have volunteered with nonprofits up and down Israel’s coasts.
That’s right: Masa’s range of offerings is nearly as diverse as the Jewish people.
Through such experiences, fellows gain skills, a professional network and life-long friends while also gaining a deeper understanding of their Jewish identity and relationship with Israel. While Masa fellows clearly gain a lot from their time spent in Israel, we have seen time and time again how much they also are able to give to the Israeli communities where they are embedded. Their time, energy, ideas and fresh perspectives greatly benefit a broad range of Israeli micro-communities.
This could be an ultra-Orthodox community, an Arab town, an Ethiopian-immigrant absorption center, agricultural farms in the north or the startup scene in Tel Aviv. In these towns, cities and kibbutzim, fellows most often become “family”—sharing meals, celebrating Shabbat and organically building friendships and relationships with their Israeli counterparts. These personal exchanges are where fellows begin to understand the fabric of Israeli society and become truly connected to it. And, in turn, Israelis begin to understand the perspective of their global Jewish family.
To continue building strong connections between Diaspora Jews and Israel, this work of Masa is critical; it creates and offers authentic experiences. We know that young Jews who experience Israel in these intimate connections return to their hometowns, colleges, places of worship and secular environments with personal and informed outlooks on Israel. They become leaders and ambassadors, and a vital thread in the global fabric of Israel and Diaspora relations. We have learned that in order to continue to have success, we must keep it personal.
Eli Kazhdan is the chair of Masa Israel Journey North America.
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