Gap-year alums

Can I bring my authentic relationship with Israel to campus?

In Short

It is well documented that Jewish students who have participated in Masa gap year programs arrive at college with positive emotions, images and memories of their recent Israel journey. But, given the current climate, we can't stop there.

A first-of-its-kind Masa course shows Jewish students how

“A frightening and painful way to start the year,” was how Greg Steinberger, University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel president, described the antisemitic and anti-Israel graffiti around campus on the first day of classes. Jewish Students “were targeted for their interests, and they were singled out by an intentional and hateful act designed to cause harm.” The trend of discrimination against and hostility towards Jewish students is rising, as made evident by legal cases most recently at U. Vermont, Brooklyn College, the University of Southern California and SUNY New Paltz.

It is well-documented that Jewish students who have participated in Masa gap year programs arrive at college with positive emotions, images and memories of their recent Israel journey. But, given the current climate, we can’t stop there. How does the Israel narrative of Masa gap year alumni travel with alumni when they actually start college? The answer: Poorly. It is not only that they immediately confront a different reality: the politicization of Israel, anti-Zionist hostilities, micro-aggressions, boycotts, protests, uncomfortable class assignments and subtle and blatant forms of antisemitism. Campus culture also contradicts what they know about Israel on a personal level, shaking their attachment to Israel (whatever that may be) and often their Jewish identity, too. They don’t know what to say or what to do. 

As someone who taught Jewish studies and Israel studies courses at the University of Texas at Austin for 13 years, Amy has seen disoriented Masa gap year alums firsthand, and as someone who continues to be in touch with students once they return to campus, Sarah hears about campus difficulties too, increasingly in recent years.

Gap year alums, once on campus, often self-censor, go quiet and tuck away their Israel narratives to avoid confronting outrage or sounding stupid. Consider this typical story: At the end of her first fall semester, Tamara (not her real name) attended an alternative Liberation Thanksgiving Dinner that recognized the colonialism, oppression, and genocide of native peoples. The stories of dispossession Tamara heard around the table, including those of Palestinians and the Israeli occupation, made sense to her. Still, she had not really heard them before, or at least not in this anticolonial frame. They were coming from people with whom she was growing close, whose politics she trusted, she told me, and with whom she shared feminist and LBGTQ+ activist stances. She did not know how to respond. Tamara, normally bubbly, enthusiastic, and prone to “oversharing” feelings, shrunk back and simply listened. She felt legitimately protective of her own identities and attachments but lacked the confidence and practice making conscious choices in the moment. Tamara left the dinner, her head spinning, not entirely sure of what to think at all. 

Masa has been engaging Gap Fellows with Israel since its establishment in 2004 by The Jewish Agency and the Israeli government. And over the past few years, Masa has seriously invested in direct Israel education. The Masa Israel Education Initiative teaches about Israel and its social, political and geopolitical challenges through tours and in-person encounters that highlight multiple narratives while managing to hold the complexity and the beauty of the Jewish state.  

Until now, Masa has yet to talk openly and, more importantly, prepare students in concrete ways for campus realities. We understand that just as Masa guides and empowers fellows through the educational processes of the year and supports the health and welfare of our fellows, we must take responsibility to prepare them for the post-gap-year pivot and think about solutions. 

In that spirit, we have designed, and are launching a new course, “Next Step: Prepare for Campus.” The course provides Masa fellows with knowledge about what campus life is like for Jews and makes them aware of the internal and external resources available to them so that they can both navigate and optimize campus life. In this way, we hope they will arrive confident that they have the right to engage in on-campus activities and politics without leaving their Jewish identity or connection to Israel behind. 

The course is not hasbara-advocacy training, as critics might imagine. It does not tell you what to say. It honors and celebrates the range of emotions and points of view and uses that diversity as a starting point to explore how fellows will confront polarizing politics when they get to campus. If, for example, fellows feel they identify with parts of Critical Race Theory — a discussion piece of the course — there is space to develop that. Students who feel alienated by the same material have an opportunity to practice pushing back. 

When presented with a variety of real campus scenarios, a central question we ask the fellows, particularly in situations that appear to be out of their control, is: “What choices do you have available to you?” This course gives Masa Gap Fellows the ability to find a voice and clear choice points when they are feeling anxious, and their mouth is dry. After completing the course, they will arrive with the knowledge of what happens on campus and the agency to make conscious decisions, find allies, and express who they are clearly and what they believe in smartly. 

We have learnt that a cerebral knowledge of Israel and of campus life is necessary but insufficient. The “Prepare for Campus” curriculum is about knowing what is out there —and through dialogue, simulations and powerful questions— having the practice, mindset, emotional agility and anchoring, to survive and thrive on campuses. 

What does success look like?

That a Masa gap year journey is broadly recognized as the choice to make before college. It’s a choice that not only deepens young Jews’ connection to their Judaism and Israel but also prepares them to thrive as Jews on campus and beyond. It’s a choice that means college will not be an obstacle to their Jewish identity but an opportunity to strengthen their Jewishness and develop their relationship with Israel on their own terms and in service of the common Jewish good. 

After teaching Jewish studies and Israel studies at the University of Texas at Austin for the past 13 years, Dr. Amy Weinreb moved to Israel. Together with the Masa Leadership & Impact Center’s team, Amy is leading the development of the “Next Step: Prepare for Campus” course customized to address the needs and build the capacities of Masa Gap Year Fellows.

Sarah Mali is vice president of Masa Israel Journey and head of the Masa Leadership & Impact Center is a leadership trainer, organizational consultant and educator dedicated to advancing leadership education for young adults as a vehicle to building Jewish communal capacity. 

For more information about the course, contact: Sarahm@masaisrael.org