By Meara Razon Ashtivker
Summer and Fall are approaching, and with them, the onset of the period historically characterized by the most significant influx of young Americans to Israel. The majority of programs abroad have been in limbo or canceled altogether. Yet, Masa Israel Journey – founded in 2004 by the Jewish Agency and Israeli Prime Minister’s Office – has continued its operations, serving over 3,000 participants who chose to stay in Israel during lockdown. We’ve done what Israel is best at: innovating. We are adapting to our new reality so that young Jews can continue accessing opportunities in Israel.
This is not the first time we have weathered a global crisis. In 2008, the global economy tanked; businesses and nonprofits were hit hard, and millions of jobs were lost. Despite an uncertain future, Masa Israel witnessed an influx of young Jewish applicants for gap years, internships, study abroad, and volunteer programs. Israel offered a sandbox to explore identity, passions, and skills. Young Jews came to Israel to build their resumes, strengthen their leadership, and find clarity in an unclear time. We were the bridge to opportunities that would help them navigate a post-recession world.
The 2008 financial crisis prompted us to reorient how we engage young Jews. We realized that economic upheavals affect young people who are seeking opportunities to grow and succeed in a challenging market. We met the market’s demand by adapting our products, including the development of the one-year year MA program and professionalizing our internship programs. The numbers of applicants and participants were higher than ever for our post college programs. The community had needs; we answered those needs with our programs.
In contrast, today’s global health crisis presents additional challenges – health and safety, in particular. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the health and safety of Masa Israel Fellows has been our main priority. At Masa, we quickly adopted all regulations and precautions and adjusted our programs to meet physical distancing guidelines. With travel restricted and limits placed on social congregation, these were not the exact experiences that fellows signed up for. Nonetheless, as borders were closing, most fellows made a choice to stay in Israel.
Continuing our programming through the pandemic has brought to light several lessons. First, there is an obvious and stark difference between short and long term experiences in Israel: time. Even with a necessary quarantine period, there was substantive value in continuing our programs because there was sufficient time for our Fellows to gain professional skills and experience leadership. Second, long-term program participants are committed for the long haul. The decision to participate in a program of this scale is never made lightly and for most, justifies the two-week quarantine requirement. Finally, Israel’s geographically small size is advantageous for quick adaptation. Programs and activities are able to be nimble, turning remote or online and then back more easily.
As the world continues to adapt, so do our program organizers. We continue to learn in real-time what works and what needs improvement. Where possible, programming transitioned to online. Our Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, for instance, teach through virtual tools. Our professional internships now offer flexibility between in-person and remote work. We took our Global Leadership Summit online and adjusted our curriculum to address leadership and adaptive challenges around COVID-19 – giving participants the necessary tools and support to problem solve in times of challenge.
Fellows have also adapted to meet the needs of Israel, opting to participate in volunteer projects that support their host communities. Fellows in our gap year programs volunteer in different fields around Israel, helping farmers tend to crops and augment Israel’s food supply during this time of need. Other Fellows volunteered at phone banks throughout the country to check-in with and support the elderly.
It’s become clear that Israeli institutions also have the capacity to accommodate more students when courses are offered in a combination of on and offline learning. College experiences will not look the same, and a new field is therefore emerging. University students studying may have the opportunity to come to Israel for internships while they complete virtual coursework. This is particularly important as the gaps in Israel’s talent pool remains. There is still a need for physicians, engineers, English teachers and more.
We are ready to support Fellows as we live with the pandemic and move past the crisis. We are mobilizing our professionals and alumni to effectively pool their talents and resources to give back to our communities who lack staff and support. We know that on the “day after,” our young Jewry will embrace opportunity more than ever before and it is incumbent on us to create those opportunities now.
There are still unknowns as we tread forward, but we are sure that we will open our next year of programming with enthusiastic participants. We are working with partners, organizers, and communities to better understand their needs, so we can meet them together.
We often ask why young Jews are not engaged and what can we do to bring them into the fold. This is the turning moment. We must be ready to provide them a point of connection as the doors begin to safely open.
Meara Razon Ashtivker is the NA COO of Masa Israel Journey.