Wishing Us A New Year of Activism

Masa Israel JourneyJewish organizations and philanthropists invest millions of dollars in sending young Jewish adults to Israel … knowing these young adults are the future of the Jewish community, and that these trips engender a stronger sense of Jewish identity.

Yet our alumni often speak to us about the frustration they feel as they try to get involved upon their return.

by Avi Rubel

When 28 year-old Dina Silberstein got back from five months in Israel, she faced a turbulent period of transition. She began work as a real estate consultant but didn’t know how she could take her life-changing experience on Masa Israel’s WUJS Internship program in Tel Aviv and make it fit into her life in the United States. How could she translate her passion for Israel into practical action in the community now that she was back? She knew one thing for certain. She wanted to get involved.

“I got so much out of my experience in Israel and wanted to give back,” the native New Yorker recalls. “At the same time, I felt really out of place when I got home. I finally felt comfortable when I met other Masa alumni. I didn’t want anyone else coming home to feel how I felt; I wanted them to know they had a home base.”

Dina decided to channel her energy into creating a community for other long-term Israel program alumni, and helped to develop the flagship Masa Israel Alumni Board in the tri-state area.

In August, Dina and 70 other promising Masa Israel alumni came together for the first-ever Masa Israel National Alumni Retreat held at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. The goal of the weekend was to promote the development of Masa Israel Alumni Associations in cities across North America, as well as to help alumni cultivate their passion for Israel engagement and active participation in their local Jewish communities.

Our alumni are excited to step up their involvement and bring their experiences home to share with other young Jews. 417 Masa participants who recently finished post-college and study-abroad programs completed our annual exit survey this August. 69% of respondents expressed that they would be interested in volunteering with a Jewish organization in the future and 72% want to participate in local Jewish or Israeli events. More than 50% of these Masa participants are Birthright alumni. They are looking to get involved in all facets of the Jewish world; roughly half of the new alumni said they are interested in opportunities in tikkun olam, Israel advocacy, and serving as “Israel Ambassadors.”

There are countless Jewish organizations looking to bring these blossoming leaders into the fold. Jewish organizations and philanthropists invest millions of dollars in sending young Jewish adults to Israel to drum up the kind of enthusiasm revealed in the survey result above, knowing these young adults are the future of the Jewish community, and that these trips engender a stronger sense of Jewish identity.

Yet our alumni often speak to us about the frustration they feel as they try to get involved upon their return. When our alumni come home, many organizations are only willing to engage them on the organization’s terms. Our alumni’s capabilities are often greatly underestimated by Jewish groups, and are rarely acknowledged for the intense, immersive time they spent in Israel, studying, interning and volunteering while living like locals. In fact, Masa Israel alumni are the single best resource for the next generation of leaders in Israel engagement within their local Jewish communities.

The importance of alumni associations

As Jon Marker noted in his recent article on eJP, alumni associations are crucial for fostering leadership and sustained engagement in participants’ local communities. The need to engage Jewish twenty-somethings on their own terms prompted us to help our returnees develop peer-led, regional Masa Alumni Associations. Previous Masa Israel alumni are uniquely able to help recent alumni process their experience and channel it into involvement in their communities.

An example we drew on when establishing our fledgling peer-led Alumni Boards was the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program Alumni Association (JETAA). JETAA is led by former program participants who volunteer their time to provide support for returning participants by offering assistance in securing employment, reintegration into their home community, cultural and social programming, and more. JETAA has 53,000 alumni with nearly 23,000 alumni registered as members of 52 regional alumni chapters located.

We are seeing Israel program alumni take on the responsibility of welcoming back their peers and growing our network, and keeping their passion alive by providing relevant programming. The Alumni Boards are structured around integrating our returnees into the wider Jewish community and promoting sustained interest in Israel. The depth of Masa alumni’s experiences uniquely position them to speak genuinely, authoritatively and eloquently about Israel.

“Masa alumni are unique advocates for Israel” explains Joanna Lieberman, a Masa alumna who now works for the American Jewish Committee. “We don’t approach it from a defensive standpoint, as is common in the traditional hasbara-style of Israel advocacy. We can talk about the amazing things our stay in the country afforded us, but we are also able to remove the rose-colored glasses and talk about societal issues.”

Creating the right community model

When the New York Masa Alumni Association was in its early stages, I arranged for Dina to meet with the UJA-Federation of New York to discuss how Masa Israel alumni could get involved, even if they weren’t ready to commit financially. I was skeptical – large community organizations have been known to mishandle their relationships with twenty-somethings.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ezra Shanken, the head of UJA-Federation’s Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists division, welcome the Masa Israel alumni group into the fold as a separate “interest cluster,” and work with Dina on innovative ideas to develop and train the board members. He invited Dina, as the board chair, to sit on the committee of board chairs within the Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists division and welcomed her as a new young leader in Federation. Similar models are now developing in Washington DC, Miami, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles.

More Jewish Federations ought to step up to the plate and serve as the home base for Masa Israel program returnees to welcome returnees back and provide them an outlet for their drive to remain connected to Israel and the Jewish community. At the same time, they will be cultivating the next generation of local leadership by training the younger board members.

Paving the way

According to a study by The AVI CHAI Foundation, more than half of the leaders of the Jewish community have spent a period of at least five months in Israel. In a sense, that makes them Masa alumni too.

These leaders understand first-hand the difficulties young alumni face when coming home and moving into the next stage of their lives. That is why we hope Jewish professionals will reach out to us at Masa Israel Journey about mentoring our alumni or creating frameworks to welcome Israel program alumni as young leaders. We need local professionals and lay leaders to meet us half way to show recent returnees that there is a place for them within local Jewish organizations.

Inspired by their profound experiences in Israel, Masa alumni are ready and able to get involved and make a difference in their Jewish communities. We invested in them to bring them this far. Now that they are home, let’s empower them, and the Jewish community will see dividends for decades to come.

Avi Rubel is Director, Masa Israel North America.

photo courtesy Masa Israel