JERUSALEM — Israel announced the launch this week of an ambitious program to quadruple the number of Diaspora Jewish students visiting Israel on long-term education programs. The program aims by 2008 to have 20,000 young adults each year, some one-fifth of all Diaspora Jews in the target age groups, attending half-year or yearlong study and volunteering programs in Israel.
The program, known as Masa or Israel Journey, received a dramatic kickoff last Sunday at Beit Guvrin, an archaeological site outside Jerusalem, where some 2,500 Diaspora students gathered for an evening ceremony in an ancient Roman amphitheater. They were addressed by Prime Minister Sharon, Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Sallai Meridor and the newly appointed governor of Israel’s central bank, Stanley Fischer, a former Citicorp vice-chairman who is himself a graduate of a yearlong Israel study program.
“Today,” Sharon told the gathering, “we are taking a giant step toward the time when living in Israel for a period of time will be an inseparable part of the life of every Jewish youngster around the world, just as the Land of Israel is an inseparable part of our identities as Jews.”
The program is a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, each of which has pledged to invest $50 million in the program by 2008. The funding will go to market and expand some 120 existing Israel study and volunteering programs and provide scholarships to needy students between ages 18 and 30. The programs’ tuition fees will generated another $100 million.
The director-general of the Jewish Agency’s education department, Alan Hoffman, who co-chairs the Masa steering committee, said the program seeks to emulate “what the Orthodox world has done so brilliantly since 1967” — to make a yearlong stay in Israel, at a “formative juncture” in life, a staple part of growing up.
Hoffman said the yearlong experience in Israel would prove pivotal in driving down intermarriage rates and increasing Jewish literacy and commitment as well as emigration to Israel.
Programs under the Masa umbrella include overseas-students’ programs at Israeli universities, leadership courses of Zionist youth groups such as Young Judaea and Habonim Dror, plus a variety of volunteering and internship programs including Otzma and Volunteers for Israel. Masa will seek to boost participation in such programs by expanding existing frameworks and tailoring new ones to individual needs, said Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. Individuals looking to work in music, law, journalism, advertising or another specific focus “will be able to do that in Israel and take it back with them on their résumé,” he said.
The new initiative is described as a brainchild of Meridor. Its launch comes just weeks before his planned resignation after six years in the post. Meridor announced in mid-May that he was stepping down in June, a year before the end of his four-year term. He is said to be aiming for a diplomatic posting. In his place, Sharon nominated the mayor of Ra’anana, Ze’ev Bielski, a longtime leader of Israel-Diaspora dialogue forums. Bielski is expected to win the approval of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors in late June.
The Jewish Agency is a quasi-governmental social-service body funded by Diaspora donations and governed as a partnership between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish groups. Knowledgeable observers in Jerusalem speculate that Meridor’s resignation was timed to permit Sharon to install a supporter in the post and block the ambitions of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who has emerged as a sharp critic in recent months. Sharansky, who quit Sharon’s Cabinet last month to protest the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, is seen as popular among Diaspora donors.
With the agency’s budget at close to $400 million a year and significant commitments in resettling Ethiopian Jews and building new housing for transplanted Gaza settlers, some critics see the new Masa project as overly ambitious. Journalist Amiram Barkat, who covers the Jewish Agency for the daily Ha’aretz, said that with Masa the agency has embarked on a “difficult, if not impossible mission.”
Critics also note that Masa’s primary goal — increasing Jewish affiliation and identification with Israel among young Jews — is currently being addressed by a separate program, Birthright Israel. Launched in 1998 at a cost of $42 million a year, Birthright sends some 15,000 to 20,000 young adults to Israel each year on free 10-day trips. It is funded in equal parts by the Israel government, American Jewish organizations and individual donors. Some observers worry that the demands of Masa will reduce available funding for Birthright, which was nearly cut from the Israeli budget this past spring.
Several studies have found that Birthright participants show measurably higher rates of interest and involvement in Israel after their return than peers who have not visited Israel. The most recent study, a survey of American Jews conducted in January by Steven M. Cohen of The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education, found that Jews under 40 who had visited Israel scored more than twice as high as those who had not visited Israel on a composite scale of attitudes and behaviors such as donating and following news about Israel. Among Jews over 55, the gap between those who had visited Israel and those who had not was far smaller, Cohen said. The Jewish Agency’s education department funded the survey.
However, Cohen emphasized in an interview that there are important differences between those who come to Israel for a few weeks and those who come for a year. Those who come on yearlong programs have a far greater familiarity with Israel and have more friendships with similarly committed Jews. Also, they are more likely to emerge as Jewish leaders, to concentrate in Jewish studies and to settle in Israel. “There is a ladder of commitment,” Cohen said.
According to the agency’s Hoffman, Birthright and Masa “are not conflicting — they’re complementary.”
“No one is going to come to Israel for a year without having spent a summer here first,” Hoffman said. “Maybe one reason we didn’t come up with Masa until now was because it was hard to imagine before Birthright.”