The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel took an important step forward this week with the launch of Masa, or Israel Journey, the new, multimillion-dollar effort to promote long-term study and volunteering in Israel by young adults. Experience shows there’s nothing better than a semester or two in Israel to strengthen human and emotional bonds among Jews around the world and cement ties between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state.
Some 5,600 young adults are currently in Israel on long-term programs, ranging from kibbutz volunteering and university study to yeshivas, civilian volunteer posts at army bases, and internships in human rights and socials-service programs working with immigrants, the poor and even Palestinians. Every graduate of such programs returns home profoundly changed. Doubling or quadrupling their numbers, as Masa aims to do, could transform Jewish community life around the world.
It’s important that the Masa project develop its own funding streams so that it doesn’t wind up coming at the expense of Birthright Israel, another multimillion-dollar project that has brought tens of thousands of young people to Israel for free 10-day visits over the past seven years. For all the criticisms directed against it — the shallowness of the 10-day experience, the subsiding of affluent families — Birthright has been an undeniable success. Thousands of Jewish youngsters have undergone a transformation in their relationship to their own Jewishness, and their personal odysseys are already changing their communities. Masa will complement that process, but it can’t replace it.
It’s important, too, to take note of the huge range of programs that will be available under the Masa umbrella. The diversity of study and volunteer experiences available to visitors in Israel is a testament to the continued openness and diversity of Jewish life, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
It’s a credit, too, to the success of Jewish Agency in keeping itself above the political fray and maintaining its core mission, building ties between Jewish communities and Israel. Despite continual pressure to hew to a particular line, the agency has managed through successive administrations, both Likud and Labor, to maintain its openness and continue to foster a diversity of views. Agency leaders should bear that in mind as they convene this month to choose a new leader to replace outgoing chairman Sallai Meridor. A worldwide institution charged with building human connection has no room for ideologues, zealots or scolds in the driver’s seat.