Since its founding in 2004 by the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel, Masa has brought more than 160,000 young adults from 62 countries to Israel for programs that range from two months to a year. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the organization has reported spikes in applications across all their programs, with over 7,000 people already registered. “At this time of global change, we are hearing from so many young people who are interested in meaningful experiences in Israel. Masa is an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, especially as job markets continue to tighten and universities remain closed for in-person classes. We offer young adults a path to build their independence, discover their interests and bolster their resumes,” explains Masa Acting CEO Ofer Gutman.
While in Israel, Masa Fellows are invited to participate in a diverse set of offerings aimed at engaging them with the global Masa community and equipping them with learning and training opportunities for them to shape and strengthen the Jewish world. Innovative training programs at the Masa Leadership and Impact Center teach adaptive leadership and tools for personal growth.
Benjamin – Masa Israel Teaching Fellows
“My life is better because I decided to come to Israel on Masa,” says 24-year-old Benjamin Fechter, a native of South Carolina who had never visited Israel before joining the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program. “I had an extremely positive experience – in part because of the Masa program and also because of my acceptance of Israel as an integral part of my Jewish identity,” he says. Ben was raised “extremely secular” in a small town with very few Jews. He was first exposed to a Jewish community while attending Columbia University in New York City. After graduating, he moved to northern California and taught 8th grade Science. Next, he decided to travel to Israel. “I wanted to expand my horizons and explore my Jewish identity. So much of the conversation in the U.S. is based on the Israeli-Palestinian situation and I wanted to have a more on-the-ground experience. Coming to Israel was important for my personal identity and also to better understand the global context,” he explains.
During the ten-month program, participants help teach English in schools throughout Israel’s social and demographic periphery – from Yerucham in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. During the coronavirus crisis, MITF participants continued teaching online to 20,000 students across 130 different schools.
Ben spent the first five months of his program in Tel Aviv and then five more months in Nazareth. In both cities, he lived in Masa-owned apartments with other MITF participants and taught English at local elementary schools. In Tel Aviv, he was placed in a religious public school located in the south of the city, where most students are from disadvantaged communities.
“It was a really wonderful experience. The kids were extremely excited to speak with an American. I think they got a lot out of it because I didn’t speak any Hebrew and they needed to practice their English to converse with me. In every classroom lesson, I felt that I was learning as much as them,” he asserts.
In January, two months before the coronavirus struck, Ben moved to Nazareth to volunteer in an Arab elementary school. Midway through the semester, quarantine began. “During quarantine, the teacher I worked with was prepared to continue instruction. We taught groups by Zoom. I worked with four students at a time, mainly those who needed extra help with English,” he says. Since he had more time available, Ben asked Masa to connect him with a second school. He began volunteering at an elementary school in the Arab village of Kabul in the Galilee. According to Ben, Covid-19 didn’t ruin his experience in Israel; rather, the program made these challenging times more meaningful. He enjoyed teaching remotely, and when the national lockdown was eased, in May, he returned to in-person teaching for one more month.
“I loved the communities I was a part of, and I feel there’s so much personal growth to experience. I feel it’s my job as a Jew to give back and to help Israel,” he says. “I chose Masa Israel Teaching Fellows because it also allowed me to give back to the community rather than simply being a bystander.”
Ben, like many other fellows, also benefited from the continuous support of Masa which includes complementary enrichment activities such as Hebrew-language courses, guidance on travel and living logistics, navigation of safety guidelines, and more.
Jono – Masa Gap
Every year, more than 1,400 recent high-school graduates from around the world arrive in Israel for Masa's Israel Gap Year programs that range from six months to one year. During their programs, they volunteer, study a range of topics, explore Israel and Israeli society and develop their personal interests. These intensive experiences help participants become more independent and prepare for university life. During the pandemic, there has been a remarkable 25% increase in demand for Masa Gap programs.
Jono Levit, 20, recently completed a nine-month Masa Aardvark Israel gap experience. This was Jono’s first visit to Israel. He spent the first half of the program in Jerusalem and the second half in Tel Aviv. In both cities, he was placed in internships that he describes as “amazing.” In Jerusalem, he was a project manager at a solar energy company, and in Tel Aviv, he helped bring in new clients at a small start-up. Jono has nothing but praise for Aardvark Israel’s internship coordinator, who matched each participant with excellent internships in their preferred fields – whether in hospitals, agriculture, jewelry-making, events planning or high-tech.
“Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are polar opposites, but they have so many similarities,” notes Jono, explaining that he really got to learn about Israel by living in both cities. He especially enjoyed the experience of living with approximately 40 other Masa participants in Jerusalem’s centrally located Nachlaot neighborhood. “Jerusalem will always have a special place in my heart,” he says. In addition to his internships, he attended an ulpan and Jewish Studies classes for school credit. He also participated in weekly enrichment activities such as trips around the country and discussions with interesting people from all sectors of Israeli society. “These activities were really fantastic. They helped us understand the culture, the history and modern controversies,” he says.
During the coronavirus lockdown, Jono was in Tel Aviv. He shares that he feels lucky to have been able to continue his internship remotely. “I’m glad I decided to stay. There were great opportunities even during the lockdown,” he says. The program’s staff took good care of Jono and his friends while they were in quarantine and made sure they were comfortable; the staff dropped off board games, organized group activities such as cooking and arts and crafts, and celebrated holidays together on Zoom.
Since part of their gap program was spent in quarantine, Masa offered participants the option to stay in Israel for the summer. Jono decided to take up the offer. “I had a fantastic summer! I continued the internship, went on trips around Israel and enjoyed the weekly activities with the staff. Mostly, I became independent; I went to the beach a lot and did fun things with my friends.” Now that Jono is back home and getting ready to start college, he says that his goal is to “come back to Israel as soon as possible.”
India – Masa Career
More than 3,000 young adults from approximately 60 different countries come to Israel every year on a Masa internship program. They join Israeli companies in the fields of cyber, high-tech, science, communications and Fintech. These interns contribute around $212 million to Israel’s economy every year from their work alone!
India Persaud, 22, recently completed a five-month Masa internship. Her father was a career soldier in the US Army, and her family moved numerous times during her childhood, eventually settling down in Georgia. India attended the University of Georgia, where she majored in Media and Entertainment. After graduation, she pondered what to do next. She had already visited Israel twice on two short programs. “I felt I was being called back to Israel,” she recalls. In college, she was involved with Hillel, where they had spoken very highly of Masa, and so she decided to explore the opportunity.
“I saw that Masa offered internships at i24 News and I really wanted to do that,” India told us. She was accepted and arrived in Israel in late January 2020, settling into a Masa apartment in central Tel Aviv, where she met many other Masa participants from around the world. She thoroughly enjoyed the internship. “I learned so much! I loved it! The experience at i24 gave me so much confidence and enabled me to refine my abilities,” she enthuses.
Less than two months into the program, Covid-19 changed everything. India took a leave from the internship but used the lockdown to revive her YouTube channel – “India International” – where she posted videos about her experience in Israel and quarantining with people from many different cultures. “Everyone in my building got involved in the videos and quarantine turned into an adventure!”
The videos went viral and a popular Hebrew-language news website even wrote an article about her. “I want to connect a divided world and I was able to do just that by showcasing the lives of the people around me. I feel like I got a huge hug from Israel!” she says.
Masa fellows can choose to remain in Israel on a work visa for up to six months after their program ends. India decided to extend her stay, and she recently began working as i24’s official blogger. “I received so many opportunities,” she shares, “and when my flight home was cancelled, I knew I wanted to stay in Israel. This job is a confirmation that I belong here.”
India has nothing but praise for her Masa experience. “Masa was a very good stepping stone for me. The staff was amazing and the Career Israel program truly kickstarted my career. It was good to be under Masa’s wings because they helped me with everything and made the experience less intimidating,” she concludes.
Dana – Masa Volunteer
Dana Schmerzler, 27, was already on an impressive career track when she decided to Volunteer in Israel on a long-term Masa program. She was brought up as a Reform Jew whose Judaism was more cultural than religious. In 2011, she came to Israel on a Birthright trip and explains “since then I knew I wanted to spend more time in Israel.”
Dana joined Masa’s Yahel Social Change Fellowship, a nine-month program which combines hands-on volunteer work with in-depth learning and immersion in Israeli neighborhoods. She volunteered in Lod, a diverse city with a relatively lower socioeconomic status and a large Arab community. “What I liked about the program is that you are really involved in the community where you live, and you volunteer in existing projects and local organizations,” Dana explains. She taught English at an Arab elementary school biweekly, and she volunteered at Tech-Career to help Ethiopian Israelis write CVs in English and at The Abraham Initiatives, which promotes equal rights for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. The fellowship dedicates two days a week to education, with special lectures, seminars and opportunities to dive into issues related to Israeli society. When the pandemic forced everyone into quarantine, the entire Yahel cohort remained in Lod and continued contributing to the community. Dana found creative ways to expand her volunteer work, taking up several more projects. She organized educational packets for children who didn’t have access to computers to help them learn English, tutored high school students studying for their English matriculation exams via Zoom, and taught an online photography course in English that focused on coping with quarantine. Reflecting on her year in Lod, Dana shares: “I learned how important community is here, in Israel. People really care and are very welcoming. It was a special experience and I met really special people.” She plans to apply for a grant that will enable her to return to Israel for a more comprehensive photography project in Lod.
Ben, Jono, India, Dana and thousands of other Masa Fellows all agree that – pandemic or no pandemic – Masa provides a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth through an immersive experience in Israel. While the upcoming program year will require some program adjustments, Masa will make sure each participant has a meaningful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For more information about Masa Israel Journey programs, visit: www.masaisrael.org