Thousands of Diaspora Jews on Masa Programs Opt to Sit Out Coronavirus Crisis in Israel

The roughly 4,200 participants of Masa who remain in Israel are required to comply with coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by the government

Birthright participants from Uganda at at the Western Wall in Jerusalem August 27, 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

Despite severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli government due to the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of young Jewish adults participating in long-term Israel experience programs have decided to remain in the country. 

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Masa, the single largest operator of such programs, said that roughly 4,200 participants are still in the country. They represent more than half the total number actively enrolled – about 7,500 – on the eve of the outbreak. 

A joint venture of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Masa runs hundreds of educational, volunteer and internship programs in Israel each year, many of them year long. It said that 68 of its programs – about one-fifth of all such programs – have been closed in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Most of those closed, a Masa spokeswoman said, were yeshiva programs that target Orthodox participants. 

Meanwhile, two weeks ago Birthright announced that it was cancelling all its scheduled trips to Israel through May. It said they would resume in June, but only on condition that the Israeli government lifted the 14-day mandatory quarantine on all individuals entering the country. Last week, Israel announced that all non-Israelis were hitherto banned from entering the country, except under special circumstances. Birthright’s all-expense paid trips typically last 10 days. Masa programs, by contrast, are not free, but heavily subsidized.

Masa’s spokeswoman said that all participants remaining in the country are required to comply with coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by the government. Classes and other activities, she added, have been moved online when possible. The organization has seen to it, she said, that participants in programs that were shuttered were able to return to their home countries, or alternatively, that they had relatives to stay with in Israel.  

On average, about 12,000 Diaspora Jews participate in Masa programs every year.