Starting in just a couple of days, nearly 250 young Jewish adults from Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., will leave their American homes and hop on a plane to the Holy Land.
Now in its 11th season, Masa Israel Journey sends more than 10,000 Diaspora Jews to live, work and study in Israel each year. As a joint project between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Masa provides more than 200 programs that run for five months to a year. Through Masa grants, young Jewish adults can afford to live in Israel for extensive periods, while heavily subsidized programs, such as Israel Teaching Fellows, pay for participants’ round-trip airfare, accommodations and Hebrew classes and provide food stipends.
According to The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the 2014-15 Masa programs will include 117 participants from Baltimore and 128 participants from the Washington, D.C., area.
“Masa creates lifelong connections between Israel and young Jewish adults,” said Jill Max, chair of The Associated’s Israel Engagement Center. “The Associated in Baltimore funds Masa as one of our flagship programs because we see the impact it makes in our community every day. Many Baltimoreans leave on their Masa programs and return to work in the Jewish professional world. Others might make aliyah and stay permanently.”
Baltimore is sending 106 gap-year students and 11 study-abroad and post-college students this year; Washington is sending 79 gap-year students and 49 study-abroad and post-college students. As more programs start in the winter and spring months, the number of Baltimore and Washington participants most likely will increase in 2015.
David Miller, Masa Israel Journey’s North American director, characterized regional participation in the program as impressive.
“Masa Israel Journey’s partnerships with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and The Associated have grown into an amazing community of incredible young adults,” he said. “They are emerging leaders not only in their professional fields, but also in their local communities.”
Current gap-year participant Lindsey Rubin said that unsettling current events have failed to diminish her commitment to seeing Israel up close.
“I have been dreaming about going on my Israel gap-year program since I was an 8-year-old at Jewish sleep-away camp,” she said. “In terms of Operation Protective Edge, I’m not scared at all. I just can’t believe I am finally going to live in Israel for a whole year.”
Due to the lure of living in Israel, many Masa participants put everything on hold to embark on their journey. Erica Bergstein, 27, of Columbia quit her job as a clinical practice and education specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center to live in the Jewish state for 10 months.
“The ability to experience Israel through Masa will allow me to continue my self-exploration as a Jewish woman and community member,” said Bergstein, who will intern at Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “As an Israel government fellow, I will be immersed in Jewish history and culture. The experience will undeniably strengthen my bond to the State of Israel and to Judaism.”
After getting involved with Israel advocacy through her graduate school’s Jewish Student Association and The Associated, Bergstein traveled to Israel for the first time as part of the Birthright program last January. From that moment on, she wanted to find a way back. Next week, she will move into her Mount Scopus apartment in Jerusalem.
According to Max, Bergstein’s desire to live in Israel after Birthright is not unique. Many participants join Masa programs after realizing 10 days of a free tour is not enough.
“A large number of Masa participants from the Baltimore area participated on Birthright,” said Max. “They fall in love with the country and look for more long-term programs.”
With an eye on employment prospects, Gaithersburg resident Sara Rubinstein joined Masa to help construct her resume.
“Masa provided me with a whole team of career counselors and resume writers to help me create a unique resume for each job application,” said Rubinstein. “I feel like they are just as dedicated and committed to finding me a job as I am.”
Hannah Elovitz, who participated in a Masa Hillel Fellowship program, shared a similar story, noting that she landed a job as a communications associate at Hillel International within her first month of returning home.
“I happened to sit in on the Masa-Hillel Fellowship information session at the leadership summit in Israel; I hadn’t given serious thought to working for Hillel and wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit,” said Elovitz. “Jamie Schiffman (Hillel’s interim chief talent officer and director of professional development) encouraged me to apply, and I’m so happy I did. We had a lot of great professional development sessions that helped me gain a greater sense of what Hillel
According to Elovitz, six out of this year’s 14 Masa Hillel fellows began working at Hillels across the country. Within their first three months back from Israel, all of them started new Hillel jobs.
D.C. alumni board member Lauren Rosenthal became active in the local Masa community to ease her transition back from Israel.
“I joined the board and got involved with the Masa alumni. I felt like not everyone understood what I had just done,” said Rosenthal. “I wanted to find others like me and give them a network to belong to.”
Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.