March 27, 2007
BY: DOUGLAS J. GUTH, Senior Staff Reporter
Rachel Anthone, like many young Jews before her, visited Israel recently on a birthright israel trip.
Max Wertheim, 19, with friends from his Young Judea program. The Cleveland Heights native hopes to one day make aliyah and join the Israeli Defense Forces.
What she didn't know was that her 10-day journey would turn into a 10-month mission.
Anthone, 25, is a member of OTZMA, one of 160 programs under the auspices of MASA, an ambitious project bringing college-age Jews from around the world to semester and year-long volunteer/study programs in Israel.
The Cleveland Heights native, whose dark complexion and wavy hair occasionally gets her taken for Israeli, is passionate about her adoptive home. Upon returning stateside, she plans to get a master's degree in Jewish community service, and she talks at length about Israel advocacy and fighting what she calls the “Jimmy Carter farce.”
Advocating for Israel “is something I think about every day,” adds Anthone, a former events planner for the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. The Israeli government is looking for more people like Anthone to boost the Jewish state. The catalyst for this initiative is MASA (Hebrew for “journey”).
Earlier this month, MASA invited and paid for 22 Jewish journalists, this reporter included, to tour Israel and learn about its programs.
MASA was founded in 2004 by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Israeli government. The project brought about 7,800 participants ages 18 to 30 to Israel in 2006. Programs range from the study of classical Jewish texts, to volunteering in Magen David Adom ambulances, to training seminars for secular Zionist youth movements.
These programs are run independently of MASA, notes executive director Dr. Elan Ezrachi. The MASA framework is designed to harness these existing programs and connect them with young Jewish volunteers.
Long-term study in Israel was traditionally the domain of Zionist youth groups and Orthodox yeshiva students. Programs under the MASA umbrella carry both secular and Orthodox leanings. All MASA programs have an emphasis on teaching Hebrew and strengthening Jewish identity and Zionism.
“This is about closing the gap” between Israel and the Diaspora, JAFI chairman Ze'ev Bielski said in a meeting with reporters from Jewish media at the organization's offices in Jerusalem.
Immersing Jews in Israeli life for extended periods, Bielski believes, will go a long way toward developing future Jewish leaders and philanthropists.
MASA officials hope to bring 20,000 young people to Israel by 2008. The government and JAFI are providing equal parts of the project's budget this year and are committed to spending $50 million apiece in the long-term.
Beachwood native Debra Cutler, 25, is spending the year studying Talmud at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. While learning full time, Cutler is also playing violin in the Hebrew University Orchestra and traveling around Israel with her husband Adam, who is studying to be a rabbi.
Cutler, who is brightly dressed as a Jackson Pollock painting (complete with frame) following a Purim megillah reading in Jerusalem, views her year in Israel as one of “life enrichment.”
When choosing a program, Cutler found herself attracted to the pluralistic learning environment offered at Pardes. And with her husband attending rabbinical school, “the timing was perfect to come this year,” she says.
According to promotional materials, part of MASA's mission is for participants to “discover the possibilities of making one's future life in Israel.” Cutler plans to attend graduate school wherever her husband finds a rabbinical position; while there's a “Zionistic feeling” to MASA, Cutler doesn't feel coerced by the program to make aliyah.
Aliyah cannot be pushed aggressively, stresses MASA director Ezrachi. The project straddles a middle ground between “tourism and an aggressive stance on aliyah.” MASA's young participants must be allowed to “figure it out for themselves.”
Max Wertheim, 19, certainly seems to have “figured it out.”
The Cleveland Heights High School graduate came to Israel instead of going to college. Wertheim maintained a 3.0 GPA in high school, but grew restless, he says, with the streamlined structure of traditional education. He is now a member of Young Judea's year course, a Zionist youth program affiliated with Hadassah.
The year is comprised of three-month stints studying at Hebrew University, volunteering or doing community service, and working on a kibbutz. Wertheim currently lives with five other participants in an apartment in Rishon Letzion, just south of Tel Aviv.
Wertheim plans to make aliyah as part of Tzofim Garin Tzabar. The group is made up of Americans who train together on a kibbutz with hopes of one day joining the Israeli army.
Army training would be a true immersion into Israeli culture, explains Wertheim. “I don't want to sit behind a desk.”
Linking young people from the Diaspora to Israel does not come cheaply. Average tuition for a year-long program is $13,500, and some programs cost upwards of $20,000. While need-based grants have been available since MASA's inception three years ago, the program's funding will change next year, officials note.
Instead of giving up to $10,000 per participant, MASA will provide $2,000 to every American undergraduate student and $4,500 to every American graduate student. Need-based scholarships for participants from the former Soviet Union and other areas will be retained. An additional $2.5 million in need-based scholarships will be made available to Americans. Grant assistance over the next year will add up to over $36 million.
Even with financial assistance, MASA may still be cost-prohibitive for some families, admits spokesman Romm Gurel. Prospective participants are encouraged to find funding on their own.
Rachel Anthone, the OTZMA participant, remained in Israel almost free of cost after petitioning Federation and several other local agencies. She also received a donation from a family in Buffalo.
“Our philosophy is that this (program) is an investment,” says Gurel. MASA hopes the payoff is a generation of active Jews holding a deep, meaningful connection to Israel.
With JTA reports