March 28, 2007
By Anath Hartmann
Daniel Peaceman was ready to go straight to college after high school, but his mother had other plans for him.
"My mom has always been very big on me taking breaks," Peaceman said with a laugh during a recent interview in Beersheva, Israel. "Sometimes I think she was more into me going to Israel on a program than I was. I mean, I was ready to go to college; all of my friends were going. But once I got here, I realized Israel was the right decision."
Peaceman, 18, is a participant on Masa Israel Journey, a three-year-old umbrella organization that funds various academic and community service programs in Israel for students ages 18 to 30. Peaceman's program, Nativ, is a nine-month-long academic program for "gap year" students ‹ kids who have completed high school, but have chosen to defer their university studies for a year.
Nativ has two tracks: an academic one and a yeshiva track. Those who choose the former study at Hebrew University or the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva for the fall semester and then decide between community service and kibbutz work for the spring semester. Students opting for the latter choice study at the yeshiva the entire time.
For his part, Peaceman, a Chicago native who is "in love with Washington, D.C." and plans to attend George Washington University in the fall, chose the first track, taking Talmud, Israeli foreign policy and modern Jewish history classes ‹ all for transferable college credits.
Sitting on his bed in the sunny apartment he shares with several other Nativ students in a merkaz kalit, absorption center, designed to house recent immigrants to Israel, he said he had no regrets about his decision to take a year off before college.
"When I visited G.W. last year, I saw that the Hillel was not as strong as it could be," he said. "Now that I've done this program, I feel like I could be a leader there next year. I could help it be strong again."
Another Nativ participant, Reston's Rachel Lissner, also decided to take the year to study.
"I thought this was something I could only do now, before college," the Herndon High School graduate said over lunch at a barbecue restaurant in Beersheva. "I was in USY and I had friends who were applying to Nativ, and it just felt like the right thing for me to do. I really like that, on Nativ, we live among Israelis in the absorption center, that we're not doing the touristy stuff. We're using our Hebrew and living in the culture. After being on this program, I know I'm interested in working in a Jewish or pro-Israel capacity after college."
Masa, Hebrew for journey, is funded by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel in equal parts, with both parties annually giving the organization $50 million to subsidize courses in Israel. A program must be at least five months long for its participants to receive Masa funding, which goes toward need-based scholarships for the participants.
"Israel programs are considered one of the most effective tools for Jewish education, for strengthening identity, for creating relationships and firming up commitment to Jewish life," said Elan Ezrachi, Masa's executive director in Jerusalem. "Our goal is to help create a stronger generation of Jews who are committed to Israel because they've spent an extended period of time there during their formative years."
In 2006, about 7,000 young Jews came to Israel on a Masa-sponsored program, according to Ezrachi. Of those, 3,200 received scholarship assistance, but the goal is to provide every participant with a scholarship.
Among the 160 or so Masa-sponsored programs is the very new Go Galilee, a three- to five-month program created after last summer's Lebanon war to clean up and repair damage done to Israel's north. Unlike other Masa programs, Go Galilee participants receive full scholarships and pay only their airfare to and from Israel plus a fee of $150.
Silver Spring's Ben Truman, 22, said he decided a program in Israel was for him after he finished college.
"I was here when I was 17, with the Alexander Muss Institute," said the Springbrook High School graduate. "After that, I always wanted to come back to Israel. So when I graduated college, that's what I did, and I chose the Galilee because I have family here and because I wanted to do something to fix the damage from the war."
Truman, who spends his days repainting and fixing up bomb shelters, says he is now seriously considering joining the Israel Defense Forces and making aliyah.
For Sam Buchbinder, a third-year George Washington University student who is doing his year abroad at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, going to Israel was a no-brainer.
"I didn't want to just be around other American kids," said Buchbinder, 20, who received a Masa scholarship to study in Israel. "I mean, what's the point of going abroad if you're not really going to go abroad? Here, the Masa kids are integrated into Israeli dorms. It's awesome. My Hebrew is so much better now than it was when I got here."
Anath Hartmann, a freelance writer, visited Israel on a press trip sponsored by Masa Israel Journey.