Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : November 18, 2013
By Ben Ackerman, Tel Aviv University
This past week, I attended the General Assembly for Jewish Federations of North America held in Jerusalem. When the counselor from the administrative office at Tel Aviv University first asked me to go as a Masa representative, I had no idea what she was asking me to go to. I just figured that whatever it was, it’d be a fun, free six days in Jerusalem. I agreed to go with no expectations or prior knowledge of anything and had so many questions that I was almost embarrassed to ask: What’s Masa ? What’s a Federation? What goes on at the GA? Is it just a giant room filled with Jews schmoozing? I showed up at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel on Thursday and soon discovered that I was the only person not just from my program, but from my university. I quickly learned the basics about Federations, how they traditionally have supported Jewish groups and organizations mostly just by funding them, and how their goal moving forward is to engage more young North American Jews in Jewish life. I found out that the GA is not just a place for Jews to mingle with old friends, but to engage in discussions about Jewish life, both in the Diaspora and Israel, and the issues we all face. I now know that Masa doesn’t just write checks, but is an umbrella organization with over 200 programs that is sending over 11,000 people to Israel this year alone.
I was one of 50 “Masanikim” in the Masa delegation at the GA. Everyone in the delegation came from very different programs, and in the few days before the GA that we met, it became clear how diverse this group really was. We all came from a variety of states (and countries), Jewish backgrounds, religious beliefs and priorities, and had different expectations and visions for the future of Judaism. Everyone had such poignant things to say, adding depth and dimension to every discussion and Q&A we had. I was so proud to see that this was the group of young Jews representing our generation’s voice at the GA.
I learned a great deal from the panels and talks I attended. I was riled up and motivated by learning how Israel is the only democracy that imposes marriage restriction laws on its citizens, and what impact that has on not just Israeli Jews but on the majority of Jews of the Diaspora. I was inspired by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to ask the question “why” more, and by a panel of speakers on the integration Jews and Palestinians in schools who made it seem like coexistence and peace is possible. But it really was my peers from the Masa delegation that impacted me the most and gave me the most to think about. I don’t think I can find enough words to describe how greatly this group inspired me. Hearing everyone speak and offer such honest, personal perspectives made me look at myself and my own Jewish identity and wonder “what am I doing here?” In whatever little free time I had, I dug into my own Jewish journey, uncovered some hidden feelings and was able to fall back in love with being Jewish. I’m grateful for the experiences I had at the General Assembly with my Masa peers; if they are the voices of our generation, then I am very hopeful for the future of the Jewish people.
Published : November 18, 2013
By Deryn Harbin, WUJS Israel Intern Tel Aviv
The Jewish spirit lives in human beings of many shapes and sizes across almost every continent. The very definition of what it means to be Jewish is pluralistic in nature. It is said that if you leave two Jews in a room to argue, there will be three different opinions. The reason the Jewish race has survived through so many centuries, through exile and extermination, diaspora and varying dialects, is because we are taught to question everything. Even though our foundations are quite literally set into stone, being Jewish means something different to everyone. There is not just one Jewish identity, there are many. From secular Israelis, to cultural Jewish-Americans, to the ultra-orthodox Haredi community in Europe, to many Russians who have only just learned of their Jewish heritage, we are all bound by blood and by a singular unique aspect, which separates us from the rest of the world. We're Jewish, and whatever that means to us, it cannot be taken away.
A particularly beautiful synagogue in Jerusalem
The hills of Jerusalem
The Kotel, otherwise known as the Wailing Wall. There is no place I feel closer to God and the Jewish people than here.
In September, I arrived in Israel to participate on a program called WUJS, an internship designed to help young Jews from all over the world come together in participate in meaningful programs meant to bind together our religious and cultural identity. It's because of them that I intern at the David Intercontinental Hotel and live in a beautiful apartment in Florentin, Tel Aviv. WUJS operates under an organization called Masa, which provides funding to help with the cost of these programs. Through Masa, you can do almost anything you can think of in Israel. You can teach, study at a Yeshiva, intern, paint, play sports, learn Krav Maga, I'm sure you could even do Jewish underwater basket weaving if you asked. This past week I was asked to attend the General Assembly in Jerusalem as a delegate of Masa, one of 50, representing all of the different Masa programs in Israel. The General Assembly brought together the Jewish Federations of North America to tackle some of the biggest challenges the Jewish world faces today, including nuclear weapons in Iran, the declining involvement of the Jewish youth, and the problems of the Jewish diaspora.
Though I almost didn't attend this delegation, (I was chosen at the last minute) I could not be more thankful that I did. It was here that I was able to meet some of the brightest young leaders of the Jewish world currently in Israel. I met Russians, Ukrainians, a French girl, a Polish girl, a guy from Venezuela, a guy from Argentina, a guy born in Israel but raised in America, a girl who was raised conservative in Philadelphia but now identifies as Orthodox. We had a very interesting conversation, in fact, about dating via a matchmaker without touching. Yes that's right, young people in the Orthodox community will date for a year or more before marriage, all without ever touching each other until the day of their wedding. Not even a handshake.
I was also insanely excited to see my birthright leader, Irad, who was huge influence on me in my decision to come back to Israel. His passion for Jewish history is unlike anyone else I've ever met. Naturally, he was with a new birthright group. And I have to say, it was a bit strange to stay in the same hotel as I did on birthright a year ago and do the same icebreaker type activities. But by the end of the 6 days, my experience had really come full circle and helped me to reaffirm why exactly I was back here in Israel to begin with.
Love this guy!
And it was through this opportunity that I was able to hear speakers such as the Prime Minister of Israel, the President of Israel, the Mayor of Jerusalem, the heads of both the Jewish Federations of NYC and LA, among many others. 
The Prime Minister of Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu
One of our delegates spoke on a panel with young Jewish leaders!
This week really challenged me to think about Jewish issues I had been blind to before. Perhaps blind is the wrong word…ignorant seems more suitable. I was forced to consider my own Jewish identity and what it truly means to me. Perhaps being Jewish isn't just about eating latkas on Hanukkah and singing along in Yiddish with the family on Passover. What if there's more to it than that?
Now I know there is definitely more to it than that and there is a fire lit within me that cannot be smoldered without a fight. You better believe that if I didn't feel Jewish before, I certainly do now.
I really want to say a special thank you to Laura, my British flatmate here in Tel Aviv, for being the loveliest friend a girl could ask for. She was my WUJS counterpart and captured the hearts of all the young Jewish men on our delegation. She's going to make an excellent lawyer back in London!!
A special thanks to Ricky, my coordinator from WUJS for choosing me for this amazing experience. And also, to Yonatan, our fearless leader at the GA. Without him, it's unlikely that my 6 magical days in Jerusalem would have been so fantastic.
I don't think there's a Jew in the whole world who doesn't love Yonatan


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