By Erin Kopelow
"Israel, is about to celebrate its 60th birthday," Masa Executive Director Dr. Elan Ezrachi says with an air of determination, "and the Jewish world of today is dramatically different than what it was sixty years ago."
The level of growth Israel has experienced over these past sixty years has significantly changed the face of this country. Compared to the Israel of 1948, which was a small country struggling to survive and define itself in the midst of mass immigration, war, and conflict, Israel today is a productive and thriving economic and cultural hub, one that now contains the largest single population of Jews in the world.
This demographic reality has lead many to believe a strong relationship between Diaspora and Israel crucial for the longevity of both communities. "We already know that more Jewish children are born in Israel than anywhere else in the world," Ezrachi continues. "Israel is the center of Jewish life and Jewish sovereignty and culture…and as a result has a responsibility to serve and to strengthen the Diaspora Jewish communities that are all minority groups in their respective countries."
Ezrachi stresses this relationship works both ways: Just as important as Israel is to the Jewish identity worldwide, the support and contributions of the Diaspora are also essential to the health and durability of the State of Israel. As last summer's events in Lebanon attested to, despite progress, conflict and struggle remain a constant reality within Israel.
In response to such mutual needs programs such as Birthright were born, committed to bringing Jews from around the world to Israel. "We have seen through the years that the basic idea of coming to Israel for an experience is a very powerful way to strengthen and develop Jewish identity. That is why we very much support that all young Jews around the world come to Israel for a short-term visit in order to get the first taste of the land and the culture and the people."
However, it became evident that in order to create a lasting bond between the Diaspora and Israel, a longer experience was necessary.
"If you come here as a tourist you might have a very good time, you might get a good sense of this history and religious aspect of Israel, which is really what a tourist can take out of an experience...You can’t take in everything, and you usually don’t understand most of the things, especially if there’s a language barrier. So your experience is very much reduced to something narrow...For developing a sustainable relationship you need a deeper experience."
This need prompted the creation of Masa in 2003. In the midst of the second Intifada, Ariel Sharon committed Israel to enabling every young Jewish adult from around world the opportunity to live, work and study in Israel from six months to one year. Those that come embark upon an experience which creates a relationship deeper than country of origin or language spoken.
Many Masa participants come to think of Israel as their "second home," an outlook that coincides with the Masa ideology, says Ezrachi. "We are not relating to Masa participants as foreigners. They might be citizens of other countries…but emotionally Israel relates to you as members of the tribe, of the extended family. Nothing is hidden from you. Everything is on the surface and we want you to share in everything."
As a member of this family, Masa participants came face to face with many of the challenges confronting this country. Ezrachi affirms that this is also congruent with the ideology of Masa.
"We believe Israel has a lot to offer. And even if it has issues and sources of disappointment and disillusion, the positive elements will override…In every type of relationship you have things that attract you and things you have to overcome in order to maintain this relationship. We’re not going to take you to the Beverly Hills of Israel, we want you to see the struggles here, because as a member of this Tribe, you have to play your role in making this a better place. All the walls will come down, and now you are one of us, as we say in Hebrew, LeTov v LeRa (for the good and the bad)."