Lisa Heller

WUJS Israel
I’d wanted to return to Israel since my Birthright trip eight years before. When the recession hit in 2009 and I lost my job in technology sales, I suddenly had the perfect opportunity.
Through my Birthright NEXT fellowship in Florida, I was able to travel to Israel and tell current Birthright participants about all the ways they could stay involved in Jewish life and return to Israel when their 10 days were over. I decided to take my own advice and began researching the right Masa Israel program for me. Because I’d grown up going to Young Judaea camps, I enrolled in Masa Israel’s WUJS Jerusalem Studies, a post-college program also run by the Hadassah movement.
During my six months in Jerusalem, I took courses in Hebrew, and Jewish and Israel studies, which were complemented by weekly trips throughout Israel. I also volunteered at an after-school program for disadvantaged youth in Katamon—the highlight of my experience. The kids were off-the-wall, but I soon realized that they simply wanted attention, which I happily gave them through math and English tutoring. In return, they were sweet and appreciative. When I brought them candy on my last day, they reacted with a level of excitement that I have never before seen from American children.
I realized that once Israelis know someone, they can be the warmest people, always concerned with making sure that the person feels at home. I spent one Shabbat on a moshav with my brother’s host family from his Young Judaea Year Course and I felt enormously at ease. They treated me just like a daughter.
I loved the fact that in Israel, almost everyone around me was Jewish, and that even with the commonality, we were all so diverse. I was in Israel while my religious brother and his wife were studying in yeshiva settings, and in one day, I was able to enter their world and then return to my own.
After my program ended, I stayed in Israel for another week, but my thirst for Israel still wasn’t quenched. Back in the working world, I listen to Hebrew language CDs every morning during my hour-long commute. I also hope to visit again soon. There’s just something about the country that fills me with excitement—maybe being in the center of the world, surrounded by my own people. Whatever it is, I keep wanting to return.