The organizers of Masa’s Tikkun Olam program certainly don’t sugarcoat the Israel experience. That was fine with participant Elliot Glassenberg, who says he struggled for years with his relationship with Israel.
“I knew that if I came here, I would need to find a community that I was comfortable with,” he says. “To be part of a solution and not a problem. I wouldn’t have been able to come on a program that had not let me embrace being critical of Israel.”
The program – one of over 200 that Masa Israel Journey offers – gives participants between the ages of 18 and 30 an opportunity to have a long-term, immersive experience in the country, living in the communities where they volunteer, with a consistent emphasis on gaining familiarity with the Jewish state – flaws and all.
Part of that is giving the participants an experience beyond that of Taglit-Birthright, in which approximately 80 percent of Tikkun Olam participants take part prior to their time at Masa.
“For many of our participants, Birthright serves as their first and only Israel experience [so far],” says Moshe Samuels, Tikkun Olam’s director. However, time constraints do not allow Birthright participants to spend time looking at the inherent intricacies of life here.
“This makes our program their first hands-on Israel experience, for which I give them a lot of credit,” says Samuels. “It’s not simple to have your first real Israel experience be through a program like ours.”
That observation is well-founded. The communities where the participants volunteer include mixed neighborhoods of Jews and Arabs, refugees, new immigrants and asylum-seekers, as well as lower socioeconomic areas. This allows the participants to live and work with individuals they would be unlikely to meet on a typical trip to Israel.
As Samuels puts it, “the people you volunteer with are the same people playing basketball outside your house.”
Tikkun Olam opened its doors in 2006, with locations in south Tel Aviv and Jaffa. It is a joint project of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, and the Union for Reform Judaism, with attendees from 11 countries.
The program is split into three tracks: coexistence, social action and an internship track. Next year, for the first time, Tikkun Olam will be partnering with the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offering students in the nonprofit management and leadership master’s program field placements in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
Among the NGOs with which the program offers volunteer and internship placements are the Peres Center for Peace, the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, the African Refugees and Developmental Center, and Mesila.
Every week, participants in each track spend three days volunteering and two days studying. Studies focus on Jewish and Israeli culture, as well as taking an in-depth look at local current events. For the first three weeks, the program involves five hours a day of intensive Hebrew study, offering three or four levels of Hebrew based on need. Ulpan is a staple of the program and continues throughout the year, since language is viewed as essential to a successful integrative experience.
In addition, the program offers periodic weekend and day trips, which give participants an opportunity both to see the land and to interact with demographic groups they might not otherwise encounter.
“Many programs tend to shy away from some of Israel’s more complex issues,” says Samuels. “These are topics that Tikkun Olam specifically focuses on, for we feel that such discussion is necessary to achieve true identification with what is going on here.
That is what we try to show our participants – not the postcard, not a dream, but the reality. Then we tell them, ‘If you’re not happy with the reality you see, you can change it.’” This change had particular meaning for Glassenberg, who participated in the program in 2011-12. Having graduated with a BA from McGill University and an MA in Jewish education and literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he had a steady job in New York by the spring of 2011, but was unsure of where his life was heading. He decided to take a break both professionally and personally, and spend a year in Israel to do some significant volunteer work.
As an educator, he felt that he had “talked the talk, but not walked the walk” with regard to Jewish-Arab coexistence. So he picked the coexistence track in Jaffa and set himself a full schedule. He volunteered with four organizations, including two schools with Arab and Jewish student populations, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center in Tel Aviv, and Bikurim, an organization that supports independent, multicultural literature in Israel.
His year, he says, was “very full, but very fulfilling.”