By David E. Kaplan
For young adults fresh out of college, the world is an oyster. Before finding a fulltime job, taking a mortgage and joining the daily grind, thousands of college graduates choose to head to the four corners of the world to discover and explore.
"It's an extension of our education," one could say, whether standing in Trafalgar square, on the upper peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro or on the sunny deck on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
And if that college graduate is Jewish, the most obvious and enriching option is Israel. Who knows how that could change his or her life?
"Did you see the recent article in Haaretz on WUJS weddings?" asks Alon Friedman, the director of the WUJS Institute in Arad. "Yes, they had a whole piece and photos of college graduates who met their future partners at WUJS. Some are living all over the world today; others are in Israel."
Israel is fast becoming the destination of choice for young Jewish adults seeking lifechanging study, work and volunteer opportunities and even life partners.
"The best educational experiences you have are in Israel," says Gadi Cohen, a college graduate from Cape Town, South Africa who is now studying computer science on a Masa scholarship at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. With more than 300 students from all over the world, "I have met a wonderful bunch of people. Most will go back to their native counties, and some, like myself, will make Israel their home."
This year alone, thousands of graduates like Cohen will be studying at Israel's top-class universities and other educational institutions, interning for social and environmental causes, building understanding between Jews and Arabs, volunteering on ambulances and fire engines, teaching English, hiking and exploring Israel and their Jewish identity. They will be coming from North and South America, Europe, Australia, South Africa and the former Soviet Union.
"There is a program to suit everyone's needs," says Dr. Elan Ezrachi, Masa's executive director -- whether they are religious or secular, affiliated or unaffiliated.
Ultimately though, the participants themselves are those who offer the most compelling reasons to spend a year in Israel.
"My experiences have given me the confidence to accomplish things I never would have done before," says Noah Krelick of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "I'm far more independent and adventurous now. This year in Israel has really changed me. I have met people and experienced things I would never have had the opportunity to do back home."
Like Krelick, Masa participants enrolled in the Peace and Social Justice Program in Arad have come out starry-eyed.
"We recently placed one participant at the Peres Center for Peace, working alongside its high-profile director, Uri Savir, an insider on Rabin's peace negotiation team during the early nineties," says Friedman. "That was an experience this New Yorker will always cherish. So too for another young fellow we placed with a Russian ringmaster at the Jerusalem Circus, an entertainment project for Arab and Jewish kids that fosters coexistence. These are unique experiences that will only enhance their understanding of life in Israel."
Others come here to work. "Is there a better way to really understand a country?" asks Eliza Ghahooni, a 26-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles. She has visited Israel many times but wasn't sure that was enough.
"Do I really know Israel?" she asked herself. She decided the best way to find out would be working there. She quickly came across Masa in an online search, and clicked on the link to Israel Experience, a five-month program that places participants -- lawyers, educators, journalists, accountants and social workers, to name a few -- in positions related to their professions that allow them to work in their mother tongue. Knowledge of Hebrew is nor required.
Ghahooni applied and was accepted. Not only did she receive a Masa scholarship, but she was placed in the plum position of assistant law clerk at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. While she cannot divulge the issues she is addressing -- it's "all very confidential" -- she can say she is having a great time, sharing an apartment in Jerusalem with two of her peers from the program.
Her flatmate Simon Williams is a 22-yearold freelance journalist and photographer from Birmingham. When interviewed for this article, he was on his second day at the Jerusalem Post.
"They have already assigned me to cover a court case and an article on gay weddings," says Williams.
Unlike Gahooni, who came to Masa, Masa came to Williams. "I was working at a Sainsbury supermarket in Birmingham when I struck up a conversation with one the customers. Turns out he was the Jewish Agency aliya emissary to Birmingham. We got talking, and here I am."
While Israel Experience is still new, the program's Yair Tal is confident it will be expanding. "We have 22 participants who arrived in September and who started work in October. Next September I am hoping for close to 100 participants," says Tal.
For those looking for excitement and a little action, how about a tour of duty on a Magen David Adom ambulance or fire truck? The U.S.-born Dara Winston, coordinator of the Aliya Movement's Programs for English Speakers, has a few options to offer.
"The first of our four main programs offers the opportunity to work at a fire station anywhere in the country. I recently placed five Australians at the busy station in Kfar Sava, which serves the large Sharon area," she says.
"Where back in Melbourne would I ever have had the opportunity of riding a Jewish fire engine?" jokes Sasha Pahoff. "Australia is a great outdoors country, but this place takes a lot to beat for pleasant surprises."
Cobi Abeksis, the professional director of Israel Challenge, has some interesting offerings for Mexican Jews. In response to Diaspora communities' need to for proper protection against terrorism, the program offers a course in community security conducted by experts in field.
"Participants in this program," says Abeksis, "will he highly prized for their expertise when they return home."
And for those not on a diet, he has "a cooking course at the Tourist School in Tiberius, where participants will discover the culture behind Israeli cuisine and visit different restaurants and wineries. Not surprising, this course is very popular," he says. And for city slickers wishing to escape, there is a course in the Negev on how to survive in the desert.
Here to socialize
The wide range of long-term programs all offer participants opportunities to connect to Israel and its people. The socializing component is no less important.
Avi Perpinyal, a graduate from Johannesburg with a degree in business, is currently enrolled at Bar-Ilan University on a Masa scholarship. There, he is working toward an MBA in the school's English-language program.
"I can't believe how easy my integration has been. I have made friends with Israelis, Americans, Australians and South Americans; you name it," he says.
His best means of adjustment? "I have a girlfriend," he says.
So, for those Jews who have completed college, live anywhere outside Israel and know about Masa, don't be a schlimazel: At the very least ask, "Can I afford not to spend a year in Israel?"
'Where back in Melbourne would I ever have had the opportunity of riding a Jewish fire engine?' jokes Sasha Pahoff. 'Australia is a great outdoors country, but this place takes a lot to beat for pleasant surprises.'