When people find out that I grew up in Brooklyn, they’re often surprised to hear that I didn’t have too much to do with the local Jewish community. That changed after I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with Birthright, and led to a strengthened relationship with my Jewish community both during and after my year with the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program.

I taught in Ashdod, a mid-sized city on the coast, south of Tel Aviv. Ashdod provides the perfect balance of getting to experience a close-knit, smaller community and still having accessibility to the larger cities in Israel. I taught English in a local elementary school to 3rd-6th graders, which meant that some of my students were able to hold a conversation in English, while others had no idea what I was saying. Every day was a new learning experience not only for my students, but also for me.

This began my self-titled “Year of Yes,” where I accepted a job overseas, made new friends, traveled, took advantage of new professional development opportunities (like becoming a Hillel fellow), and embraced Jewish traditions that were new to me.

I feel as though my time in Ashdod gave me the opportunity to make a real difference. Americans don’t always recognize the value of speaking and teaching others to speak English abroad. I learned that many Israeli English teachers are not native speakers, so it is incredibly beneficial to schools for Masa to supply native speakers to help teach students, and expose them to Jewry from other places around the world. Some of my students were shocked to learn that there were Jews outside of Israel.

MITF is an incredibly unique program, above and beyond the “typical” experience of living in Israel for a year. I arrived as an outsider, but by the time the year was over, I felt like I had truly become a member of the community. My host family “adopted” me not long after I arrived, and we shared countless Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, and family beach days. The relationship felt natural from the beginning, and I still keep in touch with them; I will always be grateful for the way they graciously welcomed me into their home and their lives. They were an integral part of showing me how to truly live like a local in Israel.

MITF and the other opportunities that Masa provided over the course of the program, such as the Global Leadership Institute seminar, supplied professional development and ultimately led me to become a Jewish communal professional upon my return to the United States. The program, and my personal experiences, also helped deepen my connection to Judaism and the Jewish community. In Israel, you don’t have to work at being Jewish – it’s the way of life. The individualized practice of Judaism in Israel taught me that there is no wrong way to be part of this tribe of ours, and that deciding you belong makes it so. When I returned to the States, there were pieces of the formal Jewish tradition and community that I wanted to maintain.

Masa and MITF changed my life. Had it not been for Masa, I wouldn’t be working for the Jewish Federation in Palm Beach County. in fact, I was just promoted. I am now working full time on their community planning team as a grant writer. My Masa experience deepened my connection to Judaism and my dedication to serving our community, particularly through education. I am still passionate about teaching and work part-time as a kindergarten teacher at a local synagogue, Temple Beth Am. When people ask me, “Why Masa?” I smile in anticipation of telling them how it not only changed my life, but the lives of the people around me.

Samantha Miller is a resident of West Palm Beach.

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