Judge MASA by its Programs not its Promotions

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-15-09

These days, image often seems to be everything. Fortunately, in education, substance still counts. As the brouhaha surrounding MASA’s ill-fated advertising campaign “Lost” peters out, let’s turn the notoriety generated into an opportunity to learn about this under-appreciated program. In truth, the ad campaign’s heavy-handed apocalyptic tone contradicted MASA’s usually warm, inviting, upbeat approach.

MASA, Hebrew for journey, is more of a clearinghouse run by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, helping thousands of young Jews attend more than 160 long-term programs in Israel, for a semester or a year. MASA subsidizes the programs, while offering administrative, programming and — on good days – marketing expertise. The idea built on birthright israel’s tremendous success. A ten-day birthright trip offers an exciting, sweeping taste of Israel, a smorgasbord of travel delights. MASA invites participants to enjoy a longer, more focused meal.

EARLIER THIS month, seeking to encourage Israelis to invite their Diaspora relatives to join one of its programs, MASA launched an expensive advertising campaign.  Melodramatic television ads featured “Lost” posters seeking young people with obvious Jewish names in different languages, representing the supposed 50 percent of Diaspora Jewish youth who assimilate annually (absurdly distorting a controversial statistic). The railroads in the background reminded some critics of Holocaust movies. For others, the posters evoked the heartbreaking photos New Yorkers posted after 9/11. Still others resented the implication that the forces of assimilation were kidnapping young Jews. MASA wisely pulled the ads.

The “Lost” campaign does not accurately reflect MASA’s programs – and diverted hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to Israel rather than to the Diaspora, where they are really needed. Alas, the ads reflect one constant theme in Israeli conversations about Diaspora Jewry. Israelis often simultaneously idealize and scorn Diaspora Jewish life, treating America especially as “the golden medina” and “the land of the lost.” Even as Israelis salivate about America’s riches – and mimic each new fad – they exaggerate the dangers of anti-Semitism and assimilation. All Diaspora Jews in this caricature appear rich, spoiled, happy, but Jewishly at risk or, as the MASA ad shrieked, lost.

But let’s be honest. This is the way many Diaspora Jews themselves talk about Diaspora Jewry – and have long talked about the Jewish people. In his 1948 essay “The Ever-Dying People,” Simon Rawidowicz observed that “the world makes many images of Israel” – meaning the Jewish people — “but Israel makes only one image of itself, that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”

In fairness, most Diaspora Jews are less blunt than Israeli Jews and know that this generation must be wooed not hectored. But the “Lost” ads should be studied as artifacts of the constant “what about the young people” breast-beating endemic throughout the Jewish world.

NEVERTHELESS, we should learn from the way most MASA programs function rather than the way the Jewish Agency tried marketing MASA. MASA followed Birthright, Chabad, and others in seeking the joy in Judaism not the “oy.” Birthright taught that you inspire more modern Jews by inviting them on a Jewish journey rather than the traditional guilt trip.

To get some perspective on the controversy from MASA educators and participants, I called my friend Danny Hakim. Hakim is a two-time world silver medalist in karate, and managing director of  the Budokan Martial Arts and Fitness Program sponsored by MASA, the Jewish Agency, the Maccabi World Union and the JCCA. I reached him at Nitzana, by the Egyptian border, launching his MASA program with a five-day extreme sports program in the desert.  “Our program offers a five-month odyssey that will strengthen your body, mind, and spirit while giving you self-defense skills, confidence in general and confidence in your Jewish identity,” Hakim explained. “This experience will serve you for a lifetime.”

Reflecting MASA’s usually soft touch, Hakim originally called the program “the Martial Arts and Israel Leadership Program,” but changed “Israel leadership” to “fitness,” to attract students “from the periphery of the Jewish community.” This year participants arrived from Sweden, France, the UK and the US.

Jason Berman of Westfield, New Jersey, a 22-year-old Penn State University graduate, just arrived on his first overseas trip. Berman studied ancient history in college while studying karate. The martial arts program seemed custom-made for him – as so many MASA programs seem to the participants they attract. “I wanted to visit Israel, I wanted to do intensive martial arts, I was happy to study the history of Jewish heroes,” Berman reported. Having studied Greek and Roman history he “was thrilled to see real ruins, finally.”

He continued: “This has been all I could have hoped for… I just went on a short camel ride. I could see these old ancient buildings from 2000 years ago and we are just scratching the surface.”

David Hankin, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, was equally enthusiastic. They are teaching us “focus and balance,” he said. While noting that he, too, had only arrived a week ago, he volunteered: “The program is not at all overbearing…. It has a very free feel to it.”

This, then, is the MASA its marketers should highlight. At its best MASA serves as a kind of matchmaker, linking young Diaspora Jews with programs that fit their interests in the Jewish homeland, demonstrating a hip, customized, welcoming, fluid, open-ended Zionism. Participants thrive by following their own rhythms, forging their own life plans.

“I’m really hoping to develop myself,” Jason Berman said, “to identify who I am; it’s definitely open-ended” – precisely as effective 21st century Jewish identity programs – along with their ad campaigns — should be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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