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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Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.