Three Bergen County students were among 500 participants in an intensive leadership program in Israel from March 6 to 11. “Building Future Leadership,” sponsored by Masa Israel Journey, aimed to prepare young adults currently studying, interning, and volunteering in Israel to fill leadership positions when they return to their American campuses and communities.
Masa Israel, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, supports a variety of post-high-school programs in Israel. Its North American director, Avi Rubel, said Jewish campus and communal organizations are actively seeking Masa Israel alumni to take leadership positions upon their return.
“Masa Israel’s Building Future Leadership is one of the important ways that we are preparing young Jewish adults for future leadership opportunities following their immersive Israel experiences,” Rubel said. “I believe that the growing pool of Masa Israel alumni will play a decisive role in connecting their peers to Israel and in strengthening their home Jewish communities.”
Based in Jerusalem, the program offered discussions about critical issues facing the Jewish people; leadership skill development sessions focused on entrepreneurship, public speaking, and networking; trips to the Knesset and Yad Vashem; and meetings with social activists and community leaders. Participants chose to concentrate on Israel education, Israel advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam, or Jewish peoplehood.
“Masa came to my school and told us a little about it and I thought it would be a nice way to meet new people from different programs,” said Sheera Shomrony, 19, a Paramus High School graduate attending at Bar-Ilan University. “I’ve never been to a Jewish convention before and it showed me another ‘American world’ in Israel. It’s amazing how you can be speaking to someone at random and you’ll find you have some crazy Jewish connection.”
Teaneck High School graduate Samara Rosner and Glen Rock High School graduate Sarah Lesser attended the leadership seminar with other participants in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism “gap year” program Nativ. Both attended a session on campus entrepreneurship, which provided guidance on how to start Jewish/Israel advocacy initiatives, from social activism to nonprofit businesses.
“We learned about NUCampaign.org, a site that promotes Jewish causes on T-shirts,” said Lesser, who plans to become active in the Hillel at Bryn Mawr College next year. “It was started by people who encountered a lot of anti-Israel sentiment at the UN conference on racism in South Africa, and wanted to promote a pro-Israel ideology through these T-shirts. A lot of the proceeds go to Israeli causes.”
Shomrony and Rosner said one of the highlights of their week was visiting and playing four-on-four basketball with disabled Israeli athletes. “It was so amazing,” said Shomrony, laughing at the memory of her foot getting run over a few times by wheelchair-bound players. “One of the athletes spoke to us about how he was severely injured in a war, and even after all the hell he’s been through, he’s happy and still religious and just got married. It was an inspirational story, and I took from that the message not to complain about life.”
She added that the social connections were what made the overall experience special. “I got really close with my roommate, who’s from New York and studying in a Jerusalem seminary, so I have a friend in Jerusalem now. I also met people from Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Australia.”
There will be a follow-up meeting of Building Future Leadership participants on May 23. Organizations involved in the program include the Jewish Federations of North America, the Israel on Campus Coalition, Hillel, PresenTense, and AVI CHAI.