|Masa participants learn to shop at local stores in Israel.|
David B. Miller of Teaneck would not be surprised if you never have heard of Masa Israel Journey.
“I feel Masa is the best-kept secret in the Jewish world for helping you find the right program in Israel and giving you a scholarship for it,” said Mr. Miller, who took over as Masa’s North American director in June.
The program was founded in 2004. It is a joint project of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and its creation reportedly was the outcome of a casual remark by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about how nice it would be if more adults from the diaspora could spend a year in Israel. Some Masa participants do spend a year in Israel, but the various programs under the Masa umbrella also include five-month options.
This year, about 11,000 18- to 30-year-olds – roughly half of them North American, and about 750 from New Jersey – are participating in a vast array of Masa alternatives that include everything from interning at Google Israel to training as a scuba-diving instructor in Eilat.
About 40 percent of them are gap-year students studying at yeshivas and seminaries or experiencing Zionism through travel and service-learning programs such as the Young Judaea Year Course.
“For them, our involvement is important but not essential in going to Israel,” Mr. Miller said. “Most of them already know what type of program they want to go on, and we give them a $1,000 scholarship. For those who qualify, we provide financial aid of up to $4,000.”
For the majority, however, Masa plays a pivotal role in putting Israel on the agenda.
“Someone might be thinking about teaching English in China or Japan, and instead we convince them to join our Israel Teacher Fellowship program. This year we have around 155 college graduates teaching English in locations across Israel, earning a monthly stipend, in cooperation with Ministry of Education,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a very impactful program. They come back so engaged.”
The main difference between Masa and touring programs such as Birthright – aside from the length of time participants spend in Israel- is Masa’s emphasis on living like a local. “You get an apartment, buy your own food, make Israeli friends,” Mr. Miller said. “We have a lot of optional add-ons such as a leadership summit, a trip to Poland, and Shabbaton weekends to enhance the experience, but there is no required agenda.”
Mr. Miller, who is from Montreal, studied business administration, political science, and theater at McGill and Concordia universities there, after a 1986 gap year in Israel at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne. He led March of the Living trips for 16 years, and worked at Yeshiva University for six years before taking the Masa directorship. During his three years as chief operations officer in the admissions office, YU undergraduate admissions increased by 16 percent.
He hopes to increase Masa’s numbers, too.
“What’s very exciting for me about Masa, coming from YU, is that it’s such a broad group we can reach out to,” he said. “Our programs can be tailored academically or non-academically. Religious, not religious, left, right – we can find something for almost everyone. And that’s really nice, because Israel becomes ‘their’ Israel and they return as changed people, involved in the Jewish and broader community, with a stronger relationship with Israel.”
He acknowledges that any overseas experience can be a personal and professional boon, but he argues that Milan or Melbourne aren’t the same as Israel for a Jewish young adult. “It’s their homeland, and they sort of feel that,” he said. “We don’t have to push it.”
The push comes in the recruitment phase. Masa personnel use social media and college visits to determine what types of programs students are seeking, and then try to match them with an existing program in Israel, or start a new one.
Mr. Miller’s main responsibilities are overseeing the all-important recruitment effort as well as boosting Masa Israel Journey’s brand recognition and alumni engagement.
“Alumni are really important for us, because our goal is to make sure they bring back the experience and engage in their communities, while still remaining part of the new community created in Israel,” he said. “Our programs start in Israel and end in America with the same cohort of people.”
He heads a staff of 12 in his New York office, as well as regional recruitment and marketing representatives across North America. Since taking office, he has revamped the marketing team and appointed a new alumni director, Osnat Spiegel.
Adina Poupko, Masa North America’s new director for national partnerships, is strengthening ties with such organizations as Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Orthodox Union, Young Judaea, and the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
“Adina visited a dozen campuses last week in Boston, Washington, and New York, and students told her that Denmark is a popular place now for study abroad, so we’re going to see why, and what we can learn from that to give us that competitive edge,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s not good enough that we have programs in Israel. We have to have the best programs in Israel, so that when participants return they can tell a positive story. The feedback loop is key in helping us build programs people really want.”
He said that fewer than one percent of all Masa participants decided to leave Israel during the summer’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. “They had a new perspective on what Israel means, and felt closer to their Israeli brothers and sisters.”
Mr. Miller works closely with Masa Israel Journey’s recently appointed CEO, Liran Avisar Ben-Horin, who had been chief of staff of the director general of the prime minister’s office. He likes the challenge of his new position. “It’s not a cushy job, but it’s so exciting,” he said. “You can make a real difference.”
He and his wife, Elissa, a preschool teacher at Yeshivat Noam, moved to Teaneck from Passaic two years ago with their children, who are 16, 13, and 8. Their middle child, Joshua, celebrates his bar mitzvah on Saturday, November 15, at Congregation Rinat Yisrael. The family is involved in municipal youth sports leagues, including Teaneck Baseball Organization, Teaneck Soccer, and Mitch Gross Basketball League, as well as the youth hockey program at Torah Academy of Bergen County.
“I hope to open the doors of Israel to a very diverse diaspora,” Mr. Miller said. “I am always surprised how many engaged Jews have not been to Israel and don’t have Israel on their agenda. Our goal is that participants will feel more a part of the Jewish people. When you come back to your community, maybe you’ll work out at the JCC instead of the local gym, maybe you’ll read some books on Zionism or Judaism, maybe you’ll become more affiliated and understand how many different ways Jews engage and how much they have in common.
“Israel is for all of them.”