Sarah Mali

Advancing social integration and adaptation despite isolation

Thirty Russian-speaking Masa participants in little boxes on a computer screen. Each looking directly at the camera. They are at the center of a dialogue that is emerging on how to exercise leadership during a pandemic.

Over 3,500 Masa Fellows, including these Masa Leadership Center (MLC) students, have made an active decision to stay in Israel during this challenging time. They may currently be the single largest group of long-term tourists in the world that have chosen to stay put. It is hard to ignore this statistic. Without wanting to put too much of an ideological overlay on it, my guess is that this unique phenomenon has something to do with the fact that our Masa Fellows are Jewish and are choosing to remain in the State of Israel, a state founded on the very idea of safeguarding Jews anytime, anywhere.

2,500 Russian-speaking Jews participate in Masa Israel programs annually to grow professionally and discover their connections to the Jewish world.

Leonid, Anastasia, Mikhael and Tatiana are taking their online leadership course with us from the four corners of shared apartments, their roommates occasionally wandering around in the background.  Many are living independently for the first time and their unmediated experience with Israeli society during their internships and learning programs is priming them for greater agility in transitioning to independent life. They still heavily rely on Masa program organizers that effectively function as a kind of parental support in the absence of their immediate families. As the pandemic has effectively closed off travel to and from Israel, they are facing an unexpected and heightened opportunity to exercise leadership. Thankfully, they are graduates of the Transition, Integration and Change Summit that took place just a month ago.

Together with the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Masa Leadership Center (MLC) designed and implemented this two-day Summit for Russian-speaking Jews to explore the personal dynamics of change from the inside-out. Featuring cutting-edge teaching techniques, Summit participants, experienced workshops and tools to support their inner transition and adaptation work. How tragically appropriate that the purpose: to build the capacity of Fellows to feel more resourceful, resilient, and creative, would be applied all-too-soon in real life when grappling with the coronavirus.

Today, as Leonid, Anastasia, Mikhael and Tatiana are confined to their apartments, physical distancing poses a new challenge.  In addition to learning a new language, focusing on their career trajectories and weighing whether or not to make aliyah, they are now balancing adaptive challenges like the ones they studied at the Summit and immediate ones amongst a mid-corona world. As they navigate these obstacles, they are demonstrating leadership for Russian Jewry and for the rest of us.

Continuing the learning they began back in February in our pre-corona Summit, these Russian-speaking Masa fellows are logging in to their course on Adaptive Design. They are practicing a mixed approach to social change and drawing from Design Thinking and Adaptive Leadership principles, the work of MLC mentor and MLC faculty member, Professor Marty Linsky and Maya Bernstein respectively.  The course began in person and this pivot to online facilitation and group work is the first of many opportunities to practice adaptation. They are asked timely questions such as: How do you identify real-life social challenges that matter to you? How do you empathize more with the people who care differently about that challenge?  How do you get creative so other people to pay attention to those challenges?

The temptation for these brave roommates is strong right now to hide under their duvet and wait till this germ tsunami has passed. Instead, they are logging online and facing the big questions of our time head on. How do you mobilize and raise awareness around current issues of social inequality and marginalization when you can’t really touch people? How can you affect people across a screen, capturing people’s attention to real issues if you want their behavior to shift?

As one of the participants said “I feel like we have to be courageous right now. Not just with our personal choices of staying in Israel, but also with the choices we are making about how we can contribute to society right now. We are in an unfamiliar country facing a crisis everyone’s facing. In the absence of home and communal supports with which we are familiar we, with the help Masa and our organizers are choosing to show up and speak up in new and creative ways.”

This story of a growing group of dedicated young adults focused on making things better in this little country they now call home feels worth sharing right now. Perhaps it is even a great story as it offers hope: That even in heightened isolation, away from family, there is connection, growth and generosity and an unwavering appetite to lead change and better our wounded world.

The impact of these exceptional Masa Fellows will be felt for generations to come in Israel and beyond.

About the Author
Sarah Mali is the director general of Jewish Federations Canada-UIA. Sarah has served the Jewish community for over two decades and is a prolific writer and public speaker in Israel and globally.
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