Dear Members of the Knesset,
I am a 27-year-old American Jew living in Massachusetts. In 2012, I had the extreme honor and privilege to visit Israel for the first time thanks to the gift of Birthright Israel.
My Birthrighters, the Israelis, the staff — and Israel herself — had some kind of pull over me that I couldn’t understand or explain and just over a year later, I moved to Israel for 10 months as part of the Israel Teaching Fellows program under the care of Masa Israel. I first heard about Masa when someone from their office called me a week after getting home from my Birthright trip. While I did want to visit Israel again, it was far from my mind as I was supposed to be attending graduate school. After meeting up with a third of my Birthright group at a barbeque, long conversations with them forced me to realize that graduate school was not an option for me at the time. Over the next few months, I began to build up a client base of parents who needed a caregiver for their children. During November of 2012, I went to an event called Get Back To Israel! and had filled out an information card for Israel Teaching Fellows. They called me back a few weeks later and then after months of deliberations and starting to work as a nanny for a Jewish family, I accepted the offer to be an Israel Teaching Fellow in Netanya.
I tell this story because Masa has been an organization that pursued me so much when other companies in the Jewish world hadn’t. Furthermore, Masa opened up so many doors for me when every other door was shut at both my college and when I had studied abroad in London. I know that Israel’s 2017-2018 budget was passed last month and that this has resulted in the government slashing Masa funding.
As a Masa alumna, I am writing to implore that Masa gets its funding back. Without Masa participants, Israel will not get the cheerleaders, public relations and tourism that she needs. When every country has — and still continues — to shut out the Jews, Israel opens hers with Masa giving the push over the threshold.
Being connected to so many people through Masa during my time in Israel was nothing short of wonderful. Masa events allowed me to meet people not just outside of Israel Teaching Fellows, but also outside of the partner cities my cohort worked with.
When I was around my Masa comrades, my heart was full. I wasn’t surrounded by snobby, rich girls that made my life miserable in college, nor was I surrounded by people who wanted to drink all the time like when I lived in London. I could now be around people that I could be honest with and talk about the high points without coming off as disillusioned, because I have come to realize that people don’t want to hear the low points, at least in great detail.
But my Masa comrades all had their “stuff.” We all had our burdens and crosses to bear. Some of us had troubles heavier than others and those are the ones we were conscious of on the days when we felt weighed down. I did not come to Israel with an easy life. Not by a long shot. I have my flaws. Big ones. I still struggle with inner turmoil and stressors. These days I wonder how I juggle everything. But I do it, albeit not as gracefully as I would like. Working out is hard. Apartment hunting is hard. Job searching is hard. Running my own babysitting business is hard. Life is just hard. No one promised it any other way, though. The good thing about my Masa comrades is that, even after we left Israel and returned back to our lives, we took the lessons we learned and know how to roll with what we have been given. Sure, we complain sometimes and vent to those in Masa who love us and understand, but we move on. We move onto the beauty and cling to the beauty that is scattered amongst the chaos.
Even now, when I meet up with my Masa comrades, they still continue to “get” me. They have seen me happy. They have seen me weak. Lately I have been feeling a bit weepy. I probably look that way as well, if the truth be told. But don’t we all have days like that? When I’m down, my Masa comrades know that the key to being uplifted is swinging the pendulum in order to get back to a place of happiness. When my mood fluctuates between sad and happy, my Masa comrades will hope along with me for the happy. They have done this at every event I have seen them at over the past three years. They have done this online. They have done this in their homes. This is who they are. They are bright and wonderful Jews who strive to make the world a better place. My reverence for them cannot be put into words.
While I am always thankful for Masa giving me a support network that I so desperately needed, it is the children they entrusted in my care as an Israel Teaching Fellow that made me feel whole. I worked at a lovely school in Netanya that was a 10-minute walk away from my apartment. The staff treated me like a princess, answered all my questions, got me anything I needed — for my classroom and my apartment — and gave me treats. My teacher, Merav, was a gem. She took care of me as if I were one of her children and let me plan my own lessons for my students. I had complete control of my students (not bad for a girl who barely knew Hebrew) and was the first Fellow in the program (in its third year at the time) to be offered a full-time job. While I turned it down, it was incredible to know I meant that much to the school.
Of course, the most incredible people were my students. While there was a language barrier at times, I have a background in early childhood education and understanding my students’ needs wasn’t difficult. Like many of them, I also came from a lower-middle class background. Despite the stresses in their lives, my students never complained. They fought to be in my lessons. They showed up excited to learn. They gave me hugs and kisses every day. I ran into them whenever I was out and about in Netanya and their faces would light up brighter than the sunrises that stretched out above the horizon over the nearby beach.
I still couldn’t believe that I was the cause of this reaction in them. I remember this one time when I had some one-on-one time with one of my Fellows, Dascher, and we had gone to get ice cream at my favorite place on the Promenade. My advanced students — the students I gave British history lessons to every Tuesday since they said they loved those lessons more than what was in their textbooks — were there and just like my other students I would see around Netanya, their smiles rivaled the Cheshire Cat. I sat and ate my ice cream. I liked it. A lot. But watching my students love and devour such a simple pleasure? Well, that I really loved. Seeing their faces light up with joy while indulging is something I was extremely grateful for.
I knew my students would one day grow up and enter the Israel Defense Forces in order to fight for their lives and their country’s survival. It pained me to think that some of them could lose that battle. I know Israel is the dream of the Jews who fought just to be and that my students would carry on the torch. They taught me to breathe even when it was hard, to push through aches and pains and to just live. The IDF is why I could go on a Masa program and know they would stand in front of me. But my students? I would stand in front of them if I had to. Those children astounded and amazed me each and every day. I never wanted them to be perfect. I focused on the things they could do, however small to outsiders, and loved how proud they would be of themselves when learning new words. Learning a few words was neither little or insignificant; it was a big, beautiful and amazing thing and that is all that mattered. Those children saved me and I remain eternally grateful for Masa for being able to live again thanks to these youngsters who showed me how to embrace life.
In December of 2013, I was able to attend the Masa Israel Leadership Summit in Jerusalem (see my post “Masa Israel And My Second Chance”). I was one of 250 people (out of 10,000) on a Masa program who was selected to attend the prestigious five-day Summit. I was denied several leadership opportunities in college because I wasn’t rich and my passion for making the world a better place made me an outsider with my London cohort. At least with this Summit, I was treated like an equal. The connections I made and the lessons I learned are still things I carry with me today. While being at the Summit was partly a mental “screw you” to every person in college and London who brought me down, I chose to focus on the good parts. And there were so many.
I remember a Monday morning being in the home goods store in Netanya owned by the sweetest elderly, French man who always called me “Mademoiselle” and getting the text from my madrich saying I was going to the Summit (a glitch in the system had caused me to receive an email a few days before saying that my spot could not be held due to so many people having applied). I cried tears of joy and giddily pranced on my way back to my school (I didn’t have to be at school for the staff meeting on Mondays) knowing that my hard work had finally paid off. I remember when the members of my cohort who were attending the Summit worked together to figure out a way to get to the Summit when the buses to Jerusalem stopped running due to the snow that had pummeled the country; we, along with several other Masa comrades, decided to take the train instead. I remember the beauty and amenities of the hotel we were at — Hotel Yehuda — and how Masa honored our rooms and meals on the first day even though they had cancelled the opening day due to the snow.
I remember twirling and dancing at the gala, freezing my butt off at the Knesset Building, the stolen kisses at the hotel in meeting room #11 with the boy I call Butterfly and the aesthetics of Jerusalem in the Winter. But I mostly remember the love — the love for my cohort, my other Masa comrades and love for Masa itself for believing in me when no one else did.
It’s been just over two years since I came back from Israel as an English teacher and my memories of Masa have not gone away. My attendance at the aforementioned Summit allowed me to participate in the Kol Voice Fellowship where I learned how to advocate for Israel on various social media platforms. I was invited to attend a meeting on how to promote Masa to Birthright groups and I spoke highly of Masa when I staffed my first Birthright trip back in January (see my post “Babies Got Me Birthright”).
I attended the Spring Mifgashim series and learned from my Israeli host how much I truly and deeply cared for Israel, even if I didn’t showcase it to him as well as I could (see my post “Appreciating Israel”). I went to Masa alumni Shabbatons in 2014 (see my post “Masa Israel’s Still Got It”) and 2015 (see my post “Masa Israel Alumni Conquer Connecticut”). I was a member of Masa’s alumni delegation at the AJC conference in D.C. last year (see my post “Masa Israel Alumni Descend On D.C.”) and I attend Masa alumni events when they happen in Massachusetts. I am still friends with the people I have met through Masa and have been welcomed in their homes, whether it’s been with Benny (ITF-Be’er Sheva) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rachel (ITF-Petah Tikva) in both Petah Tikva and D.C. or Morgan (ITF-Rishon; she did ITF in a different year than I did) in California. I do wonder how I ever came to find them and all my other Masa comrades. They are the light in the darkness.
These days, when you get right down to it, I consider myself an Israel girl now. It was the sunshine that got me for sure. When I lived in Israel, I had that sunshine nearly every day and for my mental and physical health, I couldn’t imagine having it any other way. When life had me feeling a bit blue, I could walk outside and turn my face toward the sun and feel the endorphins rush into me. That sunshine was exactly what I needed to remind me to appreciate the beautiful life I had in Israel. The beauty of Israel was that I could go to the beach one morning in Netanya and then head out to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the afternoon if I wanted. I could even go further and relax in the Dead Sea for the umpteenth time and look up at Masada, the place where I had my Bat Mitzvah when I did Birthright. I really did have the best of many worlds in Israel and I was nothing short of lucky and blessed to have landed where I did. Masa says to “live it like a local.” I think I did.
Since I was able to live in Israel on a long-term program thanks to Masa, I was granted the chance to have people visit me. This meant that Israel got some well-deserved money, praise and public relations. When my best friend from college and her dad visited me, they spent more money in the nine days they were there than I had spent in ten months. My father had sent me some money which I had spent on things I needed in the country. My friend Adina barely let me pay for anything when she visited. One of my student loans was able to be deferred and I was able to breathe by having a bit more money in the bank that I could spend on food instead of my worthless bachelor’s degree.
When people can live in Israel thanks to Masa, they can spend money. People will visit them and spend money. Israel will get good pictures and stories on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. Living, breathing, smelling, tasting, touching and seeing Israel are crucial endeavors that are hard to do on a vacation to Israel or even on Birthright. I know that after Birthright, I craved more. Being able to live in Israel as a resident and doing little things like going to the market or taking a sherut somewhere let me see Israel up close and learn about the idiosyncrasies that make her special (and sometimes frustrating.) Israel cannot have a better cheerleader than someone who elects to put things in their country on hold because Israel means something to them. Masa lets the Jews in the Diaspora experience Israel in their own way and allows the Israelis who participate in Masa programs, events and seminars to see Israel through the eyes of Diaspora Jews.
In a few days, I will be heading to D.C. to attend the National Israeli-American conference. I will be going as a part of Masa’s alumni delegation. Apart from my flight, Masa is covering everything, including an extra night at the hotel. This is allowing me the chance to get to D.C. early and to have dinner with Rachel from ITF-Petah Tikva and out mutual Masa friend, Allie. I remember receiving the email last month saying I was accepted to the conference and leaping off of the couch. My hand flew up over my mouth and I had tears in my eyes. I don’t doubt I will have a great time at the conference. Maybe I’ll find a job. Maybe I’ll even find love, although my feelings for the boys I have met through Masa have always been one-sided. I am going to this conference to learn, to listen and to love. I love Israel. I love to travel. And I love Masa for helping me combine the two.
My time with Masa over the years has made me try to be grateful for every damn day. I live that, or at least I really and truly try to. While daily there may be things that can overshadow that feeling of gratitude, at the end of each day, I sit back and think that despite everything that stresses me out these days, despite the sorrow, sadness and struggles, it’s gratitude that wins. And maybe gratitude wins because of the sorrow and sadness and struggles.
These days I am tired. I’m getting a cold. I still haven’t found a job in the Jewish world since I came home from Israel two years ago and I feel a bit broken. These are simple truths to my days lately. Sometimes I worry about what my tomorrows will bring. But I think of the kids I take care of—both Jewish and not—and try to not let my fears dictate my days. I can’t let them. When it comes to the kids, I find myself staring at them and marveling in their beings. I am lucky to be caring for them and doing my best to turn them into Israel supporters. I can talk about Israel to them in a real, non-preachy way. Teaching people about Israel is a gift. It’s one of the greatest things about my life, even if I do not get paid by a Jewish higher-up to promote Israel. But I still remain grateful for every damn day with these children that have been entrusted to me and for the Jewish ones I care for, I hope that they can go to Israel via both Birthright and Masa and have the chances I was given. The beautiful things in Israel will remain. Her good nature and symbol of hope for the Jews who still sail on the uncertain seas will always rise to the top.
That’s all from the trenches, Knesset members. I hope that my stories about Masa and all of its good work are persuasive enough for you all to reexamine the budget. While priority should absolutely go to Israeli citizens first, it would be a shame if the Jews in the Diaspora would not get the chance to live in Israel, the place that their ancestors could only dream about. If Israel wants people to see her up close, to get into relationships/marriages and have children, funding for Masa is crucial. Please restore the funding. A girl can dream, can’t she? I actually still believe in magic. That should account for something.
At least I think so.
At least I hope so.