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The Real Story of the ‘Israel Backpack’ 

Backpacks can represent the new knowledge, skills, experiences and connections a traveler acquires, and allow them to nurture a relationship with both Israelis and Jews from around the world
Hiking along the Qumran trail (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Hiking along the Qumran trail (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In Israel, you see backpacks everywhere. They’re on the beach, on the bus, on hiking trails, on the banks of the Jordan River. Many of them sport insignia connecting them to an organized trip or sponsored tour. We would know, we’ve given out more than 110,000 of them over the past 12 years.

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These backpacks come in handy when Masa Israel Journey’s more than 12,000 participants every year head to work or class, take a day trip to explore the country, or visit new friends from countries all over the world that they’ve met along their journeys in Israel. 

The packs last much longer than an individual’s time in Israel, and they carry so much more than their physical contents. The bags we give out are not simply souvenirs, they are instruments—a critical tool in facilitating personal journeys, both figuratively and literally.

“Masa” in Hebrew means “journey;” the Masa Israel experience includes both a significant inner personal journey alongside an outward physical journey. When a young person spends an extended amount of time in any foreign country, let alone Israel, he or she starts to live like a local. 

 You see the beautiful, the ugly, the good, and the bad—you live your life alongside Israeli citizens. You walk in the streets with them, go to the market to buy your groceries with them, live next to them, work with them and see the cultural gaps when you interact with them. You sling their backpack over their shoulder just like they do.

We equip our participants with new backpacks as encouragement to explore, to immerse themselves in their surroundings. They come to understand the intangibles of Israel’s history, culture and current political state, and, in turn, strengthen their sense of self.

A key part of our educational vision is for our participants to reflect on their experience while they’re in Israel. Their backpacks’ physical appearance, with their own scuffs and scars, tell a story parallel to their personal journeys. A spilled cup of coffee here, a few specks of dirt from a recent hike there; the memory of their experiences abroad lives on through the bag.

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These backpacks are not simply receptacles for possessions along the journey. They are the physical manifestations of each participant’s often entangled relationships with the Jewish people, the State of Israel and their own spirituality. The packs represent the new knowledge, skills, experiences and connections that participants collect throughout their time in Israel. Just as the backpacks last much longer than the programs themselves, so do the participants’ connections to Jewish life and each other. Masa Israel participants become part of a community forever united by their life-changing experiences in Israel.

The backpacks we distribute are a vessel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 30 – many of whom are not formally affiliated in the Jewish community – and are the same demographic described in Pew’s now infamous 2013 survey of Jewish Americans, to engage with Israel for a significant off-the-bus experience. Our goal is to allow participants to nurture a relationship with both native Israelis and Jews from around the world, which in turn empowers them to understand what’s at stake when it comes to the continuity of both the Jewish people and the State of Israel. In other words, the backpacks – and long-term experiences in Israel as a whole – serve to foster a level of depth in relating to Israel that has concrete results for Jews as a larger Diaspora community. 

 The backpacks provide a way for alumni to continue their lifelong journeys with a physical reminder of the transformative time they spent in Israel and the global community they have become a part of for life. This community is far more than a social network; it serves as a platform for connecting with professional opportunities, resources, and leadership development. 

So, the next time you see a backpack with Masa Israel’s logo on it, take a look at the person carrying it and take a moment to think about where he or she has been, and more importantly, where they are headed.

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About the Author
Liran Avisar-Ben Horin is the CEO of Masa Israel Journey, the leader of immersive international experiences in Israel, including gap year programs, study abroad, service-learning and career development opportunities. Masa Israel Journey is an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel.
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