Friday, November 9, 2012

MASA and The Jewish Future

The music was so loud I felt the bass pounding in my chest. The crowd, having spent much of the first hour of the evening seated, leapt to their feet, raised their hands, clapped and moved toward the stage. Idan Reichel, legendary musician, and his "Project" took the stage, replacing the speakers, dancers and videos, and the room rose to a different level of life.  I was not the intended audience for the evening nor were the scores of donors and representatives sitting nearby in the VIP section of Binyanei Ha'Umah in Jerusalem.  This was MASA Fest, the grand opening event of the year for participants on long-term Israel programs.  This show was for the students.

Despite my feelings of aging (and awareness of increasing amounts of gray hair), I too was energized by the event.  One of the heroes of my teen years, Natan Sharansky spoke about the importance of Jewish identity and exploration MASA participants could experience this year.  Videos of the emcees were inspiring and included a participant from NATIV, our excellent gap year program, as well as one of my former campers at Ramah Darom.  The message MASA participant emcees sent was one of diversity, joy and Jewish hope.  The hall shook with cheers from programs and participants of all kinds: multiple languages, ages ranging from gap-year to post-college, and programs focused on everything from Torah study to high-tech internships.  Even the somewhat sappy choreography, with dancers in blue and white, strutting to a mix of Hava Nagila and the theme song to "Dirty Dancing," seemed appropriate during our Zionist pep rally.

As mentioned earlier, if the first half of the program was an infomercial on Israel, Zionism and MASA programs, the second half was a straightforward rock concert for the enjoyment of the collective MASA community.  Idan Reichel's hauntingly beautiful music, a mix of jazz, gospel and Middle Eastern tradition, was a far cry from the Safam and Craig Taubman tunes of my youth.  Reichel speaks to the souls of his listeners in a completely different and transformational way than the mix of English and Hebrew music of twenty years ago.  It didn't matter that half the room had no idea what the lyrics meant.  The performance had a magical way of creating a common community out of a mix of Jews from around the world.

Reading this week's Torah commentary by Rabbi Haim Amsallem, head of the Am Shalem party, I am reminded that, at the heart, parashat Hayyei Sarah is about leadership transitions.  This week, while the US demonstrated the power of the democratic process and peaceful transition of power, the Torah teaches about passing on the torch of leadership.  Abraham, coming to the end of his life, passes on the Divine blessing and promise - generations and a homeland - to his son, Isaac.  Isaac represents a different kind of leadership than that of Abraham.  In a very short time, Isaac too will pass on leadership to Jacob who will encounter a different world and will build his own leadership style.  The process that started with Abraham continues in the Jewish world today.

Watching the MASA participants, I was acutely aware of the start of the leadership transition taking place before my very ideas.  The gap year and graduate students in Binyanei Ha'Umah, rocking to the beat of Idan Reichel, will be the next generation with potential to take on the mantle of leadership in the Jewish world.  Right now, for the foreseeable future and perhaps for always, however, they are consumers of what we in the Jewish world and in Jewish leadership have to offer them.  We have to invest in them, meet them where they are AND move them forward on their path.

The Jewish world makes this investment in many ways.  Birthright Israel is one, and the most attended, example.  As a short-term program, it can be a taste of rich, sweet, joyous Jewish involvement and, for a few, that is enough to transform lives.  I believe that short-term programs have their greatest impact when they lead participants to long-term programs such as Nativ, the Conservative Yeshiva and the plethora of other excellent, immersive programs.   From multiple studies, we know that the greatest transformation, the deepest involvement, and the most soulful commitment to Jewish living, learning and, perhaps, leading comes from those who participate in long-term, immersive, substantial Jewish experiences.  This is what leads someone like my friend, Rabbi Todd Berman, to make the case in eJewishphilanthropy that ever larger investment is needed to support MASA programs.  I believe this to be true regarding increased funding both for scholarships for participants and operational funds for the providers.

In my first few weeks on the job as CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, I am deeply impressed by the future potential of participants in our Conservative Yeshiva and Nativ programs to be the next generation of committed Jews and, perhaps, Jewish leaders.  It is clear that the greater the investment in long-term programs like Ramah camping, gap year programs and post-graduate MASA programs, the greater the impact we will have on building lifelong involvement and commitment.  Like Isaac to Abraham, these incredible people and their compatriots on countless other MASA programs deserve our best.  They also deserve our continued involvement with and investment in them once they finish these programs.  Long-term connection with and investment in MASA participants is how we will build a brighter future for the Jewish people, how we will pass on the blessing and promise that started with Abraham, was passed on to Isaac and to every subsequent generation of Jews and how we will attain the vision of an eternally brighter tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom.

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