Tough economy inspires young Jews to study in Israel

Tough economy inspires young Jews to study in Israel

In these tough economic times, when jobs are scarce, especially for recent college graduates, many young Jewish adults are finding an inspired solution to their financial woes: spend some time in Israel.
Since 2003, MASA, Israel Journey, an organization established by the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been enabling young people, ages 18 to 30, to spend up to a year in Israel on any one of over 160 different programs.
As the North American economies continue to shed thousands of jobs, and with the U.S. unemployment rate topping 8 percent, MASA has seen the number of participants in its post-graduate programs triple in the past year.
In response to the new demand, MASA began its Better Stimulus Plan about a month ago. According to Ayelet Margolin, director of marketing for MASA, the multimedia marketing campaign is targeted to Jewish young adults across North America and is designed to spread awareness of career development, volunteer and academic opportunities in Israel.
“In the last three weeks, we’ve had 1,000 requests for information,” said Margolin. “We usually get about 200 to 300 a month. Now, we’re literally getting between 20 and 50 requests a day.” MASA placed about 1,000 post-college individuals into volunteer positions, internships, or post-graduate academic programs for the 2008-2009 academic year, and Margolin expects that number to surpass 3,000 for 2009-2010.
“With the current economic situation, people are either losing their jobs or graduating and not finding a job,” Margolin said. “They find that they can go to Israel and develop their resume, while having that experience [of living in Israel] as well.”
MASA provides “automatic grants” to each participant in any of its programs. A participant in a five-month program receives a $3,000 grant, while a participant in a 10-month program receives $4,500. Additionally, need-based grants are available to help defray the cost of the programs.
MASA receives its funding from the Israeli government, as well as from various Jewish federations throughout the world. Pittsburgh has been a big supporter since the program’s inception.
This year, 53 MASA participants are from Pittsburgh, said Avi Rubel, director of MASA North America. He noted that Pittsburgh is a “MASA community,” supporting the program both financially and through staffing “over and above” that of a typical community.
Although MASA sponsors programs for students taking a “gap year” between high school and college, as well as programs abroad during one’s college education, post-college is its fastest growing sector.
“It’s gap year number two; the gap year before graduate school,” Rubel said, “and given the economic situation, we’re expecting to see a big growth in that area.”
“The numbers have increased for Pittsburgh participants significantly,” said Sue Linzer, senior manager of overseas operations for the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We’re anticipating 69 participants for next year. When we started [in 2005], we had 15 participants.”
Heading to Israel for a year following college is about being productive,” Margolin said.
A case in point is Stephanie Lauten, of Pittsburgh, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007, with degrees in history and Jewish studies, specializing in Holocaust studies. Despite extensive networking, Lauten couldn’t find a job in the Jewish community here, and has been working at a “filler job” as a receptionist at a Mercedes-Benz dealership.
“It’s really hard to find a job in my field, so, I started thinking about going to Israel, and getting something on my resume,” she said. “I thought that going to Israel could serve as a transition between ending college and going to graduate school to get my doctorate. It would be a step to get me re-focused on my career goals.”
Lauten will be leaving in late August or early September for OTZMA, a 10-month, three-part program that includes an intensive ulpan on a kibbutz; a volunteer component in which Lauten hopes to be teaching English to Israeli children and an internship.
“The internship is what really drew me to the program,” she said. “It is very likely I will be working at Yad VaShem, which will tie into my career goals.”
Like the majority of post-graduate MASA participants, Lauten is an alumna of Taglit Birthright, a program that provides free 10-day trips to Israel to young adults ages 18 to 26 who have not previously participated in a peer group trip to Israel.
“Sixty percent of the participants [in MASA programs] are Birthright alumni,” Rubel said. “They finish Birthright and are looking for a way to continue their experiences.”
“I fell in love with the country,” Lauten said, “and knew that I needed to go back. It’s been two years since I was there, and that’s way too long.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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