For ex-baseball players, Israel a place to learn and teach

Out of baseball after four years playing in the minor leagues, Brent Powers, a Christian from Texas, took a tour of Israel last year with his wife. He was smitten with the country and considered how to return.

The Masa Israel Journey will provide his path.

Powers and about a dozen American college players will be part of the group’s five-month, baseball-themed program launching in January. Israel’s baseball czar figures their expertise will do wonders for a sport that is growing in popularity, but remains a niche sport in a country where soccer and basketball reign.

Masa provides an internship-like framework that encourages young Jewish professionals from the Diaspora to experience Israel from the inside. Masa now encompasses some 250 professions.

Along with Hebrew-language classes and trips, the baseball players, like Masa participants generally, will work in their professions and interact in depth with their Israeli counterparts: coaching at Israel’s new baseball academy, playing in an adult league and teaching the sport to elementary-school children.

Israel Association of Baseball director Nate Fish believes his organization’s partnership with Masa “can really revolutionize” the level of play in Israel. Now, he says, coaching in Israeli youth and adult leagues is handled by parents and other untrained volunteers.

“If you have 10-20 college players coming in, and put two to three on each team, the level of play goes up,” Fish said of the adult league. “And when we send them to the communities to coach once a week, it gives the little kids some real baseball role models. You’ll get better practices. There’s no substitute for that.”

The visitors will gain, too, because “it gives them an opportunity to start their coaching careers,” he said.

The program is spreading by word of mouth, and Fish says he plans to more actively recruit future cohorts by appealing to their sense of sports adventure and career aspirations.

That’s what reeled in Powers, who had pitched in the minors from 2011 to 2014 for the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. Three teammates from the Athletics’ team in Burlington, Vermont, in 2012 played for Israel in that autumn’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers and connected him to Fish, a coach on the club.

When Fish tweeted early this year about the Masa launch, Powers said, “Whoa – that’s exactly what I want to do.”

In Israel, “I really look forward to working with the kids,” said Powers, who coaches youth in a Houston program.

Joshua Scharff, an outfielder and pitcher for Yale University before graduating in 2013, has been in Israel working with the program since September and awaits the arrival of his American colleagues. He had enjoyed the pro-Israel advocacy work he did in Boston, but left for the baseball calling.

“My heart is here, so when I found something that combined the two things I love the most – baseball and Israel – I jumped at the opportunity,” Scharrf said from his apartment in Tel Aviv.

To add heft to the program, Masa recruited former major league outfielders Art Shamsky and Shawn Green, both of them Jewish, as spokesmen and might bring them to Israel to lead clinics.

Masa officials see their initiatives in lacrosse – which launched a year ago – and baseball as providing Israel with a stream of talented athletes from overseas who will inject their experience locally. Accomplished players in such sports as soccer, American football, basketball, swimming and the triathlon could soon find opportunities to ply their trade in Israel. Scholarships and grants scaled to each athlete’s experience and ability help reduce the $9,400 per person fee.

The organization also aspires to take the athletic program beyond the field of play to include those working in coaching and sports management – even sports writing.

“We always aim to have a large number of opportunities for professionals to come to Israel and enhance their careers,” said Freda Surki, Masa’s director of development and organizer relations. “We realized that sports portfolios didn’t really exist, and thought that this would be a great opportunity.”

The new baseball track comes as the Israel Association of Baseball is forming a team to compete next September in the WBC’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, New York.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Green said. “The better the [Israeli] team does in the qualifiers, the more that momentum kicks in … to help grow baseball in a country with a contingent of fans. It’s the right way to do it.”

Much of the seed money is coming from Andy Bloch, a Northern California resident who says he plans to persuade Jewish owners of Major League Baseball clubs to become involved and contribute financially, too.

While the program might “take awhile” to become entrenched and to draw ever-more accomplished players to Israel to play and to coach, Bloch says, the effort will bear fruit as a greater mass of talented homegrown ballplayers develops.

“It’s a great opportunity for Israel and for the players,” he said.

That’s just how Powers sees it.

Like in many Jewish families, Powers had a parental influence pushing him to visit Israel – his father, also a Christian, had been to the country several times for work.

By program’s end, Powers said, “I’ll have a phone book full of friends.”

Israel internships

For colleges graduates, landing the dream job has become even more difficult in these recent economically challenging years. Also, going straight from college into a job may not seem the most attractive prospect. Many grads want to travel, but the need for money sends most straight into their careers. 

What if you could do both? Spreading your wings and working abroad at the same time is a feasible option. For college graduates looking for short-term, professional experiences away from home, Israel has always been a fruitful source of opportunities.

With a wide range of internship programs available to build up your résumé while living in a completely new and exotic culture, there isn’t much you can’t do in the Jewish state. 


The Hamilton Fellowship

The Hamilton Fellowship was specifically created for high-achieving Jewish college students and college graduates who want to expand their business skills, build a marketable résumé and learn the intricacies of day-to-day operations in emerging international markets.

The fellowship offers a placement in Buenos Aires, Argentina, commonly referred to as the Paris of Latin America.

Buenos Aires has the third-largest Jewish population in the world behind Jerusalem and New York City. Although the community is large, it is extremely close-knit, and you will meet like-minded Jews from all over the world and have the opportunity to attend meetings at the Buenos Aires office of the world’s largest Jewish student organization.

For more information, visit


Israel Way-Oranim

Founded in 1986 as a travel company geared toward the young Jewish traveler, Israel Way-Oranim offers graduates a multitude of opportunities.

Oranim’s Tel Aviv Internship Experience allows you to spend five months in Tel Aviv, where graduates are exposed to new career opportunities. Internships are available in almost all career paths, including business, technology, finance, arts, sports, communications, politics and education. Receive hands-on guidance and practical training while working on several important projects. Essentially, you will bypass the American tradition of working your way up from the mailroom and instead experience the Israeli way, where on day one you’re treated as though you’ve already been working there for years.

Oranim also offers short-term and summer internships in Israel for students and professionals of all ages. An internship placement coordinator will work with you to build the ideal experience. Internships are available for two months and longer, and in every field. All graduates of the short-term Internship Experience will, upon completion of internships, receive a certificate of accomplishment from Oranim and their supervisor.

The Israel Way-Oranim project also includes other programs such as See Galilee, a program aimed at young Jewish leaders who are concerned about social issues in Israel, and the TOV program, which combines an internship with volunteering experience.

For more information, visit


Masa Israel Journey

Masa Israel Journey offers university graduates and young professionals more than 200 internship, academic and career development opportunities all over Israel, lasting from five to 12 months. 

Real Life Israel offers a five-month immersion and interning program in Jerusalem. The program includes Hebrew-language learning, countrywide tours and local activities in addition to your choice of top-level internships. The program is designed to give you an authentic experience of life in Israel.

Career Israel is a five-month professional internship program open to college graduates from all over the world, offering you an online database of more than 500 internship opportunities.

Choose from a variety of internship opportunities and gain the knowledge, skills and experience you need to be competitive in today’s global economy.

For more information, visit



OTZMA is a 10-month program divided into three parts. In the first part, you join an absorption center with other immigrants, where you learn Hebrew, volunteer, get to know fellow participants and take part in educational seminars. In the second part, you  participate in community service. 

In the final part, you intern for top Israeli service organizations in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, living in the centre of Tel Aviv or at campus apartments in Jerusalem at Hebrew University. During this stage of the program, each participant will work in a top-level NGO that is dedicated to making real change.

In addition to the 10-month program, OTZMA has launched a new five-month program for 20- to 30-year-old Jewish adults. 

With the OTZMA Leadership Scholarship, the program can be experienced starting at $1,000. OTZMA’s next program begins Jan. 22, 2013. 

For more information, visit


WUJS Israel — Intern Tel Aviv or Jerusalem

WUJS Israel is a five-month post-college program that offers the ultimate Israel experience for Jewish young adults from around the world. The program is based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. WUJS Israel allows graduates the opportunity to intern with one of Israel’s leading companies or NGOs, with the additional benefits of a regular Hebrew-language course, weekly field trips, overnight hikes, meetings with Israeli peers and a variety of fun and enriching activities. Participants on WUJS Intern Tel Aviv are required to intern 25 to 30 hours a week.

There are internships available in startups, finance, high-tech, arts and culture, science and medicine as well as museums.

For more information, visit

Former Jewish Agency head tapped as Israel’s next ambassador to U.S.

One of Sallai Meridor’s first acts as chairman-elect of the Jewish Agency for Israel was to deliver relief to a Muslim country, Albania.

The delivery of food and medicine to refugees from the Kosovo crisis in April 1999 was a first for the organization best known for rescuing Jews — and was a sign that the scion of one of Israel’s founding families had a perpetual yearning for a wider diplomatic role.

A little more than a year after Meridor shocked the Jewish world by quitting the agency before his term ended, telling friends he hankered for a diplomatic role, his wish is about to come true: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nominated him on Oct. 4 to be Israel’s next ambassador to Washington.

The one sentence statement from the Prime Minister’s Office simply said Olmert and Livni “decided that Mr. Sallai Meridor will be appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in place of Danny Ayalon, who is completing his four-year term.”

Meridor, 51, still faces confirmation by the Cabinet and must be cleared by the Foreign Ministry’s legal team. But with Livni and Olmert in agreement — and they are at odds on just about everything else recently — his appointment is a sure thing.

Sources said he is set to start in January.

Meridor’s appointment comes at a critical time. The U.S.-Israel relationship has arguably never been stronger, but the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace that both countries had embraced has been crumbling amid chaos among the Palestinians and growing regional threats from Iran and Iraq.

It also comes after Olmert’s political fortunes were severely hampered by the damage Israel suffered this summer during its war with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli prime minister is hoping to revive talks with the Palestinians.

Traditionally, Israel’s ambassador to Washington goes beyond the role of intermediary between Jerusalem and Washington, with the ambassador often involved in helping to set Israeli policy.

Meridor had already been seen as a shoo-in because of his decades-old friendship with Olmert.
Both men are “princes” of the Likud Party establishment who have moderated their hawkish views. Olmert now leads the centrist Kadima Party, which broke away from the Likud last year.

That friendship is probably the critical element explaining Meridor’s appointment, according to Jewish leaders who have known both men for decades.

“The most important thing for an ambassador to the United States is to have the confidence of the prime minister, and they go back many years,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Meridor also has a reputation for integrity, rolling back the Jewish Agency’s notoriety for patronage during his 1999-2005 term, and cutting its expenses.

The Jewish Agency, involved in the rescue and absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel as well as Jewish education around the world, is the primary overseas recipient of North American federation funds.

As head of the agency, he pushed for the accelerated immigration of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia, and the establishing of MASA — a program to bring thousands of Diaspora youth to Israel for long-term study and visits. He advocated aliyah from Western countries and established a partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped boost immigration to Israel from North America and most recently, England.

He is well-known — and praised by American Jewish officials of both political and philanthropic organizations.

Sallai has a tremendous intellect and the capacity to multitask at the highest level of detail,” said Jay Sarver, the chairman of the agency’s budget and finance committee. “He has a deep, deep Jewish identity and neshama, and a deep belief in Zionist action.”

Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and the former president of the United Jewish Communities, worked closely with him during his term at the agency.

“He is a good listener and he is articulate in English as well as Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “He thinks strategically and looks at a lot of different angles, is cautious and gathers a lot of opinions before he makes a move.”

Friends say that the more recent role at the helm of the Jewish Agency obscures his talents as a diplomat. As an adviser to Moshe Arens, who served as foreign minister and defense minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cultivated a friendship with James Baker. That was exceptional because Baker, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was not known for friendly relations with Israel.

Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator and diplomat, worked for Baker at the time. Meridor knows how to explain Israel’s needs, he knows how to work effectively with American administrations, he knows how to see the big picture,” Ross said. “Israel could not have made a better choice.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, said they looked forward to working with someone with solid Washington experience.

“He is a highly effective advocate, is well-acquainted with the ways of Washington, D.C., and will surely bring his considerable talents to bear in his new post,” said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.

Meridor has often straddled two worlds – as a West Bank settler who lives in Kfar Adumim, a settlement near Jericho likely to be dismantled in the withdrawals that Olmert has advocated.
His dual majors at Hebrew University were in the history of Islamic peoples and the history of the Jews. He speaks Arabic.

“Sallai has the ability to take people, to appeal to people from the right and the left and make people feel comfortable whether he agrees with their opinions or not,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who admires Meridor despite their disagreements on last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “In this kind of job, that’s an important trait.”

Klein noted Meridor’s profound affection for the whole biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.

What a Difference a ‘Gap Year’ Makes

After high school graduation last year, as his friends went off to college, Ari Feinstein headed to Israel. He taught English to 10-year-olds in Upper Nazareth, worked on a camel farm near Dimona, studied in Jerusalem and participated in simulated basic training on an Israeli army base.

“I don’t know any other American kid who went around carrying an M-16 for two months,” he said. “Or had as much immersion in Israeli society.”

Ari, 19, now a freshman at UC Davis, was one of 300 high school graduates participating in Year Course, a nine-month program of Young Judaea, the Zionist Youth Movement of Hadassah that has sent more than 5,000 teenagers to Israel since its founding in 1956.

Young people like Ari have been going to Israel for decades, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially with the recent introduction of MASA, a new long-term funding initiative between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partner organizations worldwide that is targeted to reach $100 million per year, perhaps as early as 2008. This year $25 million was made available. The program is designed encourage more students to participate in Year Course and other similar post-high school or “gap-year” courses.

At a cost of about $13,000 to $18,000 for each student, these programs provide a break between high school and college and can include study, travel, work and community service. They allow students time for reflection, personal growth and often new or renewed religious commitment.

MASA, Hebrew for journey, started funding students who qualified on a need-basis in 2004-05, subsidizing more than 100 approved five- to 10-month Israel programs that assist 18- to 30-year-olds in building a solid connection to Israel. This year, MASA is helping to send 7,000 young adults worldwide to Israel, with hopes of sending 20,000 a year by decade’s end.

According to MASA director Dr. Elan Ezrachi, “Our main goal is to enable young adults from all over the world to have an extended period in Israel and, by doing so, to strengthen Jewish identity, build up a connection to Israel and invest in their future roles as leaders in their home communities. And, from an Israeli perspective, they get a taste of the idea of aliyah.”

The numbers of students taking advantage of such programs historically have not been large among Reform and Conservative Jews, according to Joseph Blassberg, director of career counseling at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. He said Milken sends about three or four graduates annually on one-year, post-high school programs and has found that colleges and universities generally approve students’ requests to defer admission until the following September.

Among the Modern Orthodox, a gap year is de rigueur. Each year, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Orthodox young men and about 1,600 young women, the majority from the United States, spend their post-high school year in yeshivot in Israel. They go for a year of intense study, with the boys often spending 12 to 16 hours a day poring over Jewish texts. They also all get an opportunity to reflect on their future from a Jewish perspective.

For Ira Silver, 18, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University High School (YULA) for Boys who dreams of becoming an investment banker, the year has provided an opportunity to ponder the intersection of his religious and professional life.

Since September, he’s been a student at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem. “Yeshiva gives you the opportunity to become stronger in your Torah,” he said. “You know for sure that you can function in society as a successful investment banker and a religious Jew.”

American students first began attending yeshivot in the 1970s, according to Asher Brander, rabbi of Westwood Kehilla and Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Boys. There were a few earlier, he said, but the phenomenon got into full swing in the 1980s.

About 30 Modern Orthodox yeshivot are in existence, mostly centered in or around Jerusalem, and each hosts about 60 to 70 students. They vary in terms of academics, ideology, geography, supervision and warmth.

Some, like Lev HaTorah and Yeshivat Eretz, focus on college preparatory skills, teaching boys how to live as committed Jews on college campuses. Others, including Ner Ya’akov, Neveh Zion and Kesher, are set up to deal with at-risk teens.

But overall, the process — and the dramatic progress students make — is similar at all schools. “They sit over a piece of Talmud or a piece of Torah, and they discover themselves,” Brander said.

Yeshivot for young women also date back to the 1970s with some, including Machon Gold and Michlala, established even earlier. But they total only about 20 today, providing fewer places and stiffer competition than at men’s yeshivot.

New yeshivot, however, are being launched. The Tiferet Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women opened its doors last September, admitting 48 students from an applicant pool of 200. According to co-founder Rabbi Azriel Rosner, Tiferet was founded because of need and because of a desire to create a caring and communal environment.

Women’s yeshivot also are differentiated by their unique perspective. At Michlelet Esther, said co-principal Rabbi Baruch Smith, “our forte is very much in finding a girl who is not highly motivated in her yiddishkayt, or Torah outlook, and in giving her knowledge and inspiration to be religious.” Founded in 1995, the yeshiva accepts 78 students each year from 120 to 200 applicants.

For Lauren Katchen, a YULA graduate who attended Michlelet Esther in 2003-2004, the experience was the “best decision I ever made in my whole life.” Now a student at Queens College, City University of New York, Katchen, 20, is majoring in textiles, art history and business. She wants a career in fashion, but her experience in Israel altered her perception of her eventual role as a mother.

“It didn’t even occur to me that it’s such an important thing to raise your kids on your own, that you are the mother to instill in them good character traits and see them on the right path,” she said.

An innovative yeshiva, Midreshet Darkeynu opened three years ago to address the needs of religious girls with learning disabilities and who, in the words of parent Joelle Keene, “are just a little different.” Keene’s daughter, Hannah, 19, is taking a second year there, studying and working in a kindergarten. “She’s getting a richer religious identity in a beautiful strong way, as well as social experience and independence,” Keene said.

“The year in Israel is unique,” said Shira Hershoff, Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Girls.”The idea of separating from American culture, the idea of separating from all the distractions to spend the year in Israel connecting to people, connecting to the land and focusing on Torah studies is a very powerful year.’

In the Charedi community, a gap year is not customary for boys nor necessary, because they don’t go on to college, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. They generally transition to an American yeshiva after high school and later to an Israeli yeshiva, where they spend several years and often make aliyah.

More commonly, the ultra-Orthodox girls spend a post-high school year in Israel, but the cost is often prohibitive and many take that year at an American yeshiva. Safran estimated that there are about 10 Charedi yeshivot for men and five for young women.

In the non-Orthodox community, there are fewer options for spending a gap year in Israel, although the number of opportunities are increasing, along with growing interest.

In fall 2005, Young Judaea enrolled its largest group ever, 400 teenagers, including 50 in Shalem, its track for Orthodox students. It still had a waiting list. Next year, the program hopes to admit 500 to 600 students.

Habonim Dror, a Progressive Labor Zionist Youth movement program and, in its 56th year, the longest-running program sending American teens to Israel, currently has 68 students in Israel, up from 30 last year. The teens live on a kibbutz for a half year and then live cooperatively in an urban setting. They study Hebrew, socialist Zionism and cultural Judaism and work on developing leadership skills and doing social justice work.

The yearlong Nativ, under the auspices of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has a record 78 youths in Israel this year. Next year, the program is hoping to expand to 100 participants. They spend a semester in Jerusalem at Hebrew University or the Conservative Yeshiva and a semester living on a kibbutz or doing community service.

New programs are emerging, among them Carmel, initiated last year by the Union for Reform Judaism and billed as a first-year of college. With eight students in its inaugural year and 14 this year, Carmel combines study at the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies at the Leo Baeck Education Center and the University of Haifa.

Another new program is scheduled to begin in fall 2007 — SIACH, a one-year pluralistic yeshiva, which will be based in Jerusalem. Its name means dialogue and discussion in Hebrew, and its focus will combine serious Torah study with Hebrew and other Jewish and Israeli learning.

“It’s all about creating committed Jews,” said SIACH director Rabbi David Harbater, whose goal is to create a gap-year revolution in the non-Orthodox community, similar to the development of such programs in the Orthodox community 30 years ago.

Peter Geffen, founder of New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, is also looking for a different model with his new program, Kivunim: New Directions. Set to open this fall with 48 kids — half of whom have already signed up — the program will combine experiential learning in Jerusalem with field trips every five weeks to explore the contemporary Jewish communities of Morocco, Lithuania, Hungary and other countries.

Believing that we are too focused on the past, Geffen wants to develop new Jewish leaders who have an understanding of the broader multicultural world and the necessity for co-existence. “There is no place in our agenda for our kids to imagine what the future should look like,” he said.

Still, the current programs seem to be effective. Guidance counselor Hershoff reported that parents of both young women and young men have said to her, “I sent off a teenager, and I got back a mentsch.”