September 21, 2019

Israel’s MASA Global Summit Molds Future Jewish Leaders

Participants in the summit. Photo by Axel Angeles

Nestled in the Judean Hills overlooking Jerusalem, Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha offers an oasis of serenity. Peace reigns with its neighborhood Arab villages and just over 700 Israelis call the kibbutz — renowned for its cauliflower and peaches — home. 

The kibbutz’s lone hotel, a driving force of the local economy, is a popular honeymoon destination, with a spa and stunning views of the Neve Ilan Forest and surrounding valleys. 

But in late November, 125 Jewish young professionals from 30 countries converged on the hotel for the MASA Global Leadership Summit, a four-day conference packed with speakers, activities, site visits, workshops and networking. 

What is MASA? Its staff, alumni and current participants will tell you it’s “the best kept secret” in the Jewish world. Since its founding in 2004 by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, more than 120,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 from more than 60 countries have participated in its programs, including study abroad, internships and volunteer opportunities in Israel. Its team operates in 20 countries, where they recruit and provide resources to MASA hopefuls looking to launch careers or gain valuable personal development through the organization’s diverse offerings. 

At any given time, more than 2,000 students and young professionals are interning or volunteering across Israel at startups, hospitals, venture capital firms, schools, small businesses, media outlets and more. Many end up making aliyah, while others return home and bolster global Jewish communities. 

 “These young people here at the summit are passionate about global Jewry. You can see it in their faces, that they know change is possible.” — Sonja Vilicic

MASA offers the summit twice a year as a forum for participants to meet and learn from one another. On the first day of last November’s summit, attendees gathered in one of the hotel’s conference rooms after a hearty Israeli breakfast. They had arrived the night before, finding their way to Ma’ale HaHamisha by bus or train from around the country. Some participants were in programs in nearby Jerusalem and had a short trip. Others weren’t so lucky. A young Russian woman from Siberia, whose program entails teaching surfing in Eilat in the south of the country, complained loudly about her bumpy, late night, five-hour bus ride.  

Everyone appeared tired except Ben Baginsky, director of the MASA Global Leadership Academy. Baginsky sported a chinstrap of facial hair and a crisp button-down shirt. He paced jauntily with a microphone. 

“It’s lovely to see the names from my Excel sheet spring to life right before my eyes,” he said as Russian bubbled quietly out of headsets translating his words in real time for the Russian-speaking attendees. “What countries are we all from?” 

Ben Baginsky, director of the MASA Global Leadership Academy. Photos by Axel Angeles

Varied shouts of “good morning” rang out in quick succession. “Boker tov!” a young man called, opening the floodgates. “Sabah alkhyr!” “Buenos días!” “Buongiorno!” “Kaliméra!” “Dobroye utro!” 

Baginsky separated the attendees into five, 25-person discussion groups that would meet daily. Before officially kicking things off, he left attendees with a thought to chew on over the next few days: “What is leadership?” 

After a day listening to a variety of speakers, including one of the Israel Defense Force’s first openly gay commanders, and a principal at an Arab high school, participants split into their groups and were asked to make a short video about the meaning of leadership. 

They filmed with their phones on grassy patches; formed human pyramids and climbed trees; sang songs and ran around to answer the prompt. The evening was spent networking in the lobby, drinking wine and taking cigarette breaks in the chilly night air. 

“The mingling is really one of the highlights,” Cody Norton, 26, a Los Angeles native interning with an Israeli high-tech company through MASA, told the Journal. “One of the conference’s greatest currencies is the people here.” 

“Yeah,” Ethan Smith, 24, from Corona, Calif., agreed. “We’re meeting Jews from all over the world, learning about Jewish communities we know little about. You end up having to cross barriers like different experiences, language, and come to common understanding.” 

Participants weren’t just kept to the confines of the hotel. They were taken to different sites to see some of Israel’s most controversial issues play out on the ground. Some visited the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where African migrants live in relative squalor and face racism from locals. Others took a trip to an Arab village to learn about the lives of Arab-Israeli citizens. These real-world experiences, coupled with the classes and speakers, are all designed to create well-rounded MASA leaders of the future.

“It’s in that tense zone we normally flee from where we have to find ways to bring people together and facilitate healthy discourse on divisive topics in the Jewish world. It takes courage to make a difference.”  — Ben Baginsky

On the second day of the summit, Brandon Srot, a Sydney, Australia-based psychotherapist and leadership development facilitator, stood silently for several minutes in front of the participants. Unease took over. Uncomfortable murmuring swelled. Some people shouted jokes to break up the nervous energy. Participants quietly debated how to proceed. Finally, Norton, in an attempt to bring calm, made his way to the front of the room and assumed control. 

“OK, so what do we think is going on here?” he said, standing alongside Srot, who didn’t flinch. As people responded, Norton jotted down answers.

“I think this is about us viewing ourselves as leaders, and not needing someone to tell us what leadership is,” a young man said. 

At the end of the session, Srot amended Baginsky’s opening-day question. “I want you to think long and hard about this,” he said. “What happens to your leadership when you’re in the presence of authority?”

“That’s certainly a huge part of what we’re doing,” Sarah Mali, MASA Global Leadership Academy’s vice president told the Journal. “Leadership, in my view, is more about behavior and less about authority. That conflation of leadership and authority is part of the problem in the Jewish world. We want to help the Jewish leaders of tomorrow to unseat challenges that lie before them.” 

Before joining MASA, Mali introduced the concept of adaptive leadership — pioneered at the Harvard Kennedy School, which posits that leadership and authority are entirely separate concepts — to the Jewish Agency’s Global Leadership Institute (GLI). She and Baginsky are firm believers in the idea that adaptive leadership is the key to future harmony of the Jewish world. 

During one session, Mali referenced satire as a means of adaptive leadership: to hold those in power to account, enact change and draw attention to social issues. She also highlighted grass-roots activism as another effective method of adaptive leadership. During a PowerPoint presentation, she told participants about an incident in 2017 in the Netherlands when a gay couple was brutally attacked. A journalist suggested a day where all men hold hands, walking the streets, as a show of solidarity with the gay community. 

“The community recognized a problem, saw the work that had to be done and didn’t wait for an authority to lead them there,” she said. “They made it happen.” 

Baginsky said unlocking the adaptive leadership potential in the next wave of Jewish young professionals is key in bridging gaps that divide Jews around the world.  He referred back to the session in which Srot stood in front of participants without speaking:  “During the quiet, you see how uncomfortable people are, how they can’t deal with it. Well, we want to get people to live in it, embrace it and act in it. It’s in that tense zone we normally flee from where we have to find ways to bring people together and facilitate healthy discourse on divisive topics in the Jewish world. It takes courage to make a difference.” 

It appears that MASA is helping young Jews make that difference. A 2018 survey conducted by Berkeley-based Rosov Consulting of 1,000 MASA alumni going back seven years, revealed that 13 percent of alumni go on to work in Jewish organizations, while 36 percent serve on the boards of nonprofits. Over half of the participants surveyed viewed themselves as “leaders” in their communities. 

“With adaptive leadership as a tool, we want to build a better Jewish world,” Mali said. “It’s very important that young people feel like they can make change and feel like they have something at stake in the future of their Jewish communities.” 

MASA CEO Liran Avisar

Mali brought her friend Sonja Vilicic to speak at the summit, hoping her story would inspire those with plans to return to their communities after their MASA programs. Born in Serbia, Vilicic has taken part in Jewish leadership trainings all over the world and graduated from the Melton Senior Educators Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2013, she returned to her home country to establish Haver Srbija, a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Haver Srbija exposes non-Jews to the culture, history and tradition of the Jewish people as a step to confronting prejudices, misconceptions and discrimination. The summit, Vilicic said, offers a glimpse into the hearts and minds of Jews like herself who will go on to improve their communities. 

“These young people here at the summit are passionate about global Jewry,” she said. “You can see it in their faces, that they know change is possible. They’re here to do something about it and make change happen.” 

Boston-born Sandy Stonebraker, 27, wasn’t thinking about making change happen four years ago when she started her dream job teaching high school math in a Boston suburb. The fact that the area was practically devoid of Jews didn’t matter to her until just over a year ago, when her 10th-grade students began making anti-Semitic comments.

“The school had no idea how to handle it,” Stonebraker said. “I grew up sheltered in my community. I didn’t know how to handle it either.” 

After contemplating joining the Peace Corps, Stonebraker settled on a MASA program to better understand her connection to Judaism and help her combat ignorance in her community. Today she lives in Tel Aviv and volunteers in schools and daycare centers run out of homes with vulnerable populations in the city, mainly Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. 

“I’m a jungle gym with babies climbing all over me most days,” she said, laughing. 

The issue of migrant populations from North Africa settling in Israel to escape war and persecution is a hotly contested one. But it’s not one Stonebraker shies away from. 

“Many Israelis don’t know the hardships these people faced to get here and what they’re up against,” she said. “I think my experiences here in Israel, and then being at this conference, are all making me a better teacher. It’s making me better equipped to go back home [to Boston] eventually and combat what I saw in my school: ignorance. I don’t want people to define me, as a Jew, by hatred.” 

However, unlike Stonebraker, not all MASA alumni head home. Many stay and contribute to Israeli society, particularly those in the startup world. One of the high-tech sector’s leading pipelines of international talent, MASA programs funnel programmers, developers and more from all around the globe into the “startup nation.” 

Each year, about 1,000 MASA participants intern with high-tech companies. According to studies published by MASA, the collective contribution of interns to the Israeli economy is 150 million NIS, or roughly $27 million a year. 

San Diego native Jolene Amit, 31, is just one of those former interns. After participating in Birthright in 2005, Amit was struck by her immediate deep connection to Israel. In 2009, she signed up to come back through MASA and interned with a startup. Now, she serves as the director of global multichannel eCommerce for Syte.Ai, an emerging tech company based in Tel Aviv, which partners with retailers to provide product recognition, enabling users to shop from any image online or on social media. 

“My story isn’t uncommon,” Amit said, sipping coffee on a couch at the Syte office. “You get out of these internships what you put into them.” 

Just down the road from Syte, David Schumann, 28, originally from Germany, and Brian Goldfarb, 33, who hails from Argentina, are also climbing the ranks at an Israeli startup. Both started as fresh-faced MASA interns nearly 10 years ago at Minute Media, a digital sports platform that powers content, advertising and technology experiences for hundreds of global brands and some of the world’s biggest publishers. Schumann, a product manager, and Goldfarb, senior managing editor of “90 Minutes,” the company’s soccer brand, said MASA gave them their start in the Holy Land. 

“It was great in every way and it got us in here,” Schumann said, gesturing around the Minute Media office, complete with ping-pong tables, soccer matches airing on televisions, and hammocks on the back patio. “Having the other participants to lean on also helped get acclimated socially and helped us enjoy life in Tel Aviv.” 

“Plus,” Goldfarb added with a grin, “we both met our wives through MASA.” 

“The ‘MASA mafia’ is strong,” Schumann said. “We hire MASA interns all the time.”

With alumni gaining a foothold, the “MASA mafia” offers its leadership participants a world of possibilities. However, back at the summit in Ma’ale HaHamisha, leaders constantly reminded attendees that leadership potential always comes back to tackling difficult subjects and not backing down from discourse. 

“We want Jewish Federations finding and hiring young, energetic, creative thinking Jews with different points of views. We want [MASA] to be that pipeline.” — Liran Avisar

That notion was hammered home on the final evening of the summit. Keynote speaker, Australian born Danny Hakim — founder and chairman of Budo for Peace, an organization that brings together Jews and Muslims through the practice of karate in Israel — told participants, “It wasn’t easy, but I found an avenue to unite people who many may think have no business coming together.” 

A two-time world karate silver medalist and philanthropist, Hakim issued a passionate plea to participants: “The gap between the Diaspora and Israel is widening. This is your challenge as future leaders to address. You, the next wave of Jewish leaders, can make a difference, promoting people-to-people change through grass-roots organizing.” 

The next morning, MASA CEO Liran Avisar paid a visit to the summit to talk to attendees about what she deemed a crisis in North America.

“Look at how the continent is dealing with the Israel issue,” she said. “There was a time when the subject was discussed with nuance, where criticism was part of the debate but it was rooted in how special the connection between Jews and the land of Israel is. I think the discussion is getting farther and farther from that.” 

For Avisar, MASA’s success is contingent upon integrating a new generation of minds into Jewish leadership roles. 

“I’m focusing on the deployment of young Jews into the community, specifically in Jewish organizations, nonprofits and as volunteers,” she told the Journal. “We want Jewish Federations finding and hiring young, energetic, creative thinking Jews with different points of views. We want to be that pipeline and we’re working on more official deployment mechanisms like the Hillel affiliates we work with on campuses.” 

As the conference drew to a close, summit attendees met in private with their discussion groups. There was arguing. There was a leftist point of view and more right-leaning opinions voiced. The participants led for the most part with educators shepherding things along. 

“In those discussions I was reminded of a Rumi poem,” Srot said afterward, a smile curling his lips: ‘Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.’ ”

He paused then playfully rolled his eyes. “I should’ve told them that in the group. I wish I hadn’t thought of that just now.”


The reporter was invited by MASA to attend the summit on behalf of the Jewish Journal.