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Programs give young people more than just a taste of their heritage
After a daytime motorcycle accident left a man with severe internal bleeding, Avi Gordon and an ambulance team rushed to the scene.
The victim was lying on the street in Petach Tikvah, a busy suburb of Tel Aviv. Gordon carefully stabilized the man by strapping him onto a backboard while another responder slowly removed his helmet and started to administer care.
The crash victim may never know that Gordon is an 18-year-old volunteer from Harrisburg, Pa., who decided to spend nine months in Israel right after high school. His time as a volunteer with Magen David Adom -- Israel's equivalent to the Red Cross -- was just one part of his experience with Young Judea's Year Course program.
When organizers asked, "Can you handle blood and guts and throwing up?" recalled Gordon, "I said yes."
That simple answer led him to a five-day, 60-hour course on emergency medical training, and then for three months he worked from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., traveling through Petach Tikvah in the back of an ambulance waiting to use his newfound skills.
In Israel since September, his time with the Young Judea program has been split three ways: taking Hebrew and Jewish-studies classes in Jerusalem, working with Magen David Adom in Petach Tikvah, and volunteering with underprivileged elementary- and middle-school students in Bat Yam, a neighborhood south of Tel Aviv.
As of March, his experience has really changed him. He now wears a yarmulke all the time, keeps strictly kosher, and is becoming Shomer Shabbat.
While Gordon is experiencing life in another country, his buddies back home are at various college campuses, wrapping up their first year of college.
"I'm the only one from my high school who is doing this," declared Gordon, who went to Jewish day school but a public high school. "Everybody is like, 'What are you doing? It's ridiculous; what about all the intifadas, all the bombings? I hope you don't get blown up.' "
So, did he make the right choice by taking a year off? Or will it simply cost him more time in graduating from college and getting his career off the ground?
"I figured, it's one year. I'm 18 years old, one year isn't going to kill me," said Gordon who plans to attend Binghamton University in the fall. "I can still go to college for four years, so it's not that big of a deal."
Although he remains undecided about a possible major, his experience as a first-aid responder in Israel could have some impact.
"I was thinking about something in the business field, but maybe even a doctor now because of Magen David Adom," he stated.
A Less Aggressive Stance
The Young Judea program falls under the umbrella of Israel experiences overseen by MASA, a two-year-old arm of the Jewish Agency -- and hence, Israeli government -- that serves as a clearinghouse for more than 150 different programs. Ranging from five months to one year, these programs involve anything from volunteer work to academics to internships to sports.
MASA maintains an annual budget of $38 million for the 2007-08 year, according to executive director Elan Ezrachi. With an average cost of $13,500 per program, he noted that the organization can offer a grant of at least $2,000 to every participant.
Ezrachi and other MASA organizers hope that the programs will strengthen Israel by creating a vibrant connection between Israel and the Diaspora, which can, in turn, strengthen Jewish identity, create future leaders of American Jewish communities and, perhaps, increase the number of people making aliyah.
By MASA's standards, Gordon's experience has been a success.
His connection to Israel is strong, and he's become more religious. The program has even sparked an interest in living in Israel permanently, though he said that he plans to defer that decision until completing college. And he noted that later on in life, he plans to donate money to Magen David Adom, something he might not have done without such hands-on experience with the organization.
Ezrachi has credited former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as being the "first Israeli leader who understood that the future of Israel in terms of aliyah is from the West." Sharon's vision, he explained, was to shun the country's traditionally aggressive and pushy stance on aliyah, and "bring young people to Israel to explore -- not scold, yell or berate."
But while many enjoy a meaningful experience on a MASA program, not all participants become equally inspired.
Michael Goldstein, 23, was hoping that his five-month journey to Arad with the World Union of Jewish Students would offer classes that would expand his existing knowledge of Israeli and Jewish history. What he got, however, was more of a refresher course.
"The program isn't really for me," said the native of Meadowbrook, Pa. "It's really for people who have never been to Israel before or know very little about [its] culture."
However, Meara Razon may just epitomize everything MASA is looking for from an alumnus. A 24-year-old from Upper Dublin, Pa., she spent 10 months on Project Otzma two years ago, splitting time among living on a kibbutz, teaching English to immigrants at an absorption center and residing with an adopted family.
Since part of her family is Israeli, Razon frequently visited the country as a child, but as she recalled it, she'd mostly just lie on a beach. After living there for almost a full calendar year she couldn't bring herself to leave, and stayed on for an extra two months.
"I stayed until the last day that my [plane] ticket was good," she said. "It was Aug. 15, so I left Aug. 15."
She said that her trip taught her more about Judaism, and she befriended many Israelis. Just a short time later, she made aliyah.
Razon said her program offered her "firsthand insight on what it is to be in Israel for a year -- the mindset, the people, the language."
With plans to work in Israeli-Diaspora relations, she felt that her year in Israel will do nothing but good things for her career and her résumé.
Since making aliyah, she has started to work with Otzma on a professional basis, serving as a madricha, or youth leader, helping current participants transition to Israeli culture and working with them so that they feel more confident living so far from home.
"I know the mind-set. I know when you're tired and you're homesick, and all you want is an American meal because you're tired of eating the same stuff all the time," she explained.
Where participants were once tentative, "now they're like, 'I think I'm going to go up north for Shabbat, I'll take the bus, and I'll figure it out when I get there.' "