By Sam Seifman
“Being Jewish is nonnegotiable for me,” said 22-year-old Emma Rose Shapiro of Wynnewood.
Unlike many, her involvement with her synagogue didn’t just stop at her Bat Mitzvah. She went on to get confirmed and even joined the temple youth board. She’s been to Israel twice, once for a five-week program in high school and again for a three-and-a-half-month internship as a tech assistant in a chemistry lab at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. She’s also worked as a program assistant for Challah for Hunger and as an engagement intern for Hillel.
Now, she is part of Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program that sends 200 Jewish professionals to teach English in Israel to elementary and middle schoolers. While there are students from around the world, they mainly come from the United States, Canada, England and Australia and are dispersed all over Israel, including the cities of Beit She’an, Ramla, Nazareth, Bat-Yam, Rishon LeZion, Haifa, Ashdod, Rehovot, Netanya, Beit-Shemesh, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
As a child, Shapiro dreamed of being a chemist until a particularly talented chemistry teacher made her wonder if education was perhaps her calling. After she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, her parents wanted her to go directly to graduate school to study chemistry but she felt this trip was necessary, not only to deepen her connection to Israel but to “take a chill pill” and figure out whether education or lab work was in her future.
It was only appropriate when she found out she had been accepted to the program, Shapiro was inside the library studying chemistry and had to walk outside to celebrate.
Shapiro, already in Israel for orientation, is excited to be back, recalling her first time on Israeli soil, “Once I went, there was an automatic connection.” She later added, “I love that it’s so easy and normal to be Jewish.”
As Arielle Nozek, a 22-year old from Toms River, New Jersey, was about to graduate from Rutgers University, she found herself becoming stressed and nervous about her next steps. She didn’t want to take a gap year, per se, so when she found MITF, she was pleased to find something much more enriching and meaningful.
While she doesn’t consider herself religious, she still believes her Jewish identity plays a significant role in her life and connection to Israel. She first visited the country when she was 14 for camp, came back at 19 for Birthright and returned once more to study Israeli business at age 20. On her last trip, she found it very difficult to leave while packing her bags.
“Yes, every time I have visited Israel, I have felt a soul connection [that] is very hard to explain in words,” she said. “Even though the culture and lifestyle here … are extremely different from my own in the U.S., I have always felt a warm, welcoming feeling here … and a great sense of belonging.”
Like Shapiro, Nozek is curious to see how her life plans will form thanks to this program. According to MITF, “35 to 40% of MITF alumni have immigrated to Israel with some choosing to continue working in various frameworks of education.”
From Yardley, Lily Waldorf’s Jewish identity runs deep.
Her mother, Anne Berman-Waldorf, is the director of education at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, her grandfather is a retied rabbi from Newton, Massachusetts, and her aunt is heavily involved in the Jewish nonprofit world.
These influences and years of attending Jewish summer camp have helped instill Jewish values without forcing them on her. Or as she puts it, “I’m very much Jewish by choice.”
But her interest in Israel also comes from her interest in international relations, which she studied at Tulane University. She took an interest in the difficult answers nations took to solve the world’s most complex problems, leading her to a particular fascination in Israel’s foreign policy.
With this trip, however, it’s all about personal connections.
“I want to enmesh myself in the fabric that is Israeli society,” Waldorf said. “I’m hoping to embrace the culture and connect to my Judaism in ways that I haven’t before. Masa not only encourages this exploration but provides an immense amount of resources to make this happen.”
For Waldorf, 22, everything “felt right” when she got accepted to the program. Teaching English in Israel felt like a meaningful way to spend her time and connect with those who live there. Having taught Hebrew school before, she knows what a rewarding experience this can be. She is aware of the chance that she, and the rest of the fellows, have an opportunity to take advantage of.
“I spoke to someone who told me there are only certain experiences you can have when you’re 22,” she said. “I am at a time in my life with great opportunities and great freedom to choose where I want to direct my talents and passions.”
Sam Seifman is a freelance writer.