Sharron Topper-Amitai: Bringing Greater Phoenix to Israel and Israel to Greater Phoenix

Sharron Topper-Amitai: Bringing Greater Phoenix to Israel and Israel to Greater Phoenix

April 12, 2011

Now on her second shlichut in Phoenix, Arizona, Sharron Topper-Amitai had her first taste of international Jewish communal work 10 years ago in Manchester, England.
“I was there for two years and I loved every minute of it,” she says. While there, she created Jewish and Israel-related programming for Jewish community members of all ages and started a youth from the northern Jewish communities of the UK.
 
“My husband and I were both born in Israel and it’s been very important for us to work in Jewish communities outside of Israel,” she says. “I love being able to learn about diverse Jewish identities, while sharing my own experiences as an Israeli.”
 
Following her return to Israel, Sharron worked as a JCC director in Israel before setting out on her second shlichut in Phoenix. There, she works to bring Israel into her community’s daily life through concerts, movies, lectures, discussions, and other cultural events.
 
One of Sharron’s main aims has been to introduce college students and young professionals to Israel through Birthright trips and Masa Israel programs, experiences that often follow each other.
 
“When they decide they want to go, we sit together and discuss their options. Then they go and I’m so excited because I know what Israel does to people,” she says.  “They return with sparkles in their eyes and tell me that it was ‘amazing.’ What I love is when they ask me how they can contribute to their local Jewish community and how they can return to Israel.”
 
To keep the momentum going from their Israel experiences, Sharron created an Israel alumni group where Phoenix-based Birthright and Masa Israel alumni meet to take part in Israel-related events. “The work isn’t finished when they enroll in their programs. It’s just as important to keep them connected to the Israel Center when they return,” says Sharron.
 
At a recent Arizona State University graduate fair, where Sharron represented Masa Israel academic programs, Sharron felt especially prideful about her work. “I’ve gone to many recruitment fairs, but I was shocked when I entered a huge hall filled with tons of representatives from universities throughout the United States,” says Sharron. “My first thought was, Israel al-hamapah, which literally means, Israel is on the map. It was incredibly exciting see that Israel had a presence among all those institutions. Lots of people stopped by to show their support and learn about graduate programs in Israel.”
 
Sharron is thankful for the opportunity to be a shlicha today. “We live in an era when Israel and Judaism are changing so quickly. Although it’s a challenge to influence what’s happening, it’s a privilege to be able to try,” says Sharron. “I believe that Masa Israel programs certainly make a huge difference.”
 
Sharron is being honored with Masa Israel’s “Outstanding Achievement in Recruitment” award the this year’s Kenes Shlichim, a conference for Israeli emissaries from across North America.

Exploring ideology and pluralism at the Masa Israel Keshet seminar

<div class="masa-blog-title">Exploring ideology and pluralism at the Masa Israel Keshet seminar</div>

 
By Flora Cantacuzino Levy and Zara Tobias, Netzer Olami
 
On Thursday the 28th of October, gap year participants from one American and six British Zionist youth movements gathered in Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem for the first Keshet Seminar, which was a collaboration beween Masa Israel, Machon, British Youth Movements, and the UJIA and UJF. Coming from all over Israel, 150 participants met for the weekend in order to discuss and explore issues and opin
 

A Chanukah Tweet Up in Israel

Just your average week in the desert…

<div class="masa-blog-title">Just your average week in the desert…</div>

 
By Leora Lana Kaufman, Young Judaea Year Course, Rye, NY
 
This post would be way too long if I described everything in detail, so I’ll list a few highlights since Sukkot Break.
 
A few days after returning home from our break, nearly our entire section took a bus to the Dead Sea to attend a Matisyahu concert. The bus was noisy, packed, and short a few seats but we all made it there in one piece.
 

Extended Stays in Israel Create Leaders

Extended Stays in Israel Create Leaders

November 15, 2010

Participation in semester or year programs in Israel is directly linked to stronger Jewish affiliation and leadership — regardless of the Jewish background growing up, a study commissioned by Masa Israel Journey finds.
Masa Israel, a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government which serves as an umbrella for 180 semester and year programs in Israel, commissioned the study to measure the efficacy of long term Israel programs for future Jewish involvement and affiliation.
 
The study was conducted by Prof.  Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and research professor of Jewish social  policy at the Hebrew Union College, and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, principal of Research Success.
 
The study found that the longer the program on which participants spent time in Israel and the more repeated the experiences, the greater the level of Jewish identification.
 
The study surveyed more than 13,000 Israel program participants, more than 11,000 of whom were Americans, and most of whom had been on either a short-term experience or a Masa program from 2005 to 2010, or both.
 
It compared three groups who had been on short-term programs:
 
  • those who been on Birthright and not returned to Israel
  • those who returned to Israel for another short term; and
  • those who had been on Birthright, and then went on a Masa Israel program.
 
The study also examined two other groups who had been on long term programs only: those non-Orthodox young adults who had been on Masa without going on Birthright, and those who were raised Orthodox and had been on Masa.
 
These two groups reported far stronger Jewish background and childhood Jewish education than did the three Birthright groups.
 
The study found that with each subsequent Israel experience, the level of Jewish engagement rose significantly.
 
For example, for the married respondents, among those who did Birthright and had not returned subsequently to Israel, 50% married a Jewish spouse; among those who did Birthright and returned to Israel subsequently for a short term, 70% married Jews; among those who did Birthright followed by Masa, as many as 91% were in-married.
 
In other words, short term program graduates who never returned to Israel reported intermarriage rates close to the national Jewish average for people their age.
 
In contrast, those who went on to participate in a Masa program were far more likely to marry Jewish, doing so in more than nine out of 10 instances.
 

From Costa Rica with Love

From Costa Rica with Love

From Costa Rica with Love

November 13, 2010

Avi Feingezicht’s journey from Costa Rica to Israel began with Masa Israel. After only eight months in Israel he is convinced that he already knows “what it is like to be an Israeli.”
His parents and brothers still live in Costa Rica (“all the members of my family are engineers there”). Avi visited Israel the first time in 2001. He joined his local Zionist Youth movement at the age of nine. It was possible that the seed of his wish to visit to Israel, and to realize a Zionist dream, was first planted during his youth movement years.
 
He says that the Jewish community in Costa Rica is a warm community that supports Israel. The community comprises around 3,000 Jews and even has its own museum based on the history of Jews in the tiny country. “Costa Rica is the country in which I was born. The Vice President is Jewish, but I know it’s not my country, and that is maybe the reason why I was drawn to here, to study Jewish culture, from close up, from the source.”
 
Avi visited Israel in 2007 to participate in the World Bible Quiz for Jewish Youth, which is organized by the Gadna youth corps of the IDF and the Jewish Agency. “I was at a camp for Bible students and I got to know lots of places in Israel.
 
In February, 2010, Avi returned to Israel as part of Masa Israel, for a period of 10 months.
 
During the first four and a half months of the program he learned about Israel and Zionism at the Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’Aretz (Institute for Foreign Counselors), as well as learning about being a counselor and working in the movement’s leadership. He also took part in a trip to Poland and volunteered to do ecological work.
 
He subsequently spent two months on the Marva program (basic military training for people from abroad) and in the coming weeks, he and his colleagues will relocate to Haifa. There they will undertake intensive volunteer work for a three month period (including attending an ulpan in conjunction with the local municipality), work at schools and community centers, and with people with emotional disorders and at homes for senior citizens.
 
After the program he is planning on returning to Costa Rica for three months to work with the movement’s leadership there, after which he will go to the United States to study engineering. “I don’t know yet what will happen after I complete my five years of studies in the States, but it is clear to me that the experience I have had here in Israel will stay with me no matter what I do.”
 
He says that the Masa program has given him a lot of tools and, when he returns home, he intends to use them to explain Israel’s position in Costa Rica and also on the campus where he will study in the United States (Northwestern University).
 

10 kilometers… why not!?

<div class="masa-blog-title">10 kilometers… why not!?</div>

 
Hannah Kotzen, Young Judaea Year Course, Seattle, WA
 
Just recently was the Nike Tel Aviv Night Run, a 10K through the streets of Tel Aviv. IT WAS AMAZING! Let me preface by saying that I am not a runner whatsoever so the mere fact that I attempted to run the race was incredible. But what was even more incredible is that I finished!
 

Photo Essay: Masa Israel North America Yom Kef

<div class="masa-blog-title">Photo Essay: Masa Israel North America Yom Kef</div>

 
Before winter hit, the Masa Israel North American team decided to have a Yom Kef (staff day). Being part of an Israeli organization, we did what any Israelis would do—a hiking trip! We woke up early and headed up to Bear Mountain.
 
After scaling the rocks, we stopped for a break.
 
Of course, no staff day would be complete without a snack and a call to our Israel office.
 
 
Halfway through the hike, are we having fun yet?
 
 
We made it to the top—what a view!
 
 
Now, if only we knew how to get back. Trail markers aren’t as good as they are in Israel…
 
 
Rescue arrives!
 
 
We had a great Yom Kef, spending time outside the office and enjoying the tail end of fall.
 
Now back to work getting more people on Israel programs!
 

Can I offer you some Mediterranean food?

<div class="masa-blog-title">Can I offer you some Mediterranean food?</div>

 
By Amy Schmidt, Young Judaea Year Course, Los Angeles, CA
 
Our last two culinary adventures have taken us around the Mediterranean Sea.  Earlier this month, our lesson was Italian-themed, and yes, we did learn to make not only spaghetti, but also gnocchi from scratch. I was partnered with my friend Ben on the tapenade while the others worked on the other sauces, including a fresh pesto and a tomato-garlic-basil sauce.
 

Study: Longer Experiences in Israel Linked to Sharply Increased Jewish Engagement, Leadership, and Marrying Jews

Study: Longer Experiences in Israel Linked to Sharply Increased Jewish Engagement, Leadership, and Marrying Jews

April 11, 2011

Masa study finds Israel fills gap for those with weaker Jewish background
Participation in semester or year programs in Israel is directly linked to stronger Jewish affiliation and leadership – regardless of the Jewish background growing up, a study commissioned by Masa Israel Journey finds. Masa Israel, a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government which serves an umbrella for 180 semester and year programs in Israel, commissioned the study to measure the efficacy of long term Israel programs for future Jewish involvement and affiliation. The study was conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen, Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, principal of Research Success.
 
The study found that the longer the time  participants spent in Israel and the more repeated the experiences, the greater the level of Jewish identification. The study surveyed over 13,000 Israel program participants, more than 11,000 of whom were Americans, and most of whom had been on short term experience or Masa Israel program from 2005 to 2010. It compared three groups who had been on short term programs: 1) those who been on Birthright but not returned to Israel; 2) those who returned to Israel for another short term program; and 3) those who had been on Birthright and then went on a Masa program. The study also examined two other groups who had been on long term programs only — 4) those non-Orthodox young adults who had been on Masa Israel programs without going on Birthright, and 5) those who were raised Orthodox and had been on Masa. These two groups reported far stronger Jewish background and childhood Jewish education than did the three Birthright groups.
 
The study found that with each subsequent Israel experience, the level of Jewish engagement rose significantly. For example, for the married respondents, among those who did Birthright and had not returned subsequently to Israel, 50% married a Jewish spouse; among those who did Birthright and returned to Israel subsequently for a short term, 70% married Jews; among those who did Birthright followed by Masa, as many as 91% were in-married. In other words, short term program graduates who never returned to Israel reported intermarriage rates close to the national Jewish average for people their age. In contrast, those who went on to participate in a Masa program were far more likely to marry Jewish, doing so in more than nine out of ten instances.
 
This pattern repeated itself for numerous other measures of Jewish engagement. These included Jewish organizational affiliation, taking leadership in Jewish life, interest in working professionally in the Jewish community, attachment to Israel, and, for a small but significant minority – making aliyah. In other words, the study found that, on these measures of Jewish engagement, Birthright coupled with Masa can, in effect, provide a viable alternative route to very high levels of Jewish engagement for young adults with only moderate or limited Jewish background.
 
When asked if they had given thought to pursuing a Jewish professional career, 45% of those who did Birthright followed by Masa said yes, nearly identical to the 46% of Orthodox Masa graduates who said the same. Among those who had been only on Birthright, 12% indicated giving a Jewish career consideration; the number doubled among Birthright graduates who returned for a short term to 26%; and almost doubled again, to 45%, for Birthright graduates who did Masa. These patterns are similar to the evidence found in the recent Avi Chai study of Jewish leaders which cites a long term Israel program as one of the most widespread experiences shared by young American Jewish leaders, along with day schools and Jewish camp participation.
 
Relating to Israel attachment, the Birthright/Masa cohort scored similarly to the Masa Orthodox cohort, as they did on other measures. When asked if they had recently gone to a lecture or class related to Israel, 72% of those who participated in Birthright/Masa said they had, similar to the 80% of Orthodox Masa graduates who also had. (When it came to reading Israeli newspapers the Birthright/Masa cohort actually outscored the Orthodox Masa group by 61% to 43%).
 
Significantly, 18% of Birthright/Masa graduates are currently now living in Israel, a slightly higher figure than the 17% of Orthodox Masa graduates now living in Israel.
 
“Over the years, a body of evidence has established the value of the short-term trip to Israel. This study is one of a small number that points to the significant added value of the long-term trip,” said Professor Cohen, who co-authored the study. “If ten days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement—and it is—then ten months in Israel is even better. This finding points to the strong policy interest in promoting return travel to Israel among Birthright alumni, and the even stronger interest in advancing long term return travel, such as that sponsored by Masa Israel Journey.”
 
Last week, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors approved the operational part of its strategic plan which calls for the organization to focus its work around two main areas of activity—the first, a spiral of Israel experience for young adults. These would start with short term programs, like Birthright, through longer term programs like Masa, and include developing intermediate-length programs like summer school in Israel, with the overarching aim of strengthening Jewish identity and increasing attachment to Israel among today’s youth.
 
“The data from this study show that we are on the right track with our strategic plan,” said Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. “We are convinced—and the data from this reports affirm—that a continuum of Israel experiences for young adults correlates directly to them feeling, thinking and doing more things Jewish and Israel with each step they take along the Israel experience spiral.”