"I always felt like I knew bits of Israel, but not well," said Russell, who grew up in London and will study at Cambridge University in the fall."I wanted to spend some real time here and get to know the country."
Russell, 19, is one of some 5,600 young Jews from around the world who came to Israel this year for long-term study or volunteer programs. The sense of connection and adventure these extended visits create are seen as a safeguard against climbing intermarriage rates and a drop in Jewish community involvement among young people.
Israeli officials believe that longer stays in the country are the best way to cement Jewish identity and commitment to Israel — including an interest in aliyah — among the next generation of Jews. They don’t merely trust that such programs are the way to go; they’re banking on them.
On Sunday, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel launched an ambitious program called Masa, or Israel Journey, in which they plan eventually to invest $100 million a year to help subsidize semester and yearlong programs for Diaspora youth.
Program fees paid by participants are expected to reach another $100 million a year.
The goal is to bring 20,000 young Diaspora Jews to Israel each year on long-term visits.
Allan Hoffman, director general of JAFI’s Education Department, said the goal of having one in five young Jews from the Diaspora in Israel for a long-term program will have a "transformative impact on Jewish life."
"I believe this is one of the few avenues open to us to really build a next generation of Jewish people into the future,"he said.
Hoffman said coming to Israel for an extended stay takes the experience to a different level than coming as a tourist.
"You can have a wonderful experience as a tourist, but you’re always an outsider looking in,"he said.
The gap can be narrowed, he said, "if we can create a generation of young Jews who feel like insiders in their experience with Israel and Israelis."
During the 2004-2005 school year, Masa’s pilot year, $10 million was invested in the program.
On Sunday night, more than 2,000 students who had spent all or part of the year in Israel gathered at an amphitheater at Beit Guvrin National Park south of Jerusalem to celebrate the official launch of Masa with music, dancing and speeches.
Sharon met with the young people and encouraged them to continue their connection to Israel, either by making aliyah or becoming community leaders and supporters of Israel back home.
“Today, we are taking a giant step toward the time when living in Israel for a period of time will be an inseparable part of the life of every Jewish youngster around the world, just as the Land of Israel is an inseparable part of our identities as Jews,” Sharon said.
The program marks the first time the government has allocated such a large sum of money specifically for the Diaspora, Cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon said.
"There is a lot of criticism of the government about the decision at a time when there is poverty and budget cuts,"Maimon said.
But citing the rise in intermarriage and the decrease of young Diaspora Jews remaining active in their communities, Maimon said the government decided it was time to act.
Masa is the brainchild of Sallai Meridor, the outgoing head of JAFI. Meridor made an emotional speech to the Masa participants.
"You, the Jewish youth, you are the future of the Jewish nation. We all have just one country. We will safeguard it forever. The government of Israel and the Jewish Agency are with you in safeguarding the future of the Jewish nation. We will bring together tens of thousands of Jewish youth to Israel," he said.
The crowd applauded wildly with Meridor’s final words, "Am Yisrael Chai."
Researchers have found that Jews who spend extended stays in Israel when they are young have a higher chance of either making aliyah or becoming active, committed members of their communities back home.
According to a study of participants in the Young Judaea Year Course
— a program for North American high school graduates who spend a year in Israel before going to college — 91 percent go on to marry Jews.
A study of another post-high school program, Machon LeMadrechai Chutz LeAretz — which Russell was on this year — found that 40 percent of graduates have made aliyah.
Elan Ezrachi, director of Masa, described birthright israel — the free, 10-day trips to Israel for Diaspora youth — as an "appetizer" for Masa. On Birthright, young Jews often get their first taste of Israel, but longer experiences are needed to cement the connection to the country and their Jewish identities, Ezrachi said.
Russell said he was amazed by the range of experiences he had in Israel.
He changed locations about every six weeks. Among the places he stayed was the city of Sefad in the Galilee. It was there that he volunteered to teach English to Druse children as part of the United Jewish Israel Appeal’s work in the region. The UJIA, Britain’s largest Jewish philanthropy, invests in Jewish education in the United Kingdom and Israel.
Like Russell, Robin Zebrowitz, 23, of Atlanta also had a busy year — teaching swimming and English, hauling plants in an organic greenhouse and living in a center for new immigrants from Ethiopia, France, South Africa and Yemen.
"It’s an absolutely phenomenal, invaluable experience," Zebrowitz said of her year in Israel. "The things I have done here, the friends I have made, the connections are something you can only do if you are here for longer."