by Lauren Pincus
Masa Israel is a project of the Israeli Government and the Jewish Agency that offers grants and scholarships to young Jewish adults for gap year, volunteer, study abroad, and internship opportunities in Israel. Established in 2004, Masa assists thousands of young people each year, with most of its annual budget going towards grants and needs-based scholarships.
During five days in December, I participated in the 2014 Masa Leadership Summit in Jerusalem. All Masa participants were invited to apply for the experience. After filling out an online application, detailing the ways in which we engage our leadership skills, two hundred and fifty young adults from programs across the country were invited to join for the week along with about twenty young Israelis.
The leadership summit consisted of five days of discussions, talks, field trips, and activities for networking and meeting other young Jewish leaders from around the world. Masa invited many well known and prestigious Israeli leaders to speak with the young participants over the course of the week and many of them were quite impactful.
Lod: An inspirational city despite turbulent history
One of the most interesting days for me at the summit was the trip to Lod. We were joined by Yuval Bdolach, founder and CEO of the Re-Lod Project. We were told that Lod is a city of about 74,000 people located fifteen minutes outside Tel Aviv. It is mentioned several times in the Bible and there are still remnants dating back to the Roman period that have been dug up recently and preserved by the Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center.
Today, Lod is a shared city. Demographically, it is made up of about seventy percent Jewish Israeli and thirty percent Arab Israeli citizens. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Lod experienced great local corruption in the municipal government. As a result, much of the population left the failing city. Faced with increased crime, violence and drug use, Lod has become infamous across the country. But Bdolach is trying to change that. With the student villages under way, there is a new movement working in the city to make positive change.
Bdolach works with the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS). In the summer of 2011, he was one of those responsible for bringing students together to participate in the movement against rising housing prices. After the Arab Spring began and even before Occupy Wall Street, tents were set up across cities in Israel to demonstrate that many, particularly among the younger generation, could not afford to live here anymore. Bdolach worked to bring students together to add their voices to the movement.
Later, Bdolach came up with an idea to help revitalize the city of Lod. As part of NUIS, the mission of the Re-Lod Project is to offer students who move to the city a scholarship to any university they want. By volunteering to work with residents on projects that matter in the community, participants in the Re-Lod Project are affecting change on the ground in the ways that matter most.
Bdolach hosted the Masa group at the Chicago Community Center of Lod, a space shared by Jews and Arabs in the city where groups and classes are conducted. We were also brought to the excavation site where the Roman mosaic was unearthed and to a local park that has had a facelift since the Re-Lod Project has begun. In these shared spaces, children can play, adults can learn, seniors can mingle, and the space can be respected.
The Masa group also learned that unlike the segregated and tense feelings of Jerusalem, in Lod, Jews and Arabs are neighbors. If the municipality fails to pick up the trash, it is not just a problem for the Arabs, but for everyone who is an inhabitant of Lod. In other words, it is a system that all rely on equally. In Lod, every resident benefits from services or all are denied services. Whether neighbors can speak the same language does not matter. They can all agree that the trash must be picked up.
The importance of intergenerational leadership
Bdolach says that he wants to see Lod, “Blossom, rebuild, rebrand, Re-Lod” and that the mission of the Re-Lod project is to see the city become “A cool vibrant place for young people to live. The real estate costs are low and the project will allow young people and young families to join and be a part of what is going on.” The new project has already seen this happen. In a short time, the number of student applicants has spiked. In the beginning, he was begging students to join and now, hundreds of students are benefitting from scholarships, while Lod is experiencing something of a Renaissance.
Yuval Bdolach speaking about the Re-Lod project (Photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Throughout my time at the Masa Leadership Summit, I considered what is needed of a leader. I was quoted by Masa as saying, “To be a leader, it’s important not only to listen, but also to be heard.” For example, Labor MK Stav Shaffir, the youngest member of the Knesset at age twenty nine, shared her experiences in the same 2011 social justice protests that Yuval Bdolach helped to organize. She was there to discuss what is needed to be a leader at a time when elections are near. We heard her talk about the importance of social services and she explained that the only way she felt she could make an impact would be to take part in the political process and be the change she wanted to see, instead of rejecting it altogether.
The need for pragmatism
There was less of a discussion on the need for coexistence at the summit, although the need for change was occasionally discussed by participants. There is a lot that is not known or misconstrued about the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel, but Lod is a good example of how we can get along. If we can see this land with a shared vision of the future, we can reconsider what the needs actually are and how they can be attained. Young leaders in the country will have to be realistic about the state of things now if there is going to be real positive change. We can be the change that is needed here. We have to exercise our right to vote and the government must represent us.
Masa Summit participants on the road to visit the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (Photo: Hope Vernon)