Living life’s lessons — students ditch class for the real thing

In a small apartment in Beersheva, several Californians make Nescafé in their kosher kitchen before stepping into the desert air to spend the day volunteering with immigrants in a nearby absorption center.

To the north, in Safed, a 24-year-old from Modesto wakes up in the morning and checks the weather from her balcony, which overlooks the deep blues and greens of Israel’s Meron mountains where she soon will hike.

These young adults are learning more about Judaism, Israel and tikkun olam by living the lessons ordinarily found in a classroom.

“My friends will send me emails that say something like, ‘We learned about the Western Wall today in class,’ and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I went to the Western Wall today,'” said Samantha Hayflich, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles.

Hayflich is one of thousands of Jewish young adults from around the world spending up to a year in Israel, either after high school or during and after college.

She has lived in Israel since September, learning about Judaism, leadership and volunteerism as part of Nativ, a Conservative leadership program that means “path” in Hebrew. Hayflich is one of a growing number of high school graduates —78 in Nativ this year — who opted to spend a year in the Jewish state, instead of a college dorm and lecture halls.

Why are more young people heading to Israel?

For one, there’s more financial support available to those interested in living, working or studying in Israel. A new grant-giving organization, MASA, which means “journey” in Hebrew, has given millions of dollars in scholarships since its inception in 2004.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon inadvertently gave birth to the idea for MASA in 2003, when he said, “Every Jewish young adult should spend at least a year of his life in Israel.” The organization is a partnership between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Until then, only an average of 4,000 diaspora Jews came to Israel each year for a long-term program, compared to the 15,000 teens who annually come on short-term summer programs and the 125,000 who have gone on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip since it started.

Israel expects more than 9,000 young adults to come to Israel on a long-term program during the upcoming school year.

“We’re creating a new norm and practice in Jewish life,” said Elan Ezrahi, executive director of MASA.

There are more than 150 Israel programs for young adults. They range in length from six months to a year and in focus from academics and environmental ethics to leadership, Judaism and volunteerism.

And more programs are being created every year. In the works are a culinary arts program, a self-defense program and an Arabic immersion program.

And there are just as many reasons young adults go to Israel as there are young adults.

For San Francisco State University graduate Elise Weidre, it was a natural follow-up to a junior year abroad in Jerusalem.

The blonde, expressive 22-year-old grew passionate about Judaism and Zionism accidentally. She planned to major in psychology when she first enrolled at SFSU in 2002. That soon changed.

On campus, Weidre found a negative vibe toward Jews and Israel. “I didn’t know how to respond,” she said. She thought that being around other Jewish students might help. So in addition to going to Hillel events, she signed up for an introductory Jewish studies class with professor Marc Dollinger. She soon changed her major to modern Jewish studies. And instead of transferring to get away from the anti-Semitism she felt, she studied abroad at Hebrew University. It was her first trip to Israel.

Though she loved studying at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for International Students, she felt separated from the rest of Israeli society. She thought Otzma — a community service program created in the 1980s by Rabbi Brian Lurie, the former head of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — would help her navigate the complex, layered elements of Israel.

Weidre spent the first three months living with a Moroccan Israeli family in Kiryat Shmona, on the Lebanon border. She loved the family of six — a secular Jewish mother, an observant Moroccan Jewish father and four daughters. Shabbat was a mixture of quiet prayer and raucous cartoon-watching, she said.

Living in a small northern city allowed her to learn how Israelis young and old live and work, think and pray.

Wiedre believes having a deeper understanding of Israeli life and culture will help develop a new wave of “ambassadors” for Israel.

“I think we’re the best people who can repair Israel’s public image,” Wiedre said. “I’m able to defend Israel because I’m more informed. I can admit Israel’s strengths and weaknesses. It makes my opinion more valid — people are not going to listen to those who don’t admit faults.”

Long-term study in Israel traditionally was dominated by the Orthodox — a pre-college year or two in an Israeli yeshiva is typical for graduates of American yeshiva high schools.

But financial support and creative programs have inspired a new pool of applicants to consider a year in Israel.

Heather Zeiden, 24, of Modesto, opted for a small program focused on communal living, spirituality and ecology. It is unique among the 150 long-term Israel programs available. Livnot U’Lehibanot, which in Hebrew means “to build and to be built,” refers to the physical contribution the participants make to Israel.

Participants learn, hike, work, live and explore Judaism together in the hillsides of mystical Safed. They also spend several days a week volunteering at a local elementary school.

Zeiden, who spent her college years at Academy of Art College in San Francisco and U.C. Irvine, said she’s learned just as much from her young Israeli charges, all of whom have moving and scary stories from last summer’s war in Lebanon (Katyusha rockets reached Safed).

She said being in Israel opened her eyes to a broader definition of Judaism.

“There is another way to find Judaism — you don’t need to go searching for Buddhism,” she said.

Sometimes the programs disappoint.

That’s how Eli Kouichi Shirayanagi of San Mateo feels about his five-month international studies program in the desert town of Arad. He volunteered at a Bedouin school, where he taught English. Although he was grateful for the opportunity to learn some Arabic from the kids he worked with, he didn’t like the program or living in the desert.

But he didn’t really care. The motivated U.C. Santa Cruz graduate took the initiative to build his own experience.

“There is an Israel I know, and an Israel presented on campuses, which is not the Israel I know,” he said.

Shirayanagi, a Jewish Japanese American, is insatiably curious. During his free time, the 23-year-old traveled to Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Egypt, usually on his own (and usually incognito, since for security reasons students are not supposed to go to the West Bank), to soak up all he could about the Middle East.

“My life is about changing the world and making it better. It’s not about seeing the problems,” he said. “I really believe in seeing solutions.”

Shirayanagi is now working for a California congressman in Washington, D.C., but hopes to go back to Israel to work or study in Jerusalem.

Some young adults who live in Israel for a semester or a year contemplate making aliyah.

Samantha Hayflich, the 18-year-old from Los Angeles, would like to stay after her Nativ program ends. But she and her peers signed contracts they would return to the United States. She plans to go to U.C. Davis in the fall, and perhaps in the future make aliyah.

It’s been an emotional ride. She left for Israel during the Lebanon War. When the plane landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, the war had ended. She decided not to cancel her trip because “when you believe in something, you’re going to support it.”

“People need to come here and experience it for themselves,” she said. “But the Jewish community also needs people to go back and advocate for Israel.”

Stacey Palevsky traveled to Israel in March on a MASA-sponsored trip for journalists.

To learn more about MASA and see a complete listing of MASA programs and available grants, visit Or, stop by the organization’s booth at Israel in the Gardens.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.