In conversation with Mahla Finkleman
Many of the young Jewish community members who visit Israel through UJA-funded programs like Birthright or March of the Living feel an intense desire to return to Israel for a long-term experience. That is why UJA supports a variety of Israel engagement opportunities that offer more intimate experiences of Israel over a longer period. One of these UJA-supported programs is Masa Canada. Meaning “journey” in Hebrew, Masa is a partnership between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, with funding in part from UJA, which offers long-term, immersive opportunities for Jews in the Diaspora to live in Israel and experience all the country has to offer. Mahla Finkleman leads Masa Canada and has helped hundreds of Jewish Canadians participate in these journeys. The Snapshot team sat down with her to discuss her own Jewish journey, why Israel is so compelling for Canadians, and the difference a Masa experience makes for a participant’s Jewish identity.
Before we talk about other people’s Jewish journeys, Mahla, let’s start with yours. Tell us your own Jewish story.
I was born in Scotland—my parents are South African. There wasn’t a Jewish community, so they left Scotland and built a life in Toronto. They came for Jewish reasons. I went to Associated, then CHAT, then spent a gap year in Israel with Masa. That gap year really shaped my Jewish identity, which was solidified upon my return from the March of the Living. I took 200 pages of notes on that trip. It’s amazing, looking back at those notes, where I wrote “One day, I want to tell my kids…” Now, I have three kids. That trip changed me.
Later at university, I met my husband at a Jewish retreat. We lived in Vancouver for a while, where I was an educator working in public, private, and Jewish schools. We then moved to Toronto, where I took on this role with Masa.
So, what is Masa? What kind of impact does it make?
Masa sends between 10,000 and 12,000 Jewish young professionals from around the world to Israel every year. There are different opportunities for different people between the ages of 16 and 35. So for instance, we have a gap year program for students following high school. We have an academic segment which offers a third-year exchange or a one-year Master’s opportunity. We have a career-based segment where students can come and work in Israel, typically for a five to six month paid internship.
Then we have our “bestseller” program in Canada, Teach for a Semester: Powered by MITF, where anyone with an associate or full degree can get paid to teach English in Israel for an unbelievably low cost.
What makes a Masa experience so compelling?
People go looking for personal or professional growth. But they come back with so much more. They come back more deeply invested in their community. They didn’t experience Israel through a camera—they lived there, like a local. They come back as a real character witness for Israel and what Israel is.
I’ll give you one example: a fellow originally from France. His family faced gross antisemitism there. They moved to B.C. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah—didn’t have a deep connection to his Jewish identity. He went to UBC on scholarship and, after graduating, he went to Tel Aviv University to do a Master’s program through Masa. He’s there now creating deep Jewish connections that are reshaping his life. That’s the story for so many participants.
Participation in Masa has grown a lot these last few years. Why do you think that is?
When the pandemic shut the world down, Masa kept going. Masa remained open through our partnership with the Israeli government. We saw a 40% uptick in North American students going to Israel through Masa experiences. These were people who said, “I’m not going to sit at home and learn online. I want to go live life in Israel.” They did so safely, through our partnerships.
Masa is rooted in the connection between Israel and the Jewish people. What do you think Israel means to the Jewish identity?
It’s integral. Israel is the backbone of the Jewish people. We live in a time that people have yearned for across thousands of years. This place in our Torah—we’re lucky enough to be alive at a time where it exists, where we can visit it through modern technology by flight. Today young professionals from around the world are marveling at the professional opportunities that can be gained in Tel Aviv that you can’t always find in Canada.
To learn more about the Masa experience that’s right for you, visit https://www.masaisrael.org/canada.
Right now Masa is recruiting for Teach for a Semester: Powered by MITF. This program gives you the chance to connect with Israeli students all over the country and experience Israeli co-existence firsthand, while gaining valuable job experience that will last a lifetime. No teaching experience or Hebrew is required. The deadline to apply is November 1. Click the link above to learn more, or contact Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brendan Steven serves as UJA’s Chief Writer.
Mahla Finkleman is the National Manager of Partnerships and Outreach at Masa Canada.