Baltimoreans explore Israel through Masa Fellows program

Abigail Drager-Davidoff in Kibbutz Yagur
Abigail Drager-Davidoff in Kibbutz Yagur (Courtesy of Abigail Drager-Davidoff)

Young Baltimoreans looking for a unique experience in Israel can find one through Masa Israel Journey. The Masa Fellows program helps provide access to a wide range of experiences in Israel.

Masa Israel Journey is a joint project of the Israeli government, The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America and of Keren Hayesod, according to Masa Israel Journey’s website. Over the course of 15 years, 160,000 individuals from 62 countries have participated in its fellowship program.

Being a Masa Fellow entails participating in one of a number of different programs approved by Masa, said Abigail Drager-Davidoff, a member of Beth Am Synagogue who normally lives in the Pikesville area. Masa also assists its fellows with acquiring visas and can help to subsidize their tuition.

Drager-Davidoff is currently participating in a five-month kibbutz ulpan program run by Habonim Dror at the kibbutz of Yagur near Haifa. She had previously been enrolled at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but when the pandemic started, she decided it was not the ideal time to continue her college studies, she said.

Since arriving in Israel on July 4, Drager-Davidoff has divided her time between working in a local daycare center and studying Hebrew, in addition to touring some of Israel’s historic and scenic sights.

The multibuilding daycare center that Drager-Davidoff works at three days a week cares for as many as 180 children, she said. She and five coworkers normally are responsible for between nine and 14 children, typically between 4 and 9 months old.

While she was a student at Krieger Schechter Day School, Drager-Davidoff had strong Hebrew skills, but she lost a significant portion of her Hebrew proficiency before joining the program, she said. Now, she feels capable of having basic conversations in Hebrew.

Drager-Davidoff noted that kibbutz ulpan programs like hers are facing tighter budgets as financial support from The Jewish Agency and the Israeli government has declined.

“These [kibbutz ulpan] programs are really important, because they integrate new [immigrants] to Israel, young new immigrants, and they help integrate them into society and teach them Hebrew,” Drager-Davidoff said.

Once her program ends in early December, Drager-Davidoff said she was interested in visiting Eilat and Ashkelon before returning home to the United States.

Samantha Wittenstein, another Masa fellow and a member of Beth Am Synagogue, arrived in Israel in late August to participate in Aardvark Israel. As part of the program, Wittenstein lives in Tel Aviv and has an internship with the pharmaceutical company, NeuroSense Therapeutics. She takes classes on Hebrew and on the Torah, while also going on weekly trips to different sites in the country to explore, interact with locals and learn about the area.

Other Baltimoreans who have recently started Masa programs include Jamie Diamond, who is doing a World Bnei Akiva-Kivun gap year program; Malka Taubb, who is doing a Compuskills program; and Emily Shapiro and Anna Eizman, who are both teaching Israeli children English as Masa Israel Teaching fellows.

“I have learned so much and am only a month in; I am so excited for the rest of my time here and forever grateful for this opportunity,” Wittenstein said.

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