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Masa builds bridges between Diaspora and Israel

WORCESTER – Emanuel Chayyim Colon has always been super-active in the Worcester Jewish community, involved in activities at Temple Emanuel Sinai, Congregation Beth Israel, and The Torah Center.

“I was very involved in synagogue life, from attending weekly Torah study group, Talmud study, Shabbat services, and community programs and events,” he explained.

After completing a summer internship in Jerusalem through the program Onward Israel, Colon heard he could spend a whole year in Israel through Masa Israel Journey.

“I looked at my options, did my research, and found Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF). Immediately, I knew it would be the perfect fit for me,” he said.

Now Colon is teaching English to students in 3rd through 6th grades at the Noam Banim School, an all-boys religious elementary school in Ramot in northern Jerusalem. 

“I opened an English section at the school library where I teach,” Colon said. “My boys were excited to check out books so that they could read English in their homes. Once they finish reading a book they will bring it back to school and be able to check out another to take home. Today they are readers; tomorrow they will be leaders! 

“For me it is amazing to have students where at the beginning of the school year they didn’t know the English alphabet and today they are reading full words and writing sentences. They make me a proud teacher and make all of the hard work worth it.”

Colon is one of thousands of young adults from the ages of 18-30 from the Jewish Diaspora to participate in Masa, which, according to the program’s website, offers “an authentic, unmediated and challenging journey into Israeli society, culture, politics and history – and acts as the largest pipeline for the Jewish diaspora to access the finest Israeli businesses, social enterprises and academic institutions.”

Emanuel Colon and his young students in Israel.

Masa’s two- to 10-month programs include opportunities for young Jews to participate in volunteer and community service, internships and career development programs, undergraduate and graduate academic programs, Jewish studies programs, and gap year programs. Since it was founded in 2004 by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, Masa has served more than 120,000 young people from more than 62 countries.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Worcester, Colon attended South High Community School. Last May, he graduated from Worcester State University with a degree in Criminal Justice Law with a concentration in Ethnic studies and a minor in Spanish. 

Besides his involvement in the local synagogues, Colon worked as a counselor at Crane Lake Camp (a URJ camp) for two summers and during the school year was a counselor at the Worcester JCC Afterschool Program and the Hebrew reading Specialist at Temple Emanuel Sinai Religious School. During college, he lead weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at Clark Hillel.

“Judaism is a very important part of my identity,” he said. “I am a religious, observant Jew. I am shomer Shabbat and keep kosher. On a daily basis I wear a kippah, or some sort of head covering, and my tzitzit. I do this because I want to be proud, unafraid, and committed to my Jewish identity. 

This is Colon’s seventh trip to Israel; his other trips included Taglit Birthright, a trip with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to volunteer and plant trees in the Negev, his summer Onward Israel internship, and study at a couple yeshivot over summer and winter breaks.

“I am feeling quite at home in the country and I’m considering staying and making Aliyah. Being here has strengthened my connection to Israel and Jewish identity. I am an observant religious Jew and want to be surrounded by other observant folks; that is one of the reasons why I love Jerusalem.”

He lives in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. “One of the things that I like about my neighborhood is that there aren’t as many native English speakers so I have many opportunities to use my Hebrew interacting with neighbors and local merchants. I love that I am living as a local,” he said.

And while improving his Hebrew is one of his goals, he said, “my lack of fluency in the language does not get in the way of me connecting to my students. The students and I figure out ways to communicate and understand each other, [whether that be] by hand-motions, acting it out, or asking “Rabbi Google” (Google Translate).”

In December Colon participated in Masa’s Diaspora Week in which young Jewish professionals from around the world toured 30 schools across Israel to share their unique stories with over 20,000 Israeli students. 

This new initiative, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Education, aims to strengthen the Israel-Diaspora relationship by expanding the engagements between Masa fellows and Israel’s pupils. As fellows travel the country, they learn about Israel’s social and cultural diversity while exposing Israel’s students to the Jewish Diaspora experience. Masa fellows shares their personal stories and taught students about the various histories, traditions, cultures, and even challenges that make up their communities. 

“Diaspora Week is an extremely powerful way to build the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” said Masa Acting CEO Ofer Gutman. “Our program impacts  both the fellows and the students who exchange their unique stories and increase their understanding of one another’s communities. This is a golden opportunity to listen, to see, and to experience the diversity and richness of global Jewry. By building these bridges, we are connecting the Jewish people and strengthening our mutual Jewish future.”  

During Diaspora Week, Colon and other fellows joined teens from K’far Adumim on a trip to Abu Gosh. 

“There we visited a mosque and learned about their religion,” Colon said. “I also lead a discussion with the Israeli teens where they were able to ask questions about Jewish life in the diaspora. A lot of the questions they asked were about my experience with anti-Semitism and how I celebrate Jewish holidays. Most did not know that Jews outside of Israel observe two days of Yom Tov on holidays. It was an educational experience for them and myself.”

Main Photo: Emanuel Colon


From Massachusetts to the Israel Defense Forces

By Aaron Karas

I grew up in a strong Jewish community outside of Boston where Israel was a frequent topic of conversation and an integral part of my identity. As a kid, I learned to love Israel from my family, synagogue, and community. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to think critically about why Israel mattered so much to me.

I went on Young Judea Year Course with a group of friends, in the footsteps of my older brother, who had done the program four years previously. I was excited to live in Israel while studying, volunteering, and traveling the country. The choice was easy, and the journey was invaluable.  

In Israel, my connection to the Jewish community became exponentially more vibrant.

 Jewish holidays aren’t just in my home, in synagogues, and at schools—they’re in the music enlivening the streets and the aromas drifting from the bakeries. Hebrew isn’t just in a classroom—it’s in the chatter on the buses and the labels in the grocery store aisles. And Jewish history isn’t just a textbook— it comes alive through the land I walk on and continues to live on in every person I meet.  

My gap year program opened my eyes to truly see Israel. Not only did I enjoy unique academic courses and meaningful volunteer opportunities, I also had the freedom to define my journey. I spent many weekends traveling with friends throughout Israel, learning independence and exploring the rich culture that makes up the country I love.

 My reinforced connection to Israel, a product of my time with Masa, made me a fierce Israel advocate on my Atlanta college campus. I was president of Emory Students for Israel, I helped found the Emory branch of Tamid, a club that enables business-minded students to connect with Israel’s economy, and I staffed two Birthright trips.

Back in the states, one thing became very clear: Israel was an undeniable part of me. I came to Emory to start pursuing a medical degree; yet, I quickly realized that becoming a doctor was a goal and that my dream was in Israel. I felt deeply connected to the country, and I needed to continue building that link. So, after graduation, in August 2016, I made Aliyah.

 I joined the Israel Defense Forces in November 2016 as a sniper in Duvdevan, the IDF’s Special Forces Counterterrorism unit. Being in the army took my relationship with Israel to the next level. 

I really feel that my connection with Israel has been thoroughly strengthened since making Aliyah, experiencing the Israeli lifestyle, and doing my part in the military. It is finally my country and my home, and my connection will constantly evolve as I grow as an Israeli and continue to immerse myself in the culture, lifestyle, and politics here.

 Aaron Karas of Newton is a Masa alum of Young Judea Year Course.

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