Bigger subsidies make Israel more affordable

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South African Jewish youth, who choose to spend between four and 10 months attending one of the hundreds of projects in Israel, are now eligible for hugely increased subsidies. This is going to be a “game changer”, says Jewish Agency and Israel Centre Shaliach Aviad Sela, last week.
by ANT KATZ | Mar 16, 2017

Subsidies have taken a leap, making it very affordable for South African youth to spend time in Israel. For example, someone who went for one academic year of studies at an Israeli university, in the past would have received a $500 subsidy; this week they would get $9 100 to help them along, according to Sela, who drove this initiative.

“This opens new opportunities to every 18- to 30-year-old in our community,” says Sela.

“I believe that the implications for our community (will be) earth shattering,” Nicci Raz, national executive director of the SA Zionist Federation, says.

“The need to ensure that every Jewish child is given the opportunity to experience Israel during their critical formative years, lies in being given the opportunity to go and see, live and taste Israel for themselves,” adds Raz. 

At the end of February, a decision was taken by MASA in Israel to hugely increase subsidies for young South African Jews who wish to take time getting to know Israel.

MASA, (which translates as “journey”), is an umbrella body for hundreds of projects available to Diaspora Jewry to spend four to 10 months of “meaningful time” in Israel. It is co-funded by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Research shows that young adults who have been on a MASA programme, become more connected to Israel, says Sela. “Statistics among American youth show those who do a MASA programme have a lower assimilation rate. Israel and the values of Zionism become more central to their lives.”

Sela quickly realised after taking up his South African job two years ago, that MASA is the ideal platform for youth and young adults, but that “it has become too expensive to South Africans”. 

Today, South African students pay two and a half times as much as they did seven years ago to attend a MASA programme.

The gap between what community members want to do, and what they could afford to do, has grown exponentially. At the same time, the Jewish Agency and Israeli government want to see more southern Africans becoming more connected with Israel.

Over the past two years Sela has put a lot of pressure on the Israelis to understand the realities and the potential of the South African community. He has pitched to MASA, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

When Sela came to South Africa, there were around 80 people going on MASA annually. He has since almost doubled that to 140 - but he believes the new subsidies will certainly redouble that number and more in the next year.

“This decision by the Jewish Agency to step in and ensure our children and young adults access to the privilege of connecting with Israel, has created a means that will have a monumental impact,” predicts Raz.

Previously, MASA had assisted with a $500 flight voucher for participants between the ages of 19 and 21 and a $3 000 grant for the age group 21 to 30. Now, there is no age differential and assistance is up by as much as 20 times.

Sela says that many South African youngsters (and their parents) don’t see their future in South Africa, due to political and financial insecurity. But, he says, it took him two years to get the Israelis to become aware of the financial pressure and risk the community in South Africa were under.

“Once they saw the full picture, we started trying to make it affordable,” he says.

The Israel Centre undertook a survey last year among grades 10 to 12 pupils (and their parents) at Jewish schools in Johannesburg and Cape Town. “This proved that there is a huge gap between desire and affordability,” Sela says.

This outcome, says Sela, helped clinch the deal. “It was now the community that was speaking to the MASA leadership,” he says.

The second change in South Africa’s favour, was that MASA changed their modelling. They would stop viewing Diaspora Jews geographically, but as communities. They didn’t look at the assistance needs of US Jewry, but rather saw Chicago Jewry as more in need of assistance than New York Jewry.

South Africans benefited from this policy change by being nudged into a new place in MASA’s hierarchy, one where increased subsidies applied.



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