Stefan Staloff’s story about his recent experiences at Israel’s Kibbutz Naan has a history that goes back to when his Danish mother, Helle Jensen Staloff, and American father, Edmond, met at the kibbutz 30 years ago.
“I had heard the story all my life,” he says. So when the recent Emory University grad, who expects one day to pursue a law degree or a Ph.D. in philosophy, decided to take a year off from school to travel the world, Kibbutz Naan came to mind as a possible destination.
His mother had heard about MASA and suggested he find out more about its Israel program. MASA is a joint project of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel that provides grants and scholarships enabling young Jewish adults ages 18-30 to spend five to 12 months in Israel, interning, volunteering or studying in one of more than 160 programs. Grants are made possible through generous contributions from the Jewish Federations of North America, of which the Jewish Community of Louisville is a member.
According to Staloff, it was a relatively easy application process. He filled out a form, wrote two essays and completed a telephone survey. His acceptance letter for the half-study/half-work program came about a month later.
He found Kibbutz Naan impressive, with vast fields that make it Israel’s second largest and second richest kibbutz and the largest irrigation system in the world. The MASA program called for him to spend 20 hours a week studying in the ulpan and the other 20 hours gainfully employed. For him, that meant working at a petting zoo feeding the animals and cleaning up after them (he dubbed it “feces and food”).
Although the pay was minimal, he got to eat for half-price in the Naan kitchen – the ninth largest in Israel – where he also worked for a time. He recalls trying hard to impress his bosses and appease an Arab woman who also worked in the kitchen and kept yelling at him to keep at it. He credits her for helping him develop more of a work ethic.
Some 30 young people involved in Staloff’s MASA program, approximately two-thirds of whom immigrated to Israel from Argentina, France, Georgia (the country, not the state), India, Mexico, Russia and Switzerland. He was amazed at the diversity. The other third were MASA-sponsored tourists like himself who lived on two floors of a motel with two or three to a room. They each prepared their own meals and ate in the common dining room.
Participants took several trips that were historical in nature, including tours of Jerusalem, Mt. Carmel and Haifa, where Staloff was impressed with The Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum that is dedicated to telling the story of the illegal immigration of Jews from Europe to Israel.
They also saw the highlights of Tel Aviv, viewed Bedouin communities and spent time in a Druze village in the Negev. On his own, Staloff traveled to Eilat and back to Haifa. Given his busy schedule on the kibbutz, he did not have time to see all that he wanted in Israel and plans to return. In fact, he says, “When I got home, I started thinking about going back.”
The takeaways from his experience are contemplative and thoughtful.
Just 105 years ago, six families from Jaffa founded Tel Aviv out in the desert. It has been 64 years since Israel’s founding and look at what it has become – a world leader in technology and a cutting-edge democracy compared to the other surrounding countries. Think of the intelligence and hard work it took for the early pioneers to build it. These were righteous, virtuous people wanting to do something good, yet right after David ben Gurion declared Israeli independence, he had to save the Jews in Lebanon.
“I think Israel is a good and righteous place that deserves my help,” Staloff states. “If I could afford it, I would send my friends to Israel to become friends and partisans of the country. The kids I met at the kibbutz came from distant places and I had the unique opportunity to learn how to deal with all of them. I even had friends with whom I could not communicate, but they were still my friends.”
His favorite Israeli feature: The beautiful girls. “I turned my head so often,” he declares, “that I had to go to a chiropractor!”