Jewish Journal


October 7, 2012

Masa screening and the shooting in Eilat



Israeli soldiers attend the scene of a deadly shooting by an American Masa participant at an Eilat hotel, October 5, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

It is yet another holiday eve – the last one of this season – so time is short. But I still want to make three brief comments about an event that took place last week: the shooting of a hotel worker in Eilat by an American participant of the Masa Israel Journey  program (the shooter was also killed). “The 23-year-old shooter from Poughkeepsie, New York, identified as William Hershkovitz, was part of the Israel Way program – formerly known as Oranim – that brings Jews from around the world for volunteer work, study and internship”.

Following this tragic incident, the focus of most media coverage and the Jewish Agency – the body in charge of all Masa programs – was the screening process for the program. Namely, the reasons for which Hershwovitz was not prevented from joining the program. Hence, the “inquiry”:

The Jewish Agency is opening an inquiry into its Oranim program after an American participant gunned down a hotel employee in Eilat. "In response to the tragic incident in Eilat, the Chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky expressed his deep sorrow at the loss of life and has appointed a panel to examine the processes by which the American participant was accepted to the Oranim program in Eilat," a statement said Friday.

But I’d you to consider the following three things:


In recent years I’ve met hundreds of Masa participants, most of whom were smart, enthusiastic and dedicated, but some who obviously had some baggage. This should not come as huge surprise: Young and restless Americans who come to Israel for a couple of months are a mixed lot. Some don’t yet know who they are and what they want to do in life, some take the time off because of the hope that their Israel experience will help them understand something about the meaning of life, some just run away from the pressures of young adulthood, the need to find a job, to find a place in the world, some are more mature and stable, others not as much. If one is having an honest conversation with Masa operators, one can easily get from them a long list of troubling events related to the less stable participants. And of course, screening can keep some of them away from the program – but not all of them.

Masa cannot be a program with a military-like screening process. A welcoming approach is at the core of such programs, and the risk associated with it is not much different than the risk associated with life itself. In other words: it is essential that such tragic event will make Masa an inhospitable program. 


In fact, Hershkovitz could have entered Israel as a tourist and then shot people – no screening is required for tourists. He could have made Aliyah and become an Israeli – no screening required. He could have been an Israeli. People get fired from work, they get angry, and some of them react violently. It is terrible, but is hardly unique to foreign visitors. If Israel is a place to which Jews can come relatively freely, Israel is also a place to which problematic Jewish youngsters should be able to come relatively freely. Making the case that adding a layer of screening would prevent events such as the Eilat shooting is not easy. And the cost that will be associated with the extra screening can be high. This is worth saying, since the instinctive reaction to events such as the Eilat shooting is over-reaction.


On the other hand, I do think that some kind of inquiry is necessary – just not the one related to screening. I think that it is worth asking two questions:

1. More specifically: Why would a Masa participant be employed at a hotel in Eilat? If Masa is supposed to be an educational program, I’m not sure that working at a hotel kitchen fits this description. I see why Masa participants would want to study in Israel, I see why they’d want to travel in Israel, I see why they’d want to volunteer in Israel – but coming here to work at a hotel on a subsidy? Maybe this is not such a good idea.

2. More broadly, I’d use this incident to go back and examine the way Masa programs are being approved and supervised. The Eilat hotel program is one of many Masa programs – some of which are great, some barely fit the title “program”.

In other words, there are those thinking that all Masa needs to do is to get young Jews to spend time in Israel. If that’s the case, then spending time working at a hotel in Eilat is as good as spending time volunteering with poor children in struggling communities. However, if Masa is about more than just getting people to spend time in Israel – if it has educational goals, if it has ideological goals – then a more thorough screening is necessary. Not a screening of participants, as much as a screening of the programs. 

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