They say the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship is a journey itself, a way to help its fellows find and complete their own, personal journeys. People have said to me, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” but I respond by saying, “It did work out, just not in the way I expected.” I was in the program for three weeks, and I figured out what I needed to figure out; I didn’t need to be there any longer. However, I didn't feel safe talking about my second, if not equally persuasive, reason for leaving until I was out of the program and back home in the US...
It was surreal; I felt like I was walking through a funhouse full of mirrors reflecting parts of my 16-year-old self - but I could see the door. I could get out, while they’re stuck reflecting each other’s problems, looking to each other for validation for their behavior. I’d always complained I felt like an outsider, but in this situation I was glad to be the one on the outside looking in - and I've never been more thankful to be beyond that point in my life.
This applies more to the provider Israel Experience that hosts MIT fellows than to Masa as a whole. I won’t say this behavior characterizes all 60 fellows in this segment, but I can easily say this applies to the majority.
I walked into an environment I thought would be positive, surrounded by people similar to those on my Taglit Birthright Israel trip last winter. Where I had been part of a “young professionals” Taglit program, Masa Israel is a gap year program of, it seems, lost souls and irresponsibility. I was warned by the two alumni with whom I spoke prior to the trip - though, I thought it would be different for me. The program doesn't make it easy to connect with alumna, and now I understand why.
The Israel Experience appropriated the motto “go with the flow” to cover the fact they’re incredibly disorganized, thereby giving the label “uptight” to anyone who has issues with this disorganization. As nearly no one wants the label of "uptight," nor wants to bear the consequences of speaking up, everyone competes to appear the most laid-back, which is how this program is able to continue with its gross shortfalls. Shockingly, I was told by the Masa COO that this is "one of the more organized and well-run programs within Masa." Israel Experience promotes cliques as opposed to community and is led by a Director with a chip on his shoulder. He tries to assert his authority through condescension, silencing, and by making the fellows feel reliant on him as he forces time frames and delays on important issues (e.g. several apartments did not have actual beds for its fellows). While my apartment itself was truly crappy - someone with sleep problems living in a room off the hall with a sliding door that doesn’t close all the way and was never fixed - it was the living situation that truly helped me to reach my conclusion.
I lived with a girl who just turned 29 and was so lost she conformed her personality, language and way of speaking to those around her. She told me she was "still trying to figure out my communication style," because it seems normal was new to her; she often thought my honesty was sarcasm and she had clear trust issues. Yet, I watched in awe as the others were drawn to her for relationship advice, which she delivered with a cool arrogance like that of a naive teenager who thinks they understand the world and “it’s not arrogance; it’s simply truth.” She was alternately condescending and compassionate to the point of being sickeningly sweet, staring you in the eyes and smiling in a rather scary way. That said, I avoided her. She eventually stopped speaking to me to the point where she’d ask the youngest a question about me, the youngest would ask me and then relay the message - while we were all in the same room.
I also lived with a 26-year-old who I severely misread when we first met. She uses only harsh language, and while she tries to appear laid-back, it’s clear she’s an incredibly fragile, sad and volatile person who placates herself with manic tendencies, over-stimulation and self harm because she doesn't want to deal with how deeply she's suppressing her issues.
I can see this because she reflects a younger part of me - a part of me from when I was 16, a decade younger than she is, now. If you said something she didn’t like, didn’t agree with, felt insulted by, or felt her status was threatened by, she would ignore you completely and act as though nothing was said, even if it had been a question. She drank in excess and joked about doing coke (though her sister had been in rehab for both cocaine and alcohol), and she read from a book for recovering alcoholics each day, gifted to her by this sister. When she was drunk and stumbled home, she cried and cried. Oddly enough, she was more concerned about a one-night stand she'd had than her ongoing alcoholism.
Then there was the 23-year-old girl, a former psychology undergrad (I’m always wary of those) who somehow managed to dole out nutrition advice while in school. I say "somehow" because she would do things like hard-boil eggs and leave them out on the shelf for a few days, drink solely coffee and Coke Zero, eat tuna from the can, raw fruit and little else - then complain about gastrointestinal issues. She didn’t know many basic foods existed, and somehow thought it was a good idea to place a giant hot plate with boiling water atop a microwave - which was also plugged into the outlet at the time. She did yoga as a way to ground herself and acted as though she was attuned to a higher power, but it was clearly wishful thinking. The 26-year-old and 23-year-old were roommates and fast best friends, though the older one often talked about her "friend" behind her back. The 26 and 29-year-olds would get drunk together, and the 29-year-old picked up smoking as soon we moved in - when she saw the 26-year-old was a smoker.
I would hear all three of them talking about each other’s problems (their “indoor voice” was a yell, their whisper a normal volume), sharing advice that was more a pat on the back, validating actions and words that would make a sane person wonder if this is reality. They felt judged by me, and rightly so, and tried to undercut me before I could do so to them. Having been on both sides when I was much younger, I could see this behavior and realized it was a juvenile and toxic atmosphere. They spent most of their time, though, talking about all the people in the program they didn’t like – which was the majority of the people in the program. Each day they would convene and pick apart all of the conversations they had with people they hate, and it was no surprise they were hypocritical; if they couldn’t see their own actions, they certainly couldn’t see they harshly judge others for similar behavior.
My last night in the apartment, I told them I didn’t like a girl in the program not through any interaction we'd had, I just didn’t think we vibed and so I avoided her. This is, quite naturally, typical human behavior. The 26-year-old who liked to ignore things if she didn’t want to deal with them had asked, “So, what, you just judge them before you get to know them?” to which I retorted with a laugh, “Isn’t that what you do to everyone else?” She answered with silence while the 23-year old responded by noting she was biased because she loved the girl about whom I was spoke. Of course, they’d sit in front of me and go on about all the people I liked, and I just listened as they picked apart the others as though they were each competing to prove they were the more well adjusted “sane” individual. Again I thought, I don’t need to be here amidst twenty-somethings acting like children who are maybe a decade away from a psychological breakthrough and whom I can’t help, and I don’t need to burden myself by trying.
"There is no world in which someone should ever have to 'cope' with living with alcoholics and in an unsafe environment."
Unlike these funhouse mirrors, I come to terms with things fairly quickly. For about one week, my own mind used the excuse of PTSD to cover the fact I needed to spend the next nine months with my mom before I leave for Syracuse, and leave home for good. Then, for three weeks, I used both issues to cover the fact that the program is a toxic environment and I should leave. I reported the extreme drinking, and the boy in the program who showed me a picture of him snorting coke off a girl’s ass (a friend of my roommate, of course) to our counselor, saying, “If you don’t move me immediately, I will have to leave the program, because this is unacceptable; I will not be liable for their behavior and I don’t want to be associated with them, because I will not be responsible for anything that happens.” The counselor wasn't fazed by my reports, which was the biggest red flag of all. Instead, he told me to talk to the local therapist for ways to cope, as they don’t often move people around in the program. I said, “There is no world in which someone should ever have to ‘cope’ with living with alcoholics and in an unsafe environment. You need to move me immediately.” Two days later I decided to leave, and since I had no idea how much longer I would be required to stay in this situation before I got on the plane, I didn't want to make this harder for myself; I told the counselor I was simply ‘projecting my issues onto my roommates and that I just needed to go home.'
Ironically, this counselor told me I’d “always be part of the program’s family” and then, two weeks after leaving, removed me from our What’s App group ‘Rishon LeZion Family,’ and hasn’t said a word to me since.
As I spent much of my time out of the apartment, I uncovered the personalities (a.k.a. issues) of the other fellows in the program, too. I had spoken with most of the fellows prior to meeting them in person, and half didn’t care about the teaching, at all – they just wanted a funded year in Israel. Second, the majority was excessively loud. I was considered “quiet” because everyone seemed to think loud was the normal volume, as though being right in front of someone still didn’t constitute his or her attention. And, shockingly, it often didn’t - everyone was so glued to their smartphones that half the time someone would speak and the other person would ask about something that was just stated.
A girl I had met on one of the first days wore her judgments on her face, making horrible faces at people which would allow her opinion to be known without words; she would only confront with words those whom she felt would not fight back. This girl said she didn’t like my 26-year-old roommate “because of her eyebrows.” I laughed and asked, “do you mean the way she grooms them, or how she uses them in facial expressions?” Both, she said, and explained that you can tell everything from someone’s eyebrows. The fact that this roommate of mine always made faces at people was a sign she was not to be trusted. “So you must not trust yourself either, huh?” I asked, and laughed. Her drunk best friend, a girl with severe PTSD from past sexual abuse who covered it with obscene drinking, men and phatic conversation, joined us and started to make fun of this friend’s extreme facial expressions to prove the point. I spent my last day with them as they judged their other roommate - who was actually normal - while they argued with any basic comment I made and yelled random YouTube references, constituting the bulk of their “conversation.” I felt like I walked into an episode of some TV show that makes fun of teens and people in their 20s - I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing was real - that those TV shows are actually based on real human behavior.
There was a boy who had just completed a program that helps fire victims after national disasters who told me he'd had to take a psychological leave from that program, “but I didn’t say that in my Masa interview,” he laughed. He had quit ongoing therapy in order to be in the Masa program, and said, “Yeah but…I think I’ll be fine for ten months.” He was so easily overwhelmed and, when he was, he would shut his eyes and bob his head back and forth, shake it, and announce his stress. He was one of the many fellows talking about love of travel because they weren’t sure what to do with their lives. No one particularly seemed to be running towards a goal – but rather, running away.
Then, there’s the girl who was my teaching partner, a very self-centered girl with horrible patience, speaking over the children, over me, confusing everyone, and directing people to do things with which, oddly enough, the younger fellows actually complied. She went on endless dates, and it was the opinion of her roommates that it was to get free food. Everyone was glued to their phones and dating apps, to Israeli Tinder, to JSwipe (a Jewish dating app), and talked about how “thirsty” they were.
As I decided to leave, I said nothing. It was such a relief to know I was leaving this atmosphere, the general overtone of ‘being lost,’ the self-abuse, the bullshit. I was concerned that I had put all of my eggs in one basket: I had left my job, my home, made future arrangements, and announced to the world my plans. Then I realized - it takes a much stronger person to accept when things don't work out and to move on than it is the person who remains in a bad situation. Perhaps this is ego versus reality; when I stopped caring what others "might think" and listened to what I thought and how I felt, I had no regrets.
As I drove to the airport to head back to the US, I never felt more positive about anything in my life. It had been surreal, like walking in a dream. It took two months for the dreams to stop; I wake up so relieved and look around my room, still processing the fact that I’m back at home and saved myself.