LIFE Program
Social Change & Leadership Development
In Israel and India


B’Tzedek LIFE, Adaptive Leadership and Leaving My Comfort Zone

Posted by: Miriam Wasser on May 21, 2012 | 2 Comments
Miriam Wasser and others in LIFE program

Okay, confession time: I’m a little addicted to timed writing exercises. I use them to warm up before writing, in order to get ideas and inspiration flowing. But I also do them because when you write for ten minutes straight—no stopping—the good stuff starts to come out. Through these exercises you can obtain a level of honesty that only happens when you’re forced to keep the pen moving.

Flipping through my writing notebook the other day, I found a list I made last May, around the time I decided to apply to the LIFE program. The list was titled What I hope to get out of B’tzedek LIFE. Besides some of the more obvious things like getting to go to India and making new friends, some of my goals for the program included:

  • To feel confident that I’m living a life with purpose
  • To be able to better articulate and understand why I am committed to making the world a better place
  • To learn what leadership really means (I have a vague idea, but I think people throw around the term)
  • To do things and take risks I might not otherwise take
  • To learn new skills and find ones I didn’t know I had
  • To improve my ability to not stop, or become paralyzed by a problem that seems really big or insurmountable
  • To get closer to knowing what I might want to do with my life in the future
  • To meet new people and allow their stories, points of view, theories, and ideas to blow my mind—to constantly have my paradigm shattered, and then rebuilt, and then shattered again
  • To further develop my Jewish identity; no, actually, to challenge myself to figure out what that—a Jewish identity—even means to me”

So, seven months into the program, which of these points have I accomplished? Which am I on the path towards accomplishing? If I am to be completely honest, every single item I wrote on that list is an active part of my experience with the LIFE program.

But let me back up a moment. I applied to LIFE because I wanted to do meaningful work with sustainable results. I hoped to work at the grassroots level, enacting small changes or improvements that ultimately would contribute to global change.  I wanted to throw my energy into worthy causes and a local community, while learning how to tailor my work to best suit what is needed. At my core, I wholeheartedly believed that we must try to improve the world, but that we need to interact with, work with, and get to know people, places, and ideas different from our own in order to do so. LIFE appeared to, and does, provide these opportunities and fit these criteria.

The program gives us tremendous access to organizations, people, and opportunities we otherwise might not get. We do internships and projects that are nothing like traditional internships. We don’t get coffee and make copies for our boss; we go into the field, work with experts, and write reports that are put on the boss’ desk (to be read while drinking coffee).

In the LIFE program, we also study and put into practice a theory called Adaptive Leadership. It is about the ability to mobilize others to tackle tough challenges and thrive. When the program started we talked about what this might look like, what actions we needed to take to make change in the world. And yet, as the program continues, I have come more and more to understand Adaptive Leadership as being both a theory and a mindset; a paradigm for making positive changes both internally and externally. To be a good leader requires that you focus less on the problems around you and more on what you can do to mitigate them; that you be solution-oriented. Leadership is about being creative, motivated, and employing the entrepreneurial spirit. It is like the Chinese symbol for crisis, which also means opportunity. And it is a way to examine the world and your role within it. This is all part of LIFE.

That being said, participating in the program can be challenging.

You are put in real-world situations—professionally, cross-culturally, and socially—and encouraged to push past the limits of your skill set; to expand your comfort zone; to work outside of what is culturally familiar; and to take risks. Having recently returned from India, I can tell you it is a frustrating place, there’s no way around it. There are gender role differences and other cultural norms with which to contend; what seems logical to me as an American woman might not be to my male Indian co-worker, and vice-versa. But if you spend enough time there, you learn that India is also a place where if you work hard, the chaos suddenly orders itself at the last minute, and great things are accomplished.

On this program I feel encouraged to push myself past the limits of my skill set, to expand my comfort zone, to work outside of what I might be culturally familiar with, and to take risks. I look back on my internship in India with a two-fold incredulity: first, for all that I accomplished, and second, that I was actually able to accomplish it.

I worked for an NGO called Aide et Action that established schools in Hyderabad for the children of migrant and bonded laborers. My project involved going into the field, interviewing mothers, children, and teachers—often in the middle of a loud, dangerous construction site or dumpsite—and then turning their stories into creative monologues and essays. The project I did was emotionally trying and at times a logistical nightmare. There were days where translation problems or office politics seemed like insurmountable barriers. And there were days where, I’d come to realize, I was part of the barrier; I needed to change.

What LIFE gives you are tools to work through these walls—to manage your project, your boss, and yourself within a world of uncertainty; to tackle tough challenges and thrive. You study Adaptive Leadership, and you do Adaptive Leadership, because LIFE is not just about theory; it’s about action.

In the program we ask, “What does it mean to make social change? What does it mean to hold social justice as a core value?” And mostly, “what are we going to do about it?” How these three questions intermingle, how they are braided together, constitutes the backbone of the LIFE experience. It is a program about being a leader for what is right in the world, and also a program about leading yourself to become a better person, so that you can make the world a better place.

In the past seven months, I’ve been given tools for successful leadership and the opportunity to take initiative; to be a creative problem solver and to be responsible for my own growth and learning. And in the past seven months, I have come up against my own boundaries and insecurities, both professionally and personally. But with the support of the program and the other participants, I took risks, worked hard, and often thrived.

LIFE is also a Jewish program. It’s a Jewish program in that yes, it’s based in Jerusalem and is for Jewish post-college graduates, but also, because it operates within a Jewish mindset. It adheres to a particular set of Jewish values, employing a particular lens through which to view the world.

I have never been a religious person; I was interested in Tikkun Olam, not attending services. I was, and am, attracted to the Jewish mindset: the sense of community, the drive to make the world a better place, and the celebration of thinking deeply and asking questions.

At times I haven’t felt comfortable calling myself a Jewish leader, but I’m beginning to understand that when it comes to social change and justice, Judaism, like leadership, encourages a solution-oriented mindset. I’m learning to look at Judaism as not just a religion, but also as a tool, a paradigm, and a philosophy for how to exist.

Last May, when I wrote that I “hope to see and experience a different way of living,” I was referring to other cultures and people. But I’ve also been on a path towards living differently, towards learning about my own culture and people. Learning about our values; my values.

These days, when I tell people about the LIFE program, their response usually goes something like this: “Whoa, there’s a MASA program that goes to India?” The answer is, “Yes, there is a MASA program in which you spend four months in India and five in Israel doing an internship related to social justice and change, and yes, it is as cool as it sounds. But it’s so much more than that.”

The program was designed to teach and help young, inspired Jewish college graduates to gain first hand experience in the social justice world. The program takes us to three different countries—India, Israel, and a short trip to Jordan—in order to better understand variations and commonalities across cultures, and across the social sector. LIFE is about preparing us to become better global citizens and agents for positive change. And with such an ambitious agenda, it attracts ambitious individuals. As a group, we often reflect on what we have done, how much we have learned about the world and ourselves, and on the progress we are making as committed social entrepreneurs or agents for change. I believe that we are all living up to the program’s expectations, an opinion to which our program directors and staff also agree.


The last bullet point on my list was “to feel brave, to feel proud of myself, to feel that the program was a good match for me. To know that I refused to let this opportunity slip by.” And so, seven months later, yes, I’d say I’m well on my way.