Establish good role models. In our most difficult moments, remembering the difficulties our role models have overcome can serve as inspiration to keep moving forward. David Ben-Gurion is my choice for this one.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ofer Gutman.
Ofer Gutman has served as the CEO of Masa Israel Journey since 2019, an organization which has served more than 180,000 young professionals from over 60 countries since its founding. Prior to joining Masa, Ofer served as the CEO of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) Community, Executive Director of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in North America, and Director of Long-Term Programs at Israel Way. Ofer holds an L.L.B. and is an attorney.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Growing up in Northern Israel, I was not very connected to the greater Jewish world outside of my community. However, while living as an Israeli emissary in New York, I found myself intrigued that a people spread across every corner of the world is united by a shared history in this tiny bit of land, and I always wanted to learn more about Jewish life outside of Israel.
I’ve worked in the Jewish nonprofit world for a long time. Prior to this work, I studied law with the intention of becoming a practicing lawyer. But my experiences within the Jewish world abroad made me realize that my true passion lies in strengthening our collective connection to Israel and with each other.
Since this realization, I’ve dedicated myself to shaping a promising future for young Jewish professionals, the global Jewish community, and the State of Israel. I currently live in Ramat Gan, Israel with my wife and son, and I’m grateful to work for this unique mission simultaneously.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We’ve faced many challenges within the span of just a couple years. Shortly after I came into this role, the pandemic hit, bringing tremendous disruptions and obstacles to Masa’s operations. Overcoming pandemic-related restrictions to continue bringing safe, meaningful experience to Fellows was difficult, but everyone at Masa learned the value of resilience and dedication to our mission.
Just one year into the pandemic, a Masa Fellow was lost in the tragedy at Meron, Israel. This terrible accident sent shockwaves throughout the global Masa community. We relied on one another for support and gained a deeper appreciation for our supportive network, which proved essential in this heartbreaking moment of shared grief.
One final example occurred in May 2021 when rising tensions in the region led to violence. There were many challenges our community faced as a direct result of this conflict, and of course, the safety and wellbeing of our Fellows took top priority. We worked day and night to ensure they were safe and mentally well during this turbulent time. By dealing with this crisis as a community, we were able to support our Fellows in several meaningful ways.
After months of living in Israel like locals, Fellows from all walks of life had developed nuanced perspectives and felt confident standing up for Israel online. We saw countless examples of Fellows getting active on social media to share their experiences during the war, injecting critical perspectives into the online discussion.
The stats from our soon-to-be-released alumni data report ended up supporting what we had observed — Masa Fellows are significantly more comfortable sharing their opinions about Israel with others.
This experience proved that Masa Fellows are excellent advocates in their own right — and as long as we support them wherever possible, they will thrive and speak out for what is right even amid intense adversity.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our team is among the most dedicated that I have ever worked with. We are fortunate with a passionate and highly skilled group of professionals that shares a common goal — to increase our impact and leave our mark on the global Jewish community and beyond.
The Masa team is truly international, with staff spread across nearly every continent. We also have an incredibly diverse work culture that encourages fresh perspectives, even if they contradict the majority.
Since every Masa staff member is deeply dedicated to improving and expanding our impact, we’re able to creatively solve serious issues that might bog down other organizations. We’ve seen this in our ability to clear hurdles stemming from the pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and many other global crises since our founding.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My life changed personally and professionally when I went on a mission to the United States to work at the World Zionist Organization. A man named Haim Hayat, who ran one of the organization’s departments, gave me the opportunity to serve as a representative in the US.
This experience had a profound impact on my life. As a result, I made a long-term commitment to work in a field where I could focus on connecting young Jews to the State of Israel and their Jewish identities.
During my years in the US, I learned many lessons about large systems, a different work culture, the benefits of Americanism, and the right combination, in my opinion, between American and Israeli culture, which complement each other in many ways. I also met my wife in New York. Now, in Israel, we’ve built our home and are raising our child.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is a combination of resourcefulness and perseverance, and resilient people are optimists who know how to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly. Resilient people are engaged in the ongoing task of problem-solving, understanding that there will always be changes, that not everything will end up as planned, and that the best option is to accept change while striving to correct and improve their situation — even in turbulent times.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
It very much depends on the type of “courage” one exhibits. If one is daring to try new things while taking responsibility for the risks and exhibiting gratitude for their support system — it is indeed resilience. If it is courage in the form of taking irresponsible risks that unnecessarily endanger others, it is the opposite of being resilient.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
The person I most connect with in this way is David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Without him and his steadfast leadership, I’m not sure this country would have even been established. To this end, he demonstrated tactics to instill a sense of security even in the most insecure of moments. He knew how to take responsibility and act boldly while taking calculated risks. Optimistic and realistic at the same time, Ben-Gurion was resilient in his mission against all odds.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When the pandemic hit, air travel around the world ground to a halt. Amid immense uncertainty, Israel opened the skies during the pandemic specifically for our arriving Masa Fellows, allowing us to continue making an impact on young Jewish adults from around the world. While many youth organizations suspended operations, Masa worked harder than ever to provide meaningful experiences at a time when they were few and far between. I’m very proud of our team for making the impossible, possible, ensuring our impact continues for generations to come.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
As with countless other organizations, we feared that the early pandemic travel restrictions would bring devastating setbacks to our operations. While these restrictions presented tremendous obstacles at first, Masa adapted quickly and, in close cooperation with the government of Israel, we created new pathways for young adults to safely fly out and stay in Israel.
Word got out that Masa granted special exception for individuals taking long-term trips to Israel, a country that was otherwise unreachable for most. What happened next was incredible — the number of program applicants skyrocketed as college students took more and more gap years, young professionals took the chance to work in Israel, and thousands of others signed up to teach English, study, volunteer, and more. I couldn’t be prouder of my team for overcoming that setback and coming out even stronger than before.
Additionally, our commitment to going above and beyond proved lifesaving when Russia invaded Ukraine. Since war broke out, Masa has undertaken a tremendous task to provide a pathway for young Jews in Former Soviet Union countries seeking refuge in Israel.
With the help of the government of Israel, we were able to accommodate a 200% increase in registrants from the region as of April 2022. Masa also covered the full cost of their programs and created special exceptions so they could start their programs early back in March.
Our expert staff underwent supportive training to assist these young adults who were still in shock as their homeland became a warzone. Additionally, The Jewish Agency partnered with Masa to help fly out and support these Fellows and their families who had become refugees overnight.
It truly was a tremendous effort, and I’m proud of our accomplishments in such a short timeframe. Thousands of Fellows from the region are now here in Israel, safely building new lives or waiting and hoping for a positive outcome in their home countries.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I was privileged to have had a great childhood, but my professional life has required a great deal of resilience.
I came into this in 2019. In my span of leadership at Masa, our team has dealt with and managed countless crises that directly impact Masa Fellows. Through tension in Israel, the global pandemic, a fatal tragedy amid holiday celebrations in Meron, Israel, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, succumbing to the circumstances has never been an option. It speaks to the perseverance of our global team and Masa Fellows themselves that we continue to operate with such tremendous impact.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, establish good role models. In our most difficult moments, remembering the difficulties our role models have overcome can serve as inspiration to keep moving forward. David Ben-Gurion is my choice for this one.
Second, take inventory of your support system. Ask yourself the tough questions — who are the friends I can rely on most? Which family member always has my back? In times of crisis, these are the people you know you can fall back on. My wife is a tremendous pillar of support, and she motivates me to persevere.
Third, remember your value. When times are tough, we tend to be hard on ourselves, which further exacerbates the difficulty of persevering. By reminding yourself of your inherent value and the positive characteristics that make you unique, hope and resilience may be easier to grasp.
Fourth, learn to separate failure and difficulty from your identity. Many things in life are challenging, and more people struggle than you see publicly. Internalizing your own struggles risks damaging your self-esteem and is not likely to help solve the issue. Do the best you can, and don’t let the hurdles become integrated into your sense of self.
Fifth, trust yourself. When the outlook is grim and persevering seems like the hardest task you’ve ever done, know that you will make it out okay. Never give up because of your fear of the unknown. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, but most of all — see it through.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are many good causes in the world, but what’s important is to care about something. Too many people stay out of the conversation for fear of being ridiculed. People naturally gravitate toward the things that connect them to a positive place. By discovering and embracing our passions, we can build new connections and advance critical conversations.
We often see college students protesting and yelling, sometimes advocating for a small group of people, but at least they care. Most people just keep walking. We need to make it our combined mission to get people to care about something bigger than themselves. It’s in everyone’s best interest for people to care in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Itzhak Perlman is a great inspiration for several reasons. Born in Tel Aviv before the State of Israel existed, Perlman lives among a generation that persevered when the odds were decisively against them. He contracted polio at a young age, adding additional hurdles in his path to musical recognition. He was even rejected from an Israeli music school and had to teach himself how to play violin.
Despite all these challenges, Perlman defied all odds and rose to global prominence in his teens, eventually becoming one of the greatest violinists the world has ever known. He personifies perseverance in a way that few other people do. It would be an honor to learn from his unmatched devotion to his craft.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
MasaIsrael.org is the best place to learn about our work. There, you can read about our diverse set of programs and initiatives to inspire and connect the Jewish world.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!