OTZMA program under new management after 27 years

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) announced in November that it is closing down the long-running OTZMA Israel program, founded in 1986, after the completion of its current year's program.

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Pictured from left: Abby, a madricha (counselor), with an Ethiopian boy at the absorption center in Ashkelon, and Erica Fleischer, an OTZMA participant from Chicago.

A new year brings new hope to the long-running OTZMA program, recently feared to have been closed for good. According to a January, 2013 statement from The Jewish Federations of North America  (JFNA), "The OTZMA Israel experience program, which has been run by JFNA for 27 years, will continue to offer young Jewish adults an opportunity to live in Israel, learn Hebrew and volunteer in small communities. Upon completion of this year’s program, JFNA will transfer ownership of OTZMA to the Israel Experience Educational Tourism Services Ltd., a subsidiary of The Jewish Agency for Israel."

"We are thrilled to have found a wonderful new home for OTMZA with the Israel Experience,” said Michele Sackheim Wein, OTZMA's chair. “We are confident the Israel Experience will help continue to provide the brand of life-changing Israel programs for young adults for which OTZMA is known.”  

Over more than a quarter-century, OTZMA (Hebrew for "courage"), has brought more than 1,400 post-college Jews adults from nearly 100 communities in North America to Israel. Through OTZMA, they have learned Hebrew, volunteered, and interned for 10 months, in partnership with their local Jewish Federations.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has provided more than $250,000 to OTZMA. Lay leadership from Chicago has served as the national chairs of the OTZMA Committee, and a dedicated group of lay people and staff have been involved in OTZMA recruitment locally. While they were in Israel, JUF's Israel office maintained contact and support with OTZMA participants, some of whom lived in its Partnership region.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. More than 80 OTZMA alumni either were sent from Chicago are or currently living here, and some OTZMA graduates from Chicago have made aliyah, and are living in Israel. As a result of OTZMA, according to JFNA, 56 percent of OTZMA alumni have donated to their Federation, while 63 percent have encouraged their friends and family to get involved in the community.

The professional Jewish world has benefitted as well. Fully 65 percent of alumni have returned home to work for the Jewish community, while 25 percent have made it their long-term career. Some examples: Molly Chadis (OTZMA '08),  development associate for Major Gifts at Boston's Federation; Dana Silberstein (also '08), overseas mission coordinator, New York; Michael Hoffman ('95), VP of community planning and allocations, Baltimore; and Brian Eglash ('87) senior vice president of Financial Resource Development, Pittsburgh.

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) had previously announced, in November 2012, that it was closing down the long-running OTZMA Israel program, founded in 1986, after the completion of its current year's program. In his letter regarding the program's ending, Jerry Silverman, JFNA's President and CEO, had written: "As a program way ahead of its time, with a unique approach to engaging young adults in Israel and the Jewish community, OTZMA started an international trend… The program helped to develop young leaders around the Jewish community, and created strong connections to Israel and the Jewish Federation world.

"Today, there are more than 200 Israel programs for young Jewish adults, built upon OTZMA's shoulders, and many offer similarly extraordinary experiences. As a result, at the end of this academic year, JFNA has decided to stop implementing OTZMA as a stand-alone Jewish Federations' Israel experience program. JFNA will continue to work with existing Israel experience programs, such as Masa Israel Journey, to provide the crucial bridge to Federations that an Israel experience can and should offer, and to ensure they complement our many Young Adult programs and services. OTZMA's Class XXVII will finish out the remainder of their Israel experience, and JFNA will explore transferring the program to another organization or program provider for future classes.

As we conclude OTZMA, we want to recognize the tireless work of so many volunteers and professionals that made the program such a success. We are incredibly proud of what OTZMA has accomplished in its nearly three decades of existence, and of our hundreds of OTZMA alumni that have made- and continue to make- an impact on the Jewish world."

Reacting to the idea of OTMZA's closing, JUF/JF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir had said, "Our community has wholeheartedly supported OTZMA and its participants since its inception some 27 years ago. Now, thanks to OTZMA's pioneering work, there are dozens of long-term Israel programs being offered for graduates. We are thinking through how we can adapt parts of OTZMA's model to other programs in Israel; OTZMA's legacy will continue to enhance all of our Israel experience programming. JUF was one of the first to fund OTZMA decades ago, and we are fully dedicated to continuing to support the wide array of Israel experience programs it inspired."

A Chicago woman's experience with OTZMA

Chicago's Erica Fleischer remembers her experience on the OTZMA program, more than a decade later:

"Like so many alums, I was saddened to hear that OTZMA would be closing down. I was part of OTZMA 14 from 1999-2000, a more innocent time for Israel and the program where Egged busses brought me to every inch of the country. OTZMA was unique at the time. It was the only post-college program that combined so many aspects of Israel. I lived in absorption center in Ashkelon while taking Ulpan, spent three months in Karmiel in the north and another two at a youth village- a boarding school for youth who had no other place to go.

"The program got me out of the American bubble in Jerusalem to places where I was forced to use my Hebrew and to meet so many different people. For one of my volunteer projects in Karmiel, I was matched with a blind Moroccan immigrant who only spoke French and Hebrew. Without the benefit of even facial expressions or hand gestures, my Hebrew quickly improved. At the absorption center I befriended a Persian family and attended one of the daughters' weddings. And at the youth village I met so many kids who either had no parents in Israel or  parents who couldn't care from them. The youth village was a true family for them, welcoming them back throughout their army service. After OTZMA, I spent five years working in the Jewish community and still work in public service. I've returned to Israel three times. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to take that year to learn and give and to truly make Israel a second home."


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