by Naomi Reinharz
Two years ago, I was working in an office on the 36th floor of a high-rise building in midtown Manhattan. Today, I sit on the 32nd floor of a very similar building located only two blocks away. But my professional and personal worlds could not be more different.
Not too long ago, I was a corporate litigator at a large, global law firm. I shared the same profile as many of my Jewish peers from upper-middle class suburbs: I received good grades in school, double-majored at an Ivy League university, worked for two years at a nonprofit to gain real world experience, graduated from a top law school, and then began practicing law. Because I had always been intellectually and academically oriented, law seemed like the perfect fit for a young woman like me. It seemed irrelevant that I found the corporate cases to be dry, the hours to be long, and the clients, partners and judges to often be ruthless; this came with the territory of more “important” things like prestige and high pay. Moreover, I was lucky to have a “great job” in such a competitive field and tough economic climate. My need for Jewish involvement and personal pleasure could largely be fulfilled outside the office – increasingly, from my free time spent volunteering with many Jewish organizations in the city.
Then one day, in the midst of endless hours of document review I was conducting for an international bank, I received a mass email from a Jewish organization, advertising a job opening. I don’t know what hit me at that moment; perhaps I was looking for a distraction. But, on a whim, I applied. I was rejected soon after. But the experience awakened me to the possibility of leaving the practice of law. It suddenly dawned on me that I did not need to get my fill of meaning only through occasional volunteerism; I could, if I wanted to, devote a good part of my day and my life to something truly important to me.
I took on this new happiness project with a passion. I researched every Jewish organization I had ever been involved with and even those I hadn’t. I scoured job websites and applied to positions. I networked constantly, open to every opportunity. After one of my interviews, I was offered a position as Chief of Staff of the financial resource development arm of The Jewish Agency for Israel. I accepted soon after, making official my transition from corporate law into Jewish communal service.
Founded in 1929, The Jewish Agency served as the provisional government of the Jewish People in Palestine under the British mandate. David Ben-Gurion – before becoming the first Prime Minister of the Jewish State – was Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency. The Agency helped build 900 towns in Israel. It assisted the immigration of more than half of the State’s Jewish citizens sometimes from peaceful countries like the United States; sometimes from countries where Jews were being persecuted, like the former Soviet Union; and sometimes in awe-inspiring rescue operations from countries like Ethiopia.
Today, in order to strengthen Jews’ connections with their people, heritage, and land, The Jewish Agency brings young adults to Israel on experiences ranging from 10 days to a lifetime. It sends Israelis to every corner of the earth to form relationships in local community centers, Synagogues and college campuses. It coordinates 500 partnerships between Jewish communities in the Diaspora with sister communities in Israel through a variety of connections and exchanges. And today, it gives shelter to those living in the line of rocket fire and provides recreational activities for children whose schools are too unsafe to attend.
Before joining The Jewish Agency, I had visited Israel many times. But when I travel there now – in a professional capacity, visiting Jewish Agency projects around the country – I see a side of Israel that I had never seen before. I see Ethiopian Jews of all ages learning from our educators in absorption centers. I meet young Youth Futures mentors who are helping youth at risk in Kiryat Gat, a small “development” town. I speak with students from the former Soviet Union who, with The Jewish Agency’s assistance, immigrated without their families, live in the desert, and now participate in extreme sports and compete in athletic tournaments. I watch participants of Masa, our long-term Israel Experience program, teaching Hebrew to children in Israeli schools. All of these incredible programs are initiatives of the organization for which I now work. Seldom as an attorney did my work elicit such pride, joy and excitement in me.
I have learned a lot over the past two years as a Jewish professional. Twenty-four months ago, I did not realize that this area of work often demands even more hours and can be more challenging than my experience as an attorney. Terrorist attacks and wars in the region now hit even closer to home, as my colleagues are responsible for helping those Israelis who are injured or who live in harm’s way. However, despite the immensity and the complexities of our work, I am grateful that I am now part of something much bigger and more meaningful than one client and his individual case: every day, my colleagues and I are working together to enhance the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of 14 million fellow Jews around the world.
On the second anniversary of the day that I became a “recovering lawyer” (as my colleagues have come to call me), as I walk past my old law firm on the way to work, I cannot say that I miss doing document review.
Naomi Reinharz is Manager of Board Development and Israel and Global Philanthropy, International Development at The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Naomi’s story, and her personal connection to the Jewish world, is part of an occasional series.