OTZMA to Close

The Jewish Federations of North America has announced that at the close of the current year’s program they will close OTZMA, a long-term Israel program launched during the mid-1980’s.

The announced closure is not sitting well with OTZMA alumni.

First, Jerry Silverman’s announcement letter followed by a link to an alumni-initiated petition to reverse the decision.

From: Desk of Jerry Silverman
Sent: Thursday, November 01, 2012 8:24 AM
Subject: The Otzma Program

Dear friends and colleagues,

As a program way ahead of its time, with a unique approach to engaging young adults in Israel and the Jewish community, OTZMA began in 1986 and started an international trend. It provided a 10-month opportunity for young Jewish adults to live in Israel, learn Hebrew and volunteer in small communities in partnership with their local Jewish Federations.

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.

Through OTZMA, we are proud to have sent more than 1,400 Jewish young adults from nearly 100 communities in North America to Israel. The program helped to develop young leaders around the Jewish community, and created strong connections to Israel and the Jewish Federation world. After returning from OTZMA, more than 60 percent of alumni served as professionals or volunteers in their Jewish communities.

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.

Jerry Silverman
President and CEO
The Jewish Federations of North America

Petitioning The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA): Let OTZMA Live

We, the extended OTZMA family, are shocked and appalled by the decision by The Jewish Federations of North America to end the premiere Israel experience program for post-college young adults. We urge JFNA to reverse its decision and to reconsider whether it truly wants to shutter a program that has such a positive impact on its own Federation movement, not to mention other Jewish philanthropic organizations, as well as communities in Israel and in the Diaspora.

OTZMA has given hundreds of young American Jews an immersive and meaningful year experience in Israel in a way that no other short- or long-term program is able to do. Its dynamic education curriculum takes participants on study tours throughout the year to enhance their understanding of what they experience in their daily life, placing topics featured the news media into their proper context. By living in both major cities as well as towns in the periphery, OTZMAnikim return to North America with a greater understanding of the challenges these communities face, and how they, as emerging leaders, can play a part in building a better future for the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

By deciding to end OTZMA, JFNA is missing an incredible opportunity to build leaders for the Federation movement who have a strong and real understanding of Israel and Israeli society. OTZMAnikim spend a full third of their year living and volunteering in their Partnership 2Gether communities, which pair a North American Jewish community with one in Israel, partnerships that are supported and funded by the Federation movement. OTZMA ensures that these leaders of the future have a real understanding of how Federations work, how their philanthropic efforts seek to effect change in Israel, and how they can connect to their local Federation when the program ends.

If it is truly not interested in running OTZMA, we urge JFNA to help OTZMA find an organizational home that will allow it to thrive and to continue for a 28th year of programming, and one that will allow it to continue working with the partnership communities who look forward to welcoming a new group of OTZMAnikim every year.

It is worth reading OTZMA’s mission and history to realize just how much will be lost if the program is allowed to be shut down …

The complete petition can be found here.

We are expecting additional information from JFNA and will update this posting at that time.

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  1. Brian OTZMA 19 says

    This is absolutely ridiculous. I was on OTZMA 19 and recognize it as the driving experience in my life to remain committed emotionally, culturally, and professionally to the State of Israel. Many of my fellow OTZMA participants either made aliya, or as the aforementioned article states, returned as active members of their respective Jewish communities. How about instead of cutting OTZMA, why not take the money from the countless unnecessary direct mailings I get weekly from my local Federation and continue to fund the program.

  2. Rachel says

    I am so disappointed in this news!! OTZMA is the main reason I’m so invested in Israel. My year on Otzma shaped who I am today. Let’s spread the word and fight to keep it alive and striving!

  3. Danielle Levinson Beres says

    How horrible! Otzma had a profound impact not only on my life and the lives of other participants, but on the people I served when I returned home to work in the Jewish Community. Those of us who participated in Otzma remain ambassadors for Israel and it’s diverse communities. It pains me to think Jewish 20 somethings won’t have this opportunity. I had dreams of sending my children on Otzma someday.

  4. Mitchell says

    I cannot say that I am surprised by this news. The OTZMA staff exemplifies all that is wrong in the Jewish non-profit world. How many people does it take to run the exact same program year after year? With the unprecedented levels of incompetence at all levels of the program this reality was inevitable.

    [eJP note: this comment has been edited to reflect eJewish Philanthropy’s stated policy, “On-topic and respectful comments are encouraged and will be published.”]

  5. Michael Schwartz says

    This is a horrible decision on the JFNA, if they want to reengage young people back into the Jewish Community closing down OTZMA is not the answer. Even in their own letter JFNA says “The program helped to develop young leaders around the Jewish community, and created strong connections to Israel and the Jewish Federation world. After returning from OTZMA, more than 60 percent of alumni served as professionals or volunteers in their Jewish communities.” With these types of statistics then why close down such a wonderful program. This is truly disheartening.
    -Michael Schwartz

  6. Colin Hogan says

    I am shocked and disheartened that such a critical component of developing leaders who truly understand the intracaies and importance of rhe relationship between the Jewish communities in North America and Israel would allow this program to end. We are losing a powerful tool to transform and grow dynamic young Jewish community leaders.

  7. tahg says

    This news is very sad and shocking. Otzma was one of the most important life changing programs that I hold deep in my heart. Not only did I make lifelong friends, I eventually married my Israeli wife and live in Israel with my family. After my year on Otzma, I worked for the Federation in Los Angeles sending students to long term programs in Israel. Otzma truly helped me connect to the greater Jewish community and Israel. We need to do everything we can to keep this incredible program alive!

  8. Marc Potash says

    It is a sad day when it comes to a decision like this. My year on Otzma XV was the pivotal year in my life, not only for the experience the program enabled but also because during that year the second intifada broke out and the vast majority of otzmanikim made the conscious decision to remain in Israel during that dangerous time. Otzma is one of the most incredible ways for young adults to connect with Israel and the Jewish community. I made many close friends during that year, both otzmanikim and Israelis, who are now integral parts of my life. One otzmanik was a groomsman at my wedding and a high school student of mine in Netivot invited me to his wedding in Israel this past summer. Now living in San Diego, I can speak intimately about the twin city of Sderot since we spent so much time there. As a Federation donor, JNF donor, and actively affiliated synagogue member, I was hoping that one day my children could experience the wonders that Otzma could bring. It is reasonable to expect that this decision could be explained in more depth and the reasons why this program is being cut.

  9. rachel says

    Wow Mitchell – what an awful thing to say. You’re entitled to your opinion but to publically bash a particular staff member is absolutely appauling.

  10. Matt Fieldman says

    Dear friends – As a fellow member of OTZMA XV, I am deeply saddened by this news as well. I spent the eight years proceeding OTZMA working in the Jewish world, including five in the Federation system.

    I would, however, like to play devil’s advocate and say that Federations, and JFNA as a whole, should get out of the direct programming business, including volunteer programs like OTZMA. Instead, they should focus on their core competencies: fundraising, direct allocations to worthy agencies, and measuring the impact of those activities.

    OTZMA should instead be transferred to MASA Israel Journey or another organization that can truly devote the resources and expertise the program deserves. This is a sad and stark reality not only of the economy we live in, but also a world where organizations must focus on their core competencies.

    I, for one, hope to see OTZMA (or a program very similar, but with perhaps a different name) reborn under the auspices of a more focused and dedicated Israel programming organization.

  11. says

    Aside from the single most valuable year of development for both my personal and professional identity, Otzma has created the fabric for hundreds of alumni, aspiring Jewish communal professionals, and developing an interwoven relationship between the North American and Israeli communities.

    28 years ago, with Project Otzma’s birth, the focus of the program was to establish burgeoning relationships with Israel’s myriad of development towns and the establishment of Partnership Renewal “sister cities” between North America and Israel. That duality evolved (in large part through the personal experiences established by Otzma participants) to eventually become P2K and then P2Gether. While P2K stuttered with its growth (even retaining its name for 10 years beyond 2000), Project Otzma continued to evolve as it developed professional internships, Otzma Teaching Fellows, and creating a model for which other long-term service programs would be established and MASA, Jewish Agency’s financial aid for long-term programs to Israel would seek to replicate.

    JFNA has made the mistake of suggesting the termination of Project Otzma, rather than identifying Otzma as a possible vehicle of revitalization for the entire Federation system. Otzma has the ability to be a reflective program involving service learning, travel/multi-cultural exposure, and Israel engagement, here in our local communities. Project Otzma is an incredible model of an integrated volunteer leadership and social justice fellowship that should be replicated in local communities – engaging the “unaffiliated”, striving for communing building, and, perhaps, even engaging some of our country’s most complex community infrastructures during times of natural disaster.

    Most of my closest friends I met while on Project Otzma. Some of my most valuable memories or elements of identity were formed with Project Otzma. I am disheartened and will join hundreds of others in the Otzma community at the closure of this program. I urge the JFNA community and each of the local Federation communities to reconsider this decision – “Otzma” means “inner strength” or “empowerment”. Just as every Otzma participant has done hundreds of times, please consider the inner strength necessary to persevere through this challenging environment.

  12. Evan OTZMA XIII says

    OTZMA was a defining moment of my life. It solidified my decision to follow my passion and work on behalf of the Jewish community within the Federation system and JNF, I also met amazing people, and a few years ago had the honor of dedicating a plaque in honor of my roommate from OTZMA, Jason Korsower z”l, on ammunition hill in partnership with one of my fellow participants. That being said; in my opinion, the most successful engagement programs for young Jewish adults exist outside of the Jewish Federation system, and that my friends is the silver lining. Federations are just not good at this stuff. . .True – Federation funds sent us on OTZMA, and I am grateful for that, but in my experience most Federation’s don’t have a clue about how to engage alumni upon their return (same with Taglit Birthright Israel alumni, but that is a whole different EJP article) with a few exceptions. Maybe JFNA actually realizes this. So what’s next . . . . Michael Schwartz and others, I will be working with other alumni to convene a conference call in the near future to discuss and hopefully determine what alumni and other OTZMA fans and supporters feel is an appropriate way to “transfer the program”. I hope you and anyone else who is interested will join in.

  13. Shannon (12) says

    Otzma was by far the most meaningful year of my life and it taught me to love Israel. Although I had gone to Brandeis University, I was never interested in Israel. Even when the Oslo Accords happened and Rabin was assassinated, I always thought of Israel as the one portrayed in the media- some foreign place where crazy people were always fighting- and never thought of it as my homeland.

    But Otzma changed that. Because of Otzma, I could live as an Israeli and meet Israelis from all walks of life that trusted me because I was a volunteer- I was there to help and didn’t have an agenda. Not only that, but the quality of the educational programs was outstanding. I still remember Julian and Chaim’s talks almost 15 years later because they were truly gifted instructors. What other program could possibly match this experience?

    When I returned from Israel, I worked at JNF, where I met my husband. I now have two children who are being raised to love Israel. Otzma is responsible for all this.

  14. Dan Brown says

    Sharna Marcus, an Otzma alum and Jewish communal professional:

    “The end of Otzma means an end to a large feeder of outstanding professionals and lay people into the Jewish community. In the press release Mr. Silverman said 60 percent of Otzma alumni went on to work in the Jewish community. No other Israel program can tout that figure. I don’t know the number of Otzma alumni who have married other Jews, but I assume that is extremely high compared to the rest of the Jewish Community. This is typically an important figure in determining the success of an Israel program. Otzma alumni have an incredible attachment to the State of Israel, and not just Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. By living, learning and volunteering throughout the country, Otzma alumni return from the United States knowing the “real” Israel, for better and for worse. They bring this knowledge home and can better serve Israel in the diaspora because they are well educated and understand the real needs of the community.”


  15. says

    Seems like, for the most part, we’re all shocked and surprised. We’re in agreement that, as participants, Otzma was a huge successful and deeply meaningful. It produced fabulous results (including quantity and quality of subsequent alumni participation). On the outside, it’s seems ludicrous to shelve Otzma. So, I’d like to request from JFNA some transparency in their decision-making process, the rationale — was Otzma losing money? Was fundraising canibalizing critical resources or damaging JFNA’s other goals/priorities? Was the program not meeting goals and expectations? Was it a liability issue? Did a key donor suddenly bail out? Did JFNA considering finding a new home for the program? Were alumni consulted in the process? Basically, if JFNA doesn’t want to alienate +/- 1,400 alumni (many of whom are still very active in the Jewish community), they need to give us a reason not to conclude they’re not a bunch of incompetent, short-sighted idiots.

  16. says

    (Oh, until I participated in Otzma V, working in the organized Jewish community was absolutely the LAST thing I ever wanted to do. Immediately after completing the program, I spent the next 2 1/2 years working in the San Francisco Jewish community.

  17. David says

    Jerry Silverman in May, 2012: “With so many Israel programs to choose from, OTZMA stands out. It is OUR Jewish Federation program. No other Israel experience produces the caliber of OTZMA alumni, who have contributed so much to Jewish Federations and the community. For 26 years, this program has nurtured and infused our communities with committed, passionate, knowledgeable and transformed young Jews who get involved in the work we do in Jewish Federations and become connected to the Jewish People worldwide. ”


    Guess Silverman had a change of heart.

  18. Benjamin Klafter says

    I don’t have too much new to add: I, too, had a life-changing experience on Otzma, I worked for the SF federation for 2+ yrs afterward, continue to be deeply involved in the community, and until recently still actively recruited for Otzma and helped screen potential participants. And I, too, am maddened and saddened by the development.

    One thing I will add is the frustration I’m feeling over the *manner* in which the decision was announced. I learned of Otzma’s demise from a wall post on the Otzma Facebook page. As of today no email has even been sent to the Otzma alumni listserve. It’s unclear to me where Jerry Silverman’s letter, but I can tell you in never ended up in my inbox; I found it — and this blog post — by way of the Facebook page.

    And while I’ve read Jerry Silverman’s letter about 10 times over at this point, the only kernel of explanation I can find remains this: “Today, there are more than 200 Israel programs for young Jewish adults…as a result, at the end of this academic year, JFNA has decided to stop implementing OTZMA…”

    When I read that sentence I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, “um, what?”

    That’s hardly a way to end a 28-yr project that has touched thousands of American Jews and Israelis.

    (If you are not already a member, consider joining the alumni listserve; there’s some important discussions going on in there:

  19. Benjamin Klafter says

    I’ll add one more thing which I’ve expressed to the listserve: I’ve received regular communications from Otzma through the listserve over the years. As late as September of this year (!) I received the periodic Otzma update in my inbox, which described excitedly the goings on of the current group and seemed to look forward to the next group coming on board. There was even a “take action” item: “like” Otzma on Facebook.

    There was absolutely zero indication that JFNA had decided to cease support of the program, nor even a hint that such a thing was a possibility. Now all of a sudden I’m hearing that the decision was a long time in the making.

    Had there been even the feeblest of efforts made to rally alumni a year (or even a month!) ago, I’m sure we would be well on our way by now toward creating a transition plan to ensure that Otzma had a home elsewhere. There’s a wellspring of alumni enthusiasm for this program, and we count among our alumni seasoned Jewish community professionals, experienced lay people, and more than a few expert fundraisers.

    Sadly, it seems no one bothered to ask us.