Reflections on OTZMA’s Closing

by Sharna Marcus

I received the news that the JFNA will be closing Otzma from a current participant who I encouraged for years to do the program. She wrote,

“Hey, I don’t know if you have heard but they just told us and the announcement is been made tomorrow that this is the last year Otzma will be run by JFNA. If they can’t find a new organization to take it over this will be the last year. I just wanted to make sure I took the time to let you know and thank you for telling me about it/encouraging me. I am absolutely having the best year of my life so far. Hope everything is good with you!”

Otzma began in 1986 and is a 10-month volunteer program in which participants study in ulpan, work in JFNA partnership communities, and then spend a final three months volunteering throughout the country.

When Otzma started, it was basically the only game in town. With the exception of the WUJS Arad program, it was the only option available for post college graduates to participate in an organized 10-month volunteer program in Israel.

Today, as Jerry Silverman, CEO of JFNA, wrote in the press release announcing the closure, there are 200 competing programs. Many of the programs emerged after the beginning of Taglit-Birthright Israel as the now 300,000 plus market opened up from post college Israel programs. In addition, since 1999, Jewish Federations have begun funding Taglit-Birthright Israel, which added a new chunk to their overall expenditures, money that can no longer go to Otzma.

Any decision to close a high profile program involves costs and benefits. A benefit I am guessing to closing Otzma is that it is an extremely complicated program to run, and complicated equals expensive. The participants are all over the country, in different communities. The organization has to coordinate with the local Federation and the partnerships to create meaningful volunteer opportunities. In a typical MASA program, the participants volunteer, intern or study in one place, maybe two. There is no coordination with the U.S. and the programs are simply less cumbersome to run.

However, the cost is also huge and perhaps less quantifiable. 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.

Speaking personally, I can say Otzma changed my life’s trajectory. In college I worked professionally as a sports writer for a newspaper and was very active at my college newspaper. I even earned bachelors and masters degrees in journalism. However, on Otzma, I realized that I wanted to be in a profession that was more about service than journalism, and decided to become a teacher. For the past 13 years, I have worked in the Jewish community first as a religious school teacher, then as a Day School teacher and now the director of education at an organization that runs Israel programs. One of the reasons I was hired at both the Day School and my current organization is because I had Otzma on my resume. And when young adults apply to staff my organization’s trips, if they are Otzma alumni, they immediately receive more attention and consideration because they completed a truly impressive program.

In addition, because over the last four years I have worked for an Israel organization, I met my Israeli husband, and now I am expecting a child in February. At my wedding in Israel in March, stood my Otzma adopted sister, brother and mom as I stood under the chupah. At my reception in the United States, Otzma friends from San Francisco, Nashville, Detroit and Toronto danced the horah with me.

I hope that there is another MASA provider who will take on Otzma so that we do not lose future generations of committed young people who will serve their local Jewish communities and be committed to the future of the state of Israel.

Sharna Marcus is Director of Education at Shorashim; she was on Otzma 13.

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  1. Matt Cohen says

    Great post on why OTZMA is irreplaceable and all that will be lost for Jewish communities around the world if it is allowed to be shut down.

    One thing to note is that JFNA’s decision to end OTZMA had absolutely nothing to do with finances or recruitment.

  2. Dan Brown says

    If JFNA’s decision had nothing to do with finances or recruitment, please share with us what the decision was based on.

  3. 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.

  4. Matt Cohen says

    That is a very good question and one JFNA has not answered yet. The original version of the news story posted on this site noted “JFNA has not responded to eJP‘s question, ‘Why is JFNA closing OTZMA?'” and it still hasn’t, although I’m sure we will hear a crafted public response in the coming days.

    Barely more than five months ago, Mr. Silverman wrote, “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” (

  5. says

    Two comments on this thoughtful commentary on the closing of OTZMA. [I want to clarify that I have not worked in the Jewish community for almost 15 years, but I did for almost 30 years before then. Because of my distance, I have no opinion on the wisdom or practicality of the JFNA decision.]

    I recall when OTZMA was created, helped recruit for it, and participated in both local and national discussions about it in its early years. There is no disagreement with the articulation that it was a powerful experience for those who participated.

    Having said that, OTZMA was not unique when it was created – there were many similar precedents including the long lasting Sherut Le’am. OTZMA was created at the height of the role of the federation system as the central planning and programming arm of the North American Jewish world, a role somewhat diminished with the passing of time. Of course that system would have created and owned its own system at that time. Perhaps not as logical today. Perhaps.

    The other key point has to do with OTZMA’s role as a feeder into the professional system. That is meritorious but not persuasive. I believe in a highly trained, committed, and knowledgeable professional cadre in Jewish life, but I also believe that the community needs knowledgeable and committed lay people even more. Every segment of the communal system argues that it needs more and better professionals, but it is by no means clear that it ever can afford that, or even if that is the healthiest description of what the community needs at this time. If we define success by who goes into it as a “career”, we have reinforced that communal professional service is a distinct role within Jewish life. But this runs counter to all trends today: people have multiple careers, moving in and out of sectors, playing multiple roles, and even getting multiple professional credentials. Ms Marcus personal story is touching, and certainly speaks to the impact OTZMA had on her, but it doesn’t speak to the larger policy agenda of what the community of the 21st Century requires and how people actually behave. OTZMA may indeed be uniquely qualified to provide leadership on both the professional and volunteer level, and if so its loss would be unfortunate indeed – but the arguments to date have not yet spoken to this agenda.

  6. James Gurland says

    Otzma II grad here..married to an Otzma I grad…a sad day…perhaps a reflection of the changing landscape in a Jewish world that is facing the Second great Jewish Contraction

  7. Julie Datnow says

    Otzma 8 alumna here. I married my Otzma boyfriend and 16 years later we have 3 beautiful daughters who live a vibrant Jewish life, attending Jewish Day school, Jewish Sleep-away camp and are shomrai shabbat. I was a Jewish communal professional before I stayed home with my children. My husband and I have served on the boards of our local federation, Hillel, our synagogue, foundation and more. We were both honored to have been Wexner Heritage Members. Certainly, none of this would have been possible with out our life-changing 10 months on Project Otzma.
    We are saddened that other young Jews will not have the same opportunity that we were given. I hope there is a way to keep Otzma going.

  8. Daniel Treiser says

    Another Otzma 8 alum. Without question, participation in Otzma was one of the key factors in the course of my life. The in-depth understanding of the Jewish State secured Israel’s place in my heart like no other experience could. The time I spent exploring our heritage on Otzma gave me the confidence to apply to rabbinic school. The friendships I made with my fellow Otzmanikim continue to be a source of strength in my life. Through my involvement with Otzma I learned what it meant to be involved in Federation life. And through my work with Hillel immediately after Otzma (and I was hired primarily because of my experiences in Israel) I met my wife. I have said many times from the pulpit that my Otzma year made me the man, the father, and the rabbi I am today. While I am saddened by the news of JFNA’s decision, I remain hopeful that the alumni and those who love this program will work together to find a way to keep it alive and thriving in the future.

  9. Susan Kane says

    I was on Otzma III. I did not grow up in a synagogue or a youth movement. My family was not particularly Zionist. I am a 4th generation American who has no family in Israel. My family is lower middle class — we did not travel internationally growing up.

    Otzma took someone like myself — someone who had the desire to connect but not the background — and made me the kind of person who can contribute to any sector of the worldwide Jewish community. Many people from my year made aliyah, many still speak Hebrew well — and all have remained committed members of the Jewish community and the Jewish people.

    Through Otzma, I lived in neighborhoods that most upper class Israelis have never visited and spent months hanging out with groups of people they fear and sometimes despise. I was exposed to hundreds of different Israeli stories. From them, I was able to formulate my own perspective on the Middle East.

    There are only a few programs that produce Jews like this — Otzma is one of them. And unlike similar programs from youth movements, Otzma is open to the entire Jewish community.

    For the record, I have never worked professionally in the Jewish community. I’m just an American Jew — albeit one who knows 250% more about Israel than the average member of the American Jewish community. It takes time and energy to create transformative experiences but the proof is in the people who come out transformed — and I don’t think anyone can say that we are slackers. Unlike many programs, Otzma has consistently achieved its mission, year after year.

    Birthright is a fine program and I agree 100% with the idea that every Jew should visit Israel. But there are hundreds of Birthright programs, each with its own political or religious agenda. There is only one Otzma.

  10. Adam Inlander says

    Thank you for the thoughtful post Sharna. This is sad news indeed. I never expected OTZMA to last forever, but I am not yet ready to see it go.

  11. Benjamin Klafter says

    Just to respond to the Dan Brown / Matt Cohen exchange at the top of the comments: I, too, have been in the touch with the Otzma staff and they’ve assured me that money/recruiting were not factors.

    The only “explanation” (to the extent that it can be called that) that I’ve seen/heard to date is the one in Jerry Silverman’s letter, the entirety of which is: “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…”

    Hardly a satisfying explanation.