Onward Israel – Growing the Internship Experience in Israel

Courtesy Onward Israel

By Lisa Samin

There has been a meteoric rise over the past five years in college students doing resume-building internships in Israel. Onward Israel has played a major role in this change, offering both six- to ten-week summer internships in Israel’s flourishing high-tech, business and nonprofit sectors and an immersive Israel experience program that strengthens Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

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College-age students driven to succeed in the professional arena know that interning is an important resume-builder and springboard to their careers. In the past, Jewish college students chose Israel experience programs to connect to the country and their identity. They chose other overseas destinations for their professional internship experience.

The establishment of Onward Israel in 2012 changed this, allowing students to integrate both experiences. Onward offered students, many of whom had been to Israel with Birthright, the opportunity to return to Israel, get a quality internship in the “Start-Up” nation and participate in an immersive Israel experience program. Added to this was the fact that the internships were offered for six to ten weeks, during the summer, so these career-driven young people could get an internship under their belt without taking time off from college.

The challenge was, it takes two to tango. Onward Israel not only needed to attract young people to their programs through offering quality internships, they needed serious companies in Israel, from diverse fields, to get on board.

“We started Onward Israel in 2012 with 265 participants, 44% of whom were interns,” says Eliran Cohen, Onward’s Director of Business Development. “Using a coalition of program organizers on the ground, we went from company to company, speaking with their management teams and convincing them of the value of having an English-speaking summer intern. Many had no idea what to do with an unpaid intern, as this was not the norm in Israel.”

Onward’s persistence paid off. As companies, many of which were in the high tech, business development and marketing fields, took on summer interns, they saw the potential for their companies. Here were young, motivated English speakers who were enthusiastic to learn and willing to work hard. They injected a spirit of volunteerism, brought familiarity with other cultures and markets and an international flavor to the company team.

For Jewish students, the draw of returning to Israel to live for a summer, and the global buzz of Israel’s incredible high tech and innovation ecosystem, made Israel an attractive place for doing an internship.

“Onward is helping to change the internship field among North American Jews,” says Scott Copeland, Onward’s educational director. “The program provides an Israel experience with real-life learning, an internship that gives them responsibility and serious work projects, often at a level they can’t access back home, and the opportunity to interact with Israeli society in a modern, day-to-day way.”

Onward offers internships in a broad range of fields that include business development, marketing and public relations, engineering, finance, health and medicine, education and nonprofit organizations. Most of the programs are based in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, with some in Haifa and Beersheva. Plans are underway to expand the program to areas outside of major cities and to involve additional sectors.

Onward’s growth has been impressive. In 2017, there were 2062 participants in 72 programs, with 90% working as interns. Participating companies went from 506 in 2016 to 966 in 2017. A 2017 survey of participating companies showed a 4.5 satisfaction rate on a scale of one to five, with Onward interns.

Onward has also made inroads in overseeing the standardization of the field of unpaid interns from overseas in Israel. Companies are required to include a pre-placement process, provide placements that include a maximum 30-hour work week and time for the interns to participate in Onward’s educational curriculum, and provide supervision and quality control. Each program has an internship placement coordinator responsible for the implementation of all internship standards for participants.

For the participants, the experience has proven transformative. In a 2016 ten-month post-program external evaluation, Onward Israel Back Home: From Engagement to Empowerment, carried out by Rosov Consulting, LLC, 75% of the alumni said they gained professional skills and 71% said that they gained valuable work experience.

Denise, an Onward alumnus from Pittsburgh, who did her internship in marketing and communication wrote, “I arrived in the apartments in Tel Aviv and met the 20 other people in my program and we hit it off. I was placed with Right-Hear, a startup company that created a mobile accessibility solution for people that are blind or visually impaired and I couldn’t be happier … In my internship, I got a taste of a little bit of everything. I created press kits, blog posts, managed some social media projects, did research on growth, and also had the opportunity to do some sales. All in all, my internship experience was the absolute best part of being in Israel.”

“Coming back to the United States … I applied to be a double major in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and kept in contact with my boss to the point that I’ll be re-interning with the company again this summer remotely! Onward didn’t just give me an internship experience, but gave me so much perspective on the country of Israel and the abundant amount of opportunities it holds. I honestly can’t wait to go back.”

In a longitudinal study with Onward alumni from cohort three (2014), also carried out by Rosov Consulting in 2017, graduates attest to the programs’ professional impact three years on.

The study, to be released shorty, states, “It is clear from alumni’s reflections in the survey that Onward played a key role in shaping or launching their career path. Some alumni noted that they began Onward with a clear and specific career goal in mind, while others were uncertain and hoped to gain greater clarity and direction. In both cases, alumni found that their internships helped them make connections, build their resumes, identify their strengths and weaknesses in specific professional fields, and open doors that would have otherwise been closed to them.”

“Many interviewees … mentioned that they have regularly discussed their experience during job interviews, and some have been hired or promoted due to the unique skill-set they gained during Onward, including working in an international setting and in a foreign language. For many alumni, Onward was their first “real” professional experience, and they learned how to navigate an office environment and develop their goal-setting, planning, presentation, and communication capacities. In this way, alumni’s Onward experiences played a pivotal role in “readying” them for the workforce.”

“As an engineer finishing my second year, I was struggling to find any internship,” said one of the alumni in the survey. “Onward got me an internship that a grad student would dream of in the US. Working four days a week left plenty of time for traveling around Israel with the great friends I made.”

“We want young people to live vibrant Jewish lives and to succeed professionally,” says Onward CEO Ilan Wagner. “Onward Israel is giving them the head start to do both.”

First established in 2012 as a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Onward Israel is now an independent U.S. based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It operates in Israel as Onward Israel Internships and Opportunities Ltd. It is a partnership between lead philanthropists and foundations, Jewish communities and organizations from around the world, and continues its collaboration with the Jewish Agency. It also serves as a major platform for mid-length internship experiences in partnership with Masa Israel Journey.

Lisa Samin is President of Jerusalem-based Samin Public Relations, a firm that specializes in resource development and marketing communications for nonprofits. Onward Israel is a client of the firm.