by Marni Mandell

In the two weeks since JFNA announced that it would no longer support or host OTZMA, many alumni have “come out of the closet” arguing that this is a travesty, not only for their personal memories, but also for the larger Jewish community. If this is indeed the case, then this is a travesty that must not be wasted.

I started my tenure as the Director of OTZMA in North America in the middle of the second intifada. I was privileged to bring 12 courageous participants to Israel at the height of a time when many, if not most, Israel programs were either temporarily or permanently closed. During these years, many expressed a desire for us to halt operations. Our leadership – including JFNA – formerly UJC – however, believed in the program and backed it with dollars and operational support during those years. At the same time, the message was clearly communicated that if we were unable to raise the number of participants to a financially sustainable level, OTZMA would have to close.

OTZMA was undoubtedly one of the most expensive long-term Israel programs to run. Federations had to agree to sponsor each participant to the tune of $3,000, and additionally provide participants housing and programming for them while they  were on the “partnership” section of the program. Each year, the OTZMA staff came under pressure both to raise the money from the federations and to get buy-in from the local communities in Israel. This was not because Federations doubted the validity of the program itself; rather, they had difficulty seeing how the investment they made would be returned directly to their communities.

The original goal was for OTZMA to create the future lay leaders of the federation system that invested in them. Many OTZMA  alumni argue that federations did little to find meaningful ways to incorporate them back into their home communities. The only message alumni seemed to hear clearly was federation interest in their donations, not in their input or involvement. There is little argument that the work federations do for their local communities and in Israel cannot happen without financial, as well as volunteer support. However, it is also reasonable to believe that there would be no more committed proponents of the federation system, and no donors as strong as those who volunteered for (and were beneficiaries of) OTZMA. This, by and large, did not transpire despite a few OTZMA alumni becoming exceptionally talented professional leaders.

OTZMA was built to create a leadership development program that ultimately did not produce enough specific returns to the system that created it. At the same time, the world of post-college, long-term programs has changed dramatically with the development of countless MASA programs for this age cohort that can tailor make someone’s Israel experience to be just what they want it to be. For a generation that every Jewish and non-sectarian study says is individualistic and expects high levels of personalization, OTZMA stands alone as a product that does not meet the needs of this generation in its current form.

At this critical time, when the future of OTZMA is at stake, those who want to see OTZMA continue must ask, and honestly answer, these central questions:

  • What will OTZMA be without the support of the federation system?
  • What PURPOSE will OTZMA serve that other MASA programs do not? Is there a large enough market to make the program financially sustainable?
  • What will the VALUE-ADDED PROPOSITION of OTZMA be for participants, and more importantly, for the Jewish community of the future?

Without serious consideration of and answers to these basic questions, OTZMA will be doomed to a “travesty” of a different kind – that of irrelevancy.

Marni Mandell was the Director of OTZMA in North America from 2002-2006. Marni is the Principal of Friendraising for Success and a trainer and facilitator with LS Message Experts in Tel Aviv.