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.