Shutting Down OTZMA – A Missed Opportunity

Otzma 21; photo by Sandy Schlenoff, North American Director, OTZMA

by Tova Serkin

Last week, the Jewish Federations of North America announced they would be shutting down OTZMA, its flagship Israel experience/leadership program. The announcement, made rather coldly and with a sense of defeat (and with little explanation), was sent out with no prior notice to alumni or other stakeholders. Whether this was intentional or accidental, the way in which shutting down the program was handled reflects a problematic view of organizational lifecycles in the Jewish community.

As a proud alumna of the program, I greeted the news with a great deal of sadness. On a personal level, the year I spent on OTZMA was a defining one and certainly deepened my commitment to Israel and set me on the path of working in the Jewish community. It allowed me to spend a post-college year improving my Hebrew, interacting with segments of Israeli population that the average visitor never meets, doing significant volunteer work, and learning the ins and out of the Jewish organizational world. No doubt I am where I am today in large part because of my year on OTZMA.

The alumni community has, for the most part, reacted with strong disappointment and a renewed sense of activism and unity to try and “save” the program. The normally inactive alumni e-mail list has been buzzing with plans to lobby JFNA and others to step in.

But as a Jewish communal professional, I have to look at the announcement a bit differently.

Since JFNA will not provide specific reasons for shutting the down the program beyond the increase in other long-term programs, it leaves us to speculate. The usual suspects being: financial difficulties (despite the fact that the program is essentially self-sufficient by now), political reasons, competition from other programs, changing community needs, or simple lack interest. But one message comes across clearly from what is not said; the program is being shut down due to some sort of failure – as if there were not enough resources, financial or otherwise, to “save” OTZMA. It is too bad that 27 years of a ground breaking, successful program is meeting such a sad end – it could have been done differently.

The time has come for the Jewish organizational world to accept and even encourage nonprofits/programs to merge or to shut down – from a place of strength rather than a lack of funding or leadership. An organization created in 2000 to serve a particular need at that time may no longer be relevant in 2012 – and that is as it should be. In some cases, it is even a sign of success. I look forward to the day that an organization proactively decides that it has accomplished the goals it set for itself and closes itself down publically and proudly, freeing up community funding and resources for the next pressing need.

How wonderful would it have been to treat the shutting down of OTZMA as an occasion for celebration – celebration that it has succeeded in changing a paradigm and as such is no longer needed in its current format. It would have been an opportunity to bring together alumni and Israeli partners to reflect on the successes of the last quarter of a decade, to take pride in how OTZMA helped changed the relationship between the North American Jewish community and Israel, and helped shape the future of long-term Israel programs. It is a shame that JFNA missed this opportunity to set a positive example of project sunsetting.

Tova Serkin participated in OTZMA XXVII (2002-3) and today serves as the Director of Israel Operations for The Bronfman Fellowships.