Summer Internships in Israel: A New Paradigm

Onward Israel Pittsburg cohort bike ride; photo courtesy The Jewish Agency.

by Joshua Berkman

A couple of years ago, with a daughter in college, Cindy Shapira noticed that professional internships had become as much a part of the educational culture as curricula. When her daughter began to explore different international summer internship programs, Shapira wondered why Israel internships weren’t on the list. It wasn’t for lack of interest. Summer internships in Israel didn’t exist; Shapira’s daughter went off to Hong Kong, and Shapira went to The Jewish Agency.

Shapira is a member of the Agency’s Board of Governors and was involved in its strategic planning process to emphasize stronger connections among Jews worldwide and with Israel. Her timing was perfect. The Agency had research demonstrating that young adults who return to Israel after an initial trip, such as Birthright, were significantly more likely to value their Jewish identities and to engage with their local Jewish communities. At the same time, however, too few were willing – after a 10-day bus tour – to commit to a five-to-10 month Masa experience, which was the next step in the visit Israel continuum. There was a void for “middle rung” experiences that could bridge the gap between 10 days and 10 months. Shapira had an idea: summer internships.

“I talked to several people and learned it was relatively difficult to find summer internships in Israel because summer internships have not been part of the Israeli culture,” said Shapira, who also serves as vice chair for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Also, there are language issues. It seemed there was a great opportunity to build a program that would fit this need and this fell within The Jewish Agency’s niche.”

First Shapira and her husband David spoke with other Jewish Agency lay leaders and professionals. Then they met with program staff to sketch a blueprint for how the program would be structured, managed, and funded.

“It was a very iterative process,” Shapira recalled. “The Jewish Agency was very gracious in accepting that I wanted a hands-on role.”

Together, the Shapiras and The Jewish Agency asked federations to take the lead in recruiting, funding and shaping the internship experiences for participant cohorts and their communities. It is this community cohort framework, in addition to the shortened program length, that sets Onward apart from other longer-term internship programs in Israel. Students live with peers from their home communities, while carving out their own paths while in Israel. Last summer, Onward Israel launched its pilot program that matched participants in seven cohorts – sponsored by the federations of Boston, Metrowest/Central New Jersey, Pittsburgh/Cleveland and Toronto (as well as the organized Jewish communities of Germany, France and Moscow) – in internships and serving learning programs in Israeli cities that included Tel Aviv Haifa and Haifa.

The total cost per participant is approximately $6,700. However, 70 percent of this cost is subsidized by The Jewish Agency, individual donors, and sponsoring federations. Each participant pays approximately $2,000, which includes airfare and a small fee. Most cohorts live together in apartments. In total, some 213 participants in the pilot Onward Israel program had high-quality resume-building summer experiences in Israel’s arts, business, finance, communications, nonprofit and high-tech sectors. In the near future, Onward Israel expects to send pilot cohorts from the Southern Hemisphere as well.

Tufts student Matt Haimowitz – a participant in Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP)-sponsored cohort – interned at AnyClip, a start-up that developed an online database of movie clips. Haimowitz explained that one of the significant benefits of interning in Israel is that Israelis don’t typically stand on ceremony or pay attention to hierarchies. As a result, interns are encouraged to show some real initiative and to contribute in meaningful ways from the outset.

“Back at home, there is this image of a lowly intern who specializes in getting coffee, making copies, and sending emails,” Haimowitz wrote on the CJP’s Israel Campus Roundtable blog. “Because Israel does not really have an internship culture, interns are treated like every other employee. I was assigned important tasks and held crucial responsibilities that maximized efficiency and productiveness for AnyClip.”

Shapira and her husband visited with several cohorts this past summer, shortly after they arrived. She wanted to do a little bit of quality control. During her conversations however, she also discovered that Onward Israel seemed to have naturally hit on a key formula that left participants wanting more. The program provided just enough structure for participants to feel a sense of grounding and purpose, but gave space to each intern to shape his or her own experiences and to gain career skills.

Haimowitz, for instance, wanted to experience Shabbat in Jerusalem. So he did.

“During my first Shabbat, I prayed at the Kotel and was hosted by a family for dinner in the Old City,” Haimowiz recounted. “This family hosts over 25 young adults every Shabbat. Looking around the table there were individuals from all walks of life: seminary girls, yeshiva students, American tourists, reform Jews, Israeli soldiers, and more. During that moment, the uniqueness and specialness of Israel really hit me. Though we had never met before, we were all united under one roof to celebrate Shabbat and all of Israel’s accomplishments.”

It is this exactly sort of personal and professional discovery – to gain an edge in the job market and Jewish identity development – that Shapira envisioned when she approached The Jewish Agency.

“By providing a summer that isn’t completely programmed, we give young adults the opportunity to learn about Israel on their own terms,” Shapira said. “This is how lasting bonds are created.”