THE JEWISH FEDERATIONS of North America is closing its flagship Otzma Israel program for post-college young adults.
JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman announced in a letter dated Nov. 1 that the program, which started in 1986, would end after the current cohort completes its stint in Israel.
“Today, there are more than 200 Israel programs for young Jewish adults, built upon Otzma’s shoulders, and many offer similarly extraordinary experiences. As a result, at the end of this academic year, JFNA has decided to stop implementing Otzma as a stand-alone Jewish federations’ Israel experience program,” Silverman wrote.
Otzma provides a 10-month opportunity for young Jewish adults to live in Israel, learn Hebrew, and volunteer in small communities in partnership with their local Jewish federations. More than 1,400 young Jewish adults have participated in the program, and more than 60 percent of its alumni have gone on to serve as professionals or volunteers in their Jewish communities, according to JFNA.
Following the announcement, Otzma volunteers opened “Let Otzma Live,” an on-line petition aimed at saving the program. A week after the petition was opened, it had more than 500 signatures.
“We, the extended Otzma family, are shocked and appalled by the decision by the Jewish Federations of North America to end the premier Israel experience program for post-college young adults,” the petition read. “We urge JFNA to reverse its decision and to reconsider whether it truly wants to shutter a program that has such a positive impact on its own federation movement, not to mention other Jewish philanthropic organizations, as well as communities in Israel and in the Diaspora.”
Local supporters praised Otzma as unlike any other Israel program. Colin Hogan of Metuchen, a past principal of the Hatikvah International Academy, a charter school offering a dual Hebrew/English curriculum and a member of the board of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, called the news that Otzma would close down “tragic.” He likened Otzma to “a Jewish Peace Corps in Israel,” Like many other alumni, he credited the experience, at least in part, for his lifelong engagement with Israel and Judaism. “The opportunities Otzma provides are not to be found anywhere else. Americans have a basic, elementary understanding of Israel. Otzma promotes an understanding of Israel as multi-faceted and enables its alumni to speak with a more authoritative understanding of Israeli issues, what the communities there are like, and what people face in their day-to-day lives.”
A participant in Otzma 9, 1994-95, he is now social studies coordinator in the Highland Park school district.
Although Rabbi Ellie Miller of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange never participated in Otzma, she too was dismayed at the news and signed the petition. “Two kids from our congregation participated [recently], and it was truly a life-changing experience for them. To see how much they grew and what they learned and to see it change what they did in the world — it’s such a great program.”
Asked whether it is possible that other similar programs might be available, she said, “I don’t know of many other programs like it. There’s Birthright [Israel]…, but this is a different experience, working with Israelis and seeing a side of Israel most people don’t get to see,” she said, citing the varied experiences that Otzma offers, including community service, army life, and city life. “It’s a little bit of everything.” She even suggested that in many ways, it was a more thorough immersion in all things Israeli than her own year spent in Israel during rabbinical school, a mandatory part of many seminary programs. “In the rabbinical school year, you are just not as enveloped in society the way you are on Otzma.”
NJJN staff writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed to this article.