OTZMA — The Life Changing Experience

By Jennifer Perchonok, Otzma
One summer when working at camp, I was sitting with an older staff who I had grown up with and always admired for his outgoing personality and strong connection to the Jewish World. It was the beginning of the summer and we were catching up about our lives outside of camp. I’m not sure what I was telling him, but he started telling me about the life changing year he had just had abroad on a program called OTZMA. At the time I just kind of thought it was cool that he had such an amazing year. I didn’t think much more of it as I knew my path…graduate college, get my masters, get my PhD, go work in Industry, go work as a Professor, and of course raise a family along the way.
However when I later realized that I wanted to take a year off to make sure I didn’t burn myself out as a student in what would be close to a decade in Universities, I began to think back to that conversation. Was his experience really as life changing as he said? I didn’t doubt it as many of the Jewish and Israel experiences I had up to that point in my life were life changing. So after much research, I signed up for OTZMA and was ready to embark on MY life changing experience.
When I got to Jerusalem on the first day of the program back in August, many people were talking about how they had also heard OTZMA was life changing and that they were excited to see what that really meant for them. However, we were all a little apprehensive of the idea. We figured it might be like a really good movie. The more people that tell you a movie is the best movie of the year and is just so mind blowing, the more likely you are to be let down as your expectations are just too high. Like many of my OTZMAnikim, I was nervous my expectations were set to high. However, we OTZMAnikim were ready to find out for own.
As the year began we all started to get comfortable with each other and in the country. We were having an amazing time and were really enjoying the experience, but many of us were still unsure about the ‘life changing’ aspect of OTZMA. However, as we hit Part II of OTZMA and moved in smaller groups all across the country (as you know, I moved to Rehovot), many of my friends started to have their ‘ahhh’ moment.
For one of my friends it was during a closing session of a really meaningful educational seminar where she realized how she wanted to incorporate her degree in child psychology into her growing questions of why the Ethiopian immigrants, Israeli children, and American children all differed so much in their upbringing. For another friend it was when we were talking about Israel Advocacy with a foreign correspondent and a Foreign Journalist that she realized her degree in Public Relations would be used to do Israel Advocacy work when she returned to the states. For a third friend, we were at a Building Future Leadership conference when he realized he wanted to create a yearlong program for kids who just graduated high school and wanted to spend a year in Israel before college and that his program would focus entirely on Israel Advocacy.
As my friends started to have these life changing ‘ahhh’ moments where OTZMA literally changed the course of their life, I was still waiting for mine. Don’t get me wrong, I was having the most amazing experience and have loved OTZMA, but I wasn’t sure OTZMA was life changing. I figured maybe I would need to look back on OTZMA after finishing the year to see the real life changing effect. 
However, little did I know that was not correct at all. A few weeks ago, I had my life changing ‘ahhh’ moment. Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations was visiting Israel and asked specifically to speak to OTZMA. I don’t know what I expected of the breakfast meeting, but what I got was so much more than I could have ever known. He did not lecture us but instead he asked us what our end dream was for life. He did not want the typical answer of “I want to work at a job I love and provide for a family”, but instead for us to really think outside the box.
One girl said, “I want to start a yoga studio that works with Palestians and Israelis and helps bridge the gap through Yoga”. Another girl said, “I want to find a way to teach gender studies to elementary school kids before they start having any bias”. He never asked how we wanted to get where we were going as that is clearly an unanswerable question for many, if not all, of us. However he did point us towards organizations that either could help us with our dream or have been working towards similar goals already.
I did not speak up at the table. Instead I sat and took in all the dreams of my fellow OTZMAnikim, most of which involved working in the Jewish world or for the Jewish people. Even without speaking up, I did realize something really huge. I realized that I was super confused. While I know I love engineering and I know how passionate I have always been about it, I began to think that maybe I am equally or even more passionate about working in the Jewish world.
I began to realize that I shouldn’t mitigate the fact that I have always loved working with kids in a Jewish Environment and that I have always loved programming at camp and teaching at school. I am really passionate about being an effective Israel Advocate and about making sure the American Jewry are doing their part to support Israel (an idea that has been largely strengthened because of this year on OTZMA).
While this talk began my confusion, the rest of the day just continued it. Later in the day I met with Americans who were on a trip to Israel because they are on the board of the Jewish Federation or are very involved in the Jewish Federation. During the afternoon I attended a session entitled, “The Israel Engagement Spiral” which talked about how American Jews trips to Israel can often be seen as a journey up a spiral staircase. A recent study showed that before going on a trip to Israel, only 19% of young adult American Jews have a ‘high level of attachment’ to Israel while 42% of them have a ‘low level of attachment’ to Israel. Once going on one trip (normally birthright or a teen trip) 34% of Young Adult Americans will have a ‘high level of attachment’ to Israel and only 17% will have a ‘low level of attachment’ to Israel.
The study continued to show that those with 2 or more trips to Israel are even more firmly attached to Israel. During the session we talked about these statistics and the older visiting adults in the room asked all of the people currently on a long duration Israel trip (like myself) about our stories. They were seriously interested in hearing our past and our current connection to Israel. It was at this point that I realized not only do I love working in the Jewish world, but I am NEEDED. My story needs to be heard and my ideas, having recently been here and learned so much, are a great addition to the table.
At this point in the day, I was glad to be done. My mind was so confused. Was I really considering switching careers and leaving engineering? Did I really want to join my fellow OTZMAnikim who will become the new Jewish leaders and who would be sitting in high powered Jewish positions in a few years? One of the studies I was shown throughout that day stated that 55% of younger Jewish leaders (age 22-40) have spent 4 months in Israel and an addition 40% have spent time in Israel up to 4 months. Did I really want to be part of that statistic?
For the past few weeks all of this has been running through my mind a lot. But I think I have come to a conclusion. OTZMA has changed my life, it has made me realize how much I value being involved in the Jewish world. While I am currently very much in love with engineering (I read a paper written by my soon to be PhD Thesis Advisor at University of Wisconsin and went to an outdoor science museum on a University campus near my house to remind myself), I NEED to be involved in the Jewish world when I return to America. I need to go to University of Wisconsin Hillel and the Madison Jewish Federation and the whatever other local organizations exist and get myself involved. I want to have a strong connection to the Jewish world when I return.
While at Michigan I had lots of Jewish friends and celebrated the big Jewish holidays, that is no longer enough for me. I want to get more involved and I want to find a way to give back to the Jewish community. That being said, my generation is expected to switch jobs and careers more than once in our lifetime. So maybe OTZMA helped me find my second career? Just something to think about. If at any point I feel that I want to be more involved than just being a volunteer in the Jewish world, I can be. So thank you OTZMA for my life changing moment. My life will definitely have a different, more Jewish, look because of this year.

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