Rachel Kesner

Rachel Kesner

Otzma
 
After earning my Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Indiana, I wasn’t really sure what to do next. Everyone kept asking me, “What are you going to do with an English degree? Teach English?” I always had an interest in education, but I wasn’t quite sure whether I would enjoy the classroom atmosphere or informal education better. I decided to take part in Masa Israel’s Otzma, a service-focused program for college graduates to help me decide what I wanted to do.
 
Having spent a few summers volunteering at an English-speaking camp in Chicago’s partnership city, Kiryat Gat, I’ve always had a deep connection with Israel and was hoping to return to the close-knit community. When I found out that Otzma included the opportunity to teach English in an elementary school and high school, and spend another three months volunteering in my P2K community, I knew that Otzma was the right program for me.
 
This time around, my experience in Kiryat Gat was certainly unique. There is such an incredible amount of compelling volunteer work to be done and one of my favorite places to volunteer was in the community garden. Out in the sun with my hands in the dirt, I spent my days making things grow. Week-by-week, it was amazing to see how much the garden changed: whether something new grew, weeds were taken out, or Tzion decided to add a farm to the mix. Tzion ran the garden and really made us feel a part of it. The people in Kiryat Gat also really made the experience there so special for me. They made me feel like a member of the community; people recognized me around the town and would often yell out ‘Rachel,’ or ‘Chicago.’ Whether they knew me personally or not, it was clear that they appreciated the partnership between our cities. This compelled me to return after Otzma ended and work as the assistant director at Camp Kefiada.
 
Another rewarding experience was my internship at StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization. Working there at the time when the Mavi Mara attempted to reach Gaza, I was involved in very important work. I felt like I was breathing articles and YouTube videos because every moment was crucial. It was incredible to see an organization immediately respond, publishing flotilla facts in 15 different languages. It was an interesting time to be in Israel and my experience with StandWithUs trained me to respond to anti-Semitic attacks and gave me the tools to stand up for Israel.Now back in Chicago, I am working for the Jewish Agency for Israel as an Aliyah Coordinator. I absolutely would not be where I am now if not for Otzma. The program gave me an amazing Israel experience, enabled me to build my resume, and most importantly, helped me realize the importance of working in the Jewish community back home. It’s made my return a lot easier. I love spending my days talking about Israel and helping others get there too.

Talia Kurland

Talia Kurland

Career Israel
Program: 
 
While applying for a doctorate in clinical psychology, I decided to head to Israel. I had just spent the year working as an Early Intervention Specialist for toddlers who demonstrated signs of autism or other pervasive developmental disorders. Yet, I knew that I still needed something else to set me apart from other applicants. I enrolled in Masa Israel’s Career Israel, to gain professional experience abroad. 
 
My experience during those five months after college could not have been more distinct. I arrived in Israel in September 2008, during the time when Qassam rockets were fired regularly from the Gaza Strip into Sderot and were making their way towards Tel Aviv. I was in Israel when the army responded with Operation Cast Lead, and saw many of my Israeli peers leave to fight. Still, despite the fact that I was living in a “war zone,” I felt safe. 
 
Maybe this was because, in Israel, a small country colored with conflict, petty worries are dismissed and life feels immediate. I experienced this while taking part in discussions about current events, and my day-to-day internship responsibilities. At Kadima, an after-school program for disadvantaged youth with a variety of behavioral and emotional issues, I was truly able to use my skills and become part of the team. With a sense of community in Israel, I felt emotionally safe.
 
At Kadima’s Jaffa location, which served Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Ethiopian Israeli youth, I worked with the staff to prepare meals and activities. Given the opportunity to explore the world of counseling through hands-on work, I took three individual students for one-on-one time each day, helping them with homework, playing games, and just talking in Hebrew. My students’ resilience amazed me, as did my dedicated staff members, 18-year olds who postponed army service for a year of community service. 
 
While in Israel, I found that daily life seemed more meaningful. Surrounded by a diverse community that celebrates the Jewish faith, it was incredible to experience the Jewish calendar as the national calendar. There was nothing more comforting than seeing Hanukkah lights brightening the entire city or enjoying the weekly tradition of Shabbat dinners followed by a true day of rest. It was also thrilling to be able to light the Hanukah candles alongside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as I was able to, thanks to Career Israel.
 
Being in Israel during a time of heightened conflict allowed me to experience the collective passion and perseverance of the Jewish people whose common goal is to maintain a Jewish homeland. I found this reality remarkably humbling.
 
Now back in the U.S., I am in my second year at a Psy.D. program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, en route to becoming a child and adolescent clinical psychologist. I think about my Career Israel experience frequently and I believe that my letter of recommendation from the Career Israel program helped me gain acceptance to some of the more competitive psychological externships in Chicago. 
 
Last summer, I returned to Israel to interview first-aid responders of Magen David Adom (MDA) as part of a clinical research project. As I progress with my studies and clinical work, I hope to become professionally involved with the mental health field in Israel. Israel is one of my homes, forever woven with my identity and I simply can’t get enough of it!
 

Joseph Daniel

Joseph Daniel

Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience
 
If someone had asked me if I was Jewish two years ago, I would have replied, “Not really.”
 
My reasons for coming to Israel were purely professional. I was an engineer and wanted to make a transition to a career in public policy and gain experience in the field. I registered for Masa Israel’s Oranim Internship Experience, which promised exactly that.
 
When I landed in Israel, I had not stepped inside a synagogue since I was 15. I spent a lot of my childhood in Kansas, and the past three years working in Hawaii and had never had a Jewish community or been interested in having one. At the Florida Institute of Technology, where I earned my undergraduate degree, I had known other Jewish students, but I had not been close with any of them.
 
I’ve had the privilege of living in many places across the US and it is easy for me to move somewhere new and acclimate. But, I was shocked to discover such an immediate connection to Israel. Within days, I felt like Israel had me and I fell in love with Tel Aviv. Because my internship with the Deputy Mayor only required me to come into the office for meetings and presentations, I was able to do most of my work at cafés throughout the city and to get to know the owners. I was able to experience Tel Aviv during the day, often taking a break to explore one of the city’s many museums. 
 
I’m a person who says what’s on his mind and found that the Israeli bluntness suited me well. Israelis don’t have the time to skirt around subjects. They want to know the answer they’re interested in right when they ask, and it was refreshing to be in such a frank society after my recent experience in the American corporate work environment.
 
Coming from a family with a rich family history, I also appreciated the way Israelis honor their soldiers. On Israel’s Remembrance Day, we went to a military base and saw pictures of fallen soldiers and became silent during the nation-wide siren. I also loved that Israel was a small country and that on a Friday, my friends could knock on my door, ask me to come with them to Eilat, and that within an hour, I was on a bus headed south.
 
Though I never expected it, Israel opened me up to gaining a better understanding of Judaism. In Israel, it’s impossible not to think about Judaism—it’s a natural part of the lifestyle and dialogue. Now I realize that Judaism is not just about religious practice. It’s a part of my identity and one that I feel the need to connect with. 
 
Back in the United States, I am working for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin as a fundraising manager and for the Environmental Law and Policy Center as an analyst. I was recently accepted to Columbia University’s one-year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy. The only shortcoming of the program is that it starts in May and it is unlikely I will be able to return to Israel, or go visit my friends abroad, though I will certainly try. 
 
My experience in Israel was definitely professionally helpful for me, but that was expected. What is surprising is that now I see Israel as one of my homes. 

Abigail Kolker

Abigail Kolker

Career Israel
Program: 
 
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where I majored in Urban Studies and Hispanic Studies, I knew I wanted to live abroad and do social justice work. During college I volunteered with Mexican migrant workers in the United States and I hoped to explore this phenomenon in a different country. I had family members that spent time in Israel and encouraged me to go there. I enrolled in Masa Israel’s Career Israel Program where I lived in Tel Aviv, alongside other Jewish recent college graduates from all over the world, I interned with two non-profit organizations that provide aid to non-citizens in Israel.
 
At Mesila Aid & Information Center, which offers migrant workers in Tel Aviv social and legal services, I took on various roles. In addition to working on a committee to prevent the deportation of the children of migrant workers, I was responsible for amassing information about newer populations in Israel by interviewing individuals from Sri Lanka and India. At the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), I worked at the pregnant women’s shelter and organized a fundraising party to raise seed money for a microfinance project for the women. 
 
My work took me throughout Tel Aviv and showed me a side of the city that few tourists see. In my work at Mesila, I conducted interviews to see the effect of an educational empowerment course for Filipino women. In the course, they had received guidance in demanding their legal rights in Israel. They were very emotional in their feedback and it was astounding to see how much the course had helped them achieve a sense of dignity.
 
At the pregnant women’s shelter, I learned about the difficult journey many of the women had taken to reach Israel. A young mother shared stories of her treks, while 8-months pregnant, through the hot desert during the day and her nights spent sleeping behind rocks. Thinking of the land of milk and honey which lay ahead, the woman and her group often kept going with only one liter of water to split among them. She wondered why she had even endured those hardships when the reality of Israel was not as she had dreamt. 
 
In addition to giving me hands-on experience in a field that I am passionate about, my Career Israel internships allowed me to simultaneously gain focus and realize the many avenues where I can take my interest. Instead of giving me answers, my internships raised new questions that I hope to tackle in my future research. It also made Israel a core part of my life and a place that I will visit often, whether for my research or just to see old friends. 
 
Today, I work at the Grupo de Mujeres de la Argentina, a think tank for marginalized people in Argentina, where I do similar work while gaining a new perspective. Though I have taken my work elsewhere, Israel is still very much in my thoughts. Having met many Argentinean people while living in Israel, I am looking forward to meeting their friends and exploring the Buenos Aires Jewish community. 

Drew Fidler

Drew Fidler

Yahel Social Change Program
Program: 
As I was nearing the end of my Masters in Social Work at New York University, I decided that I wanted to come live and work in Israel. Having grown up in a Jewish home in Owings Mills, Maryland and fallen in love with Israel on a Birthright trip two years earlier, I wanted to experience another side of Israel and grow and develop my skills as a social worker in another country. 
 
I enrolled in Masa Israel Journey's Yahel Social Change, a five-month service-learning program that enables individuals to live in the community where they volunteer with the goal of helping to strengthen the community from within. Two and a half months into the program, my new residence in Gadera, a fast-growing city 40 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv with a large immigrant population, feels like home. Neighbors greet me by name as I walk along the street, and I feel at ease in the neighborhood where I live. 
 
My comfort in Gadera was not instantaneous. In a community where most people speak Hebrew, my neighbors first viewed me as a strange outsider. The children and families living in the Shapira neighborhood, a single street of twenty-four-story cement apartment buildings, did not know who we were or understand why we were in Gadera. My group was known literally as “the Americans.” It was challenging to stay patient and build trust. But gradually things changed. People realized that we not only made promises, but that we followed through. 
 
Two mornings a week, I went to the local elementary school to tutor students in English and in the afternoons, I worked alongside Ethiopian-Israeli volunteers from Chaverim B'Teva, a local not-for-profit organization that seeks to empower the Ethiopian community in Israel. As a part of one of Chaverim B’Teva’s programs, I tutored two different pairs of Ethiopian-Israeli teenagers in their homes twice a week. The purpose of the program is to spend an hour and a half tutoring and then spend the last half hour with the family. Lacking Hebrew fluency, I first worried about how we would communicate. But through the openness of the family and our shared willingness to use whatever Hebrew, English and Amharic we could to connect, our relationship had grown exponentially. 
 
With our grassroots efforts, we cannot have expected to fully see the impact of our work during our stay, but we can plant seeds and help to create new and innovative sustainable projects. Having worked in a Jewish camp in the U.S. for the past three summers, I have seen firsthand the positive impact that Israeli counselors have on campers. As a result, I have teamed up with Chaverim B’Teva to launch a program to help prepare Ethiopian-Israeli young adults to take the Suchnoot exam, which makes them eligible for these positions. The test requires that young adults be able to express their passionate views about Israel in English and plan programs for American kids in English. We are currently in the process of creating the training. 
 
Though I attended a Jewish elementary school, I knew little about the rich culture and traditions of the Ethiopian Jews before living in Gadera. I believe it is important that American Jewish youth gain exposure to Jewish diversity in order to explore similarities and differences within widespread Jewish communities. 
 
Living among people whose descendents are from all over the world, I have never found it easier to live a Jewish life. I have spent Shabbat relaxing, exploring the country, and visiting numerous different synagogues and kabbalat Shabbat services. My Hebrew is getting stronger everyday. 

 
 
In the future, I hope to receive my clinical license, lead individual and group therapy with adolescents and their families, and create and implement after-school programming for at-risk adolescents in the Maryland area. Yahel Social Change is giving me very valuable experience in the social work field not only in meeting a community’s needs of today but also in helping them cultivate dreams and give them the resources to plan for their future. It's been wonderful to realize that the more I immerse myself in Israel, the more invested I feel in my work and the more confident I feel about my contribution.

Lauren Plunka

Lauren Plunka

WUJS Israel
After graduating from Goucher College, I, like so many others, realized that I had no idea what kind of career I wanted, who I was, or what I wanted out of life. So, I decided to clear my head and explore my passions in Israel.
 
I enrolled in Masa Israel’s WUJS, a six-month program for college graduates that combines Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies against the backdrop of a living classroom, as well as volunteer opportunities. Having visited Israel on only two short-term trips, I was finally able to not only see a multifaceted Israel on WUJS, but to become a part of it. In addition to taking an intensive Hebrew ulpan course, the group traveled to diverse sites around Israel, which ranged from the Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Metzer, the only kibbutz where Israelis and Palestinians live and work together, to Sderot, where we visited playgrounds, which serve the dual purpose of bomb shelters. 
 
While our trips throughout Israel gave us a real framework for our studies, volunteering gave us a place in the community. During the war in Gaza, my fellow participants and I packaged meals for over 10,000 soldiers at an army base in Tel Aviv, and led arts and crafts projects with children who fled the rockets in Sderot and Ashkelon. Throughout my time in Israel, I also volunteered at Amir Stables, a farm that offers riding lessons as therapy for terror victims, children with disabilities, and even Holocaust survivors. 
 
As my Hebrew grew and I learned how to relate to the sometimes-pushy Israelis, I grew more at ease in Israel and began exploring it with friends—spending a few days in the Golan Heights and attending the Rainbow Gathering, a hippie festival in the middle of the desert, and then camping out at the Dead Sea.
 
On WUJS, I was finally able to explore Judaism in its central location and experience Shabbat all over the country—from Haifa to Zichron Yaakov to Tzfat. 
 
Now, back in Maryland, I am a teaching assistant in Hunt Valley and work with low-functioning autistic children. In the near future, I hope to earn a masters degree in occupational therapy. Though I studied biology in college, my volunteering with WUJS made me realize that my calling is in helping people through hands-on interaction. 
 
I never would have expected to see myself in Israel a year after graduation. However, I am so lucky I chose that path. Not only did I make life-long connections, visit beautiful places, experience a country so full of life, but I discovered the sort of person I want to be. I encourage other young adults to take advantage of the opportunities that Masa Israel has to offer and to take the time to explore their passions in Israel.

Jessica Louise

Jessica Louise

Kibbutz Ulpan
Program: 
 
I grew up always being the lone Jewish girl. I would be the one who always missed school in September for the High Holidays, who would always be asked to explain “my peoples’ special holiday” to the class, and of course, the one who was always asked “so really, why did you guys kill Jesus?” I suppose it didn’t help that I spent my high school years attending an all girls Catholic school south of Boston where my lack of Irish step dancing and red hair made me stand out like a sore thumb. It was always this wanting for a Jewish community that motivated me to someday find one; I just didn’t know where to search. Additionally, freshman year had been a rough year for me and I felt myself slowly sinking. I didn’t know where I fit in at my university where everyone was super motivated and being a type-A personality wasn’t a nuisance, but a necessity. All I knew was that I needed to get away and slow life down before I would suddenly find myself cherishing my last few days of freedom before my senior year of university. That is when I decided to go back to my roots and head for the Holy Land. Thus, in the first semester of my sophomore year at university, I did something so shocking and unbelievable to all my fellow students at my university- I decided to take a leave of absence and live on a kibbutz in Israel.
 
I found out about Masa Israel’s Kibbutz Ulpan experience on a late night Google search and made the impulsive decision to sign up. All I knew was that I would spend four hours a day learning Hebrew and another four doing menial labor. Fast forward to four months later and I am peeling my sweaty shirt off of the bus seat as I was dropped off in what I described to as my mother as, “the middle of nowhere, Israel”. I had somehow landed at Kibbutz Maag’an Michael in northern Israel with not a word of Hebrew to guide me, and a suitcase the size of an adolescent child. I had no idea whatsoever what living on a kibbutz entailed and as the rest of the 130 ulpanists from over a 100 different countries drifted on to the kibbutz, I realized that this experience would be like none I had ever had in my life.
 
Life on the kibbutz reminded you how sweet life could be. The most stressful decisions of the day were whether to go to the pool or the beach. Our days alternated between four hours of work and four hours of learning Hebrew. I got lucky and was assigned to work in the laundry where I was privy to all the gossip of the kibbutz and I quickly learned that nothing is too private, and if you have a secret lover, someone will inevitably find out and spread it like wildfire. It was here that I found out how the kibbutz used to offer condoms in a small bowl where the soldiers would come to pick up their laundry. They stopped doing this when one year the kids of the kibbutz decided it would be funny to poke holes into every one and nine months later the kibbutz experienced a baby boom of its own.
 
It would be impossible for me to pinpoint any one moment that truly defined my five month experience. As is the case with most significant life moments, it is sometimes the simplest ones that mean the most. For me, I truly realized how far I had come when our entire ulpan went to spend our last weekend together in the Bedouin camps in the Negev. We had come so far together; we had laughed, cried, celebrated and mourned together and this last night would be a culmination of all those experiences. The next day we would literally be dispersing across the globe and hugging each other tearful goodbyes. That night was particularly memorable as news had just broken out about tensions on the border and some close friends had already been deployed to Gaza. As we leaned on each other for support, we all felt an especially deep bond as we knew, finally, what it felt like to be Israeli. It meant taking the good with the bad, the painful with the sweet. It meant that we had to muster up our energy and spirit and light the Hanukah candles. So as we sat there, in the middle of the Negev desert, with nothing but the Hanukiah illuminating our faces, I never felt so much at peace.
 
The path that led me here was not the most traditional, but it was the best path for me. Deciding to take a semester off and fly across the world to spend five months living on a kibbutz turned out to be the best decision that I ever made. It shaped me into the person I am today and forged relationships that continue on to this day. Most importantly, those five months on the kibbutz planted a seed for me in Israel that has now grown into a beautiful tree. I have returned to Israel twice since I left that kibbutz in December, first to spend a semester studying at Tel Aviv University and most recently, to volunteer with African refugees in Tel Aviv. Perhaps my most significant journey back to the Holy Land will be when I will descend off of the plane as an olah hadasha and continue my life that began three years ago on a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere, Israel.

Josh Dickinson

Josh Dickinson

Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa
It was my first day of volunteering with Masa Israel's Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a 5-month volunteer program, and I was spending my morning at an all-boys' religious school called Ironi Het in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Yad Eliyahu. I had just finished introducing myself when the questions started to pour in.
 
“Do you like the Boston Celtics?” (Of course.)
 
“Is it cold in Boston?” (Yes, very cold and very snowy.)
 
“Have you been to Israel before?” (Yes, I was here this summer on Taglit-Birthright.)
 
“Do you like Israel?” (Very much so. That’s why I decided to come back to volunteer.)
 
“Are you going to make Aliyah?” (Uh.. that’s a more serious conversation for another time..)
 
“Do you live above the convenience store?”
 
This last question made me laugh out loud. One of the apartments that houses volunteers happens to be above a convenience store. Apparently, it has become known as the “American apartment” in Kiryat Shalom, an otherwise small, mostly Orthodox, neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv. Many of the students I work with at Ironi Het live in Kiryat Shalom as well. 
 
Although I volunteer at three other places, my experience at Ironi Het has been the most interesting thus far. The best way I can describe the school is with the Hebrew word, “balagan,” meaning, chaotic. It is noisy, with kids running around everywhere, and no one listening to anyone else. While the teachers do not seem fazed by any of this, it seems impossible to get anything done. Luckily, as an English tutor, I usually take a few students to a quieter room, where we can work without distractions.
 
Because I'm not religious, I had to acclimate to the school's religious environment. Having only worn a kippah twice in my life—once at my friend's bar mitzvah way back when and again when I visited the Western Wall over the summer—I initially felt uncomfortable wearing one every day. But here I am now, with a nice little kippah I bought at the market for a mere ten shekels. Some of the boys have asked me if I’ve been to synagogue since I came to Israel. I haven’t. I wonder if they would have asked me this if I did not have to wear the kippah. 
 
One of my broad goals for the year is to “make a difference,” which is a goal I share with the other volunteers. But, we have learned that the impact of our work probably will not be readily apparent to us. Though we all like to see results, this knowledge has helped us keep things in perspective. Then again, one of the students who previously showed no interest in English recently asked to work with me. I was glad to hear this and look forward to helping him improve his English over the next few months, while he helps me improve my Hebrew.
 
Josh Dickinson grew up in Natick, MA, received his undergraduate degree from Boston University and his law degree from Northeastern University School of Law.

Lauren Zink

Lauren Zink

Otzma
 
In 2009 I was just beginning my senior year of college at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Like every student getting ready to graduate, I was thinking ahead to what I was going to do after I received my degree in public relations and marketing. I thought about choosing the more typical path and looking for a job. But I knew in my heart that this was not the path I wanted to take yet. Ever since I was little I had wanted to carve out some time in my life to volunteer, and I wanted that volunteer work to be done in Israel.
 
Growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts I had attended Hebrew School until I was 18. I was also an active member of United Synagogue Youth (USY). One summer I participated in USY on Wheels, a six-and-a-half week cross-country journey with other Jewish young adults. It was this trip, along with Birthright, which made me realize how much I love being in an environment with Jewish peers, learning and sharing new experiences.
 
Masa Israel’s OTZMA is a ten-month long program incorporating all of these things I was looking for: living in Israel like an Israeli, contributing to the country through volunteer work, making new friends, and learning the Hebrew language. I especially loved the variety of the program. While living in three locations during our year in Israel, we first focus on learning Hebrew and doing some volunteer work, then we fully immerse ourselves in volunteer work, and lastly we have the opportunity to live on a kibbutz or intern inTel Aviv or Jerusalem.
 
This is how my first month experience looked like. We were living in an absorption center in Ashqelon, Israel with Ethiopian immigrants and other Israeli volunteers who were taking a year off before they enter the army. Although this place was not as nice as the types of places I was used to live in, it became my new home. After all, home is where the heart is, and right now my heart is in Israel. 
 
I started taking Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew course, which is five hours a day, five days a week. In Ashqelon, not everyone can speak English and it was great to be able to practice my Hebrew speaking skills outside of the classroom. I also knew that it was crucial to learn as much as I can for part two of the program when I lived in Rehovot. The more I know, the more I will be able to volunteer and help my community and this has been nothing but motivational when it is time for me to study. 
 
My favorite volunteer opportunity was painting an apartment, which was easily the most disgusting living quarters I have ever seen, with bedrooms containing only a bed, cat hairballs strewn all over the floor and a stench from the bathroom lingering throughout the apartment. But I must admit that as we painted, the place certainly started to improve. That day I learned that a little bit can really go a long way. 
 
When the other Otzmanikim and I decided to take a break, we made our way up to the roof. It was in that moment that I realized that no matter how much paint was splattered on my body and face, or how gross the apartment was, there is always surrounding beauty. The area was not the nicest part of town, but that did not take away from the cool night air that we could feel and the beautiful landscapes that we could see. 
 
There have been many moments like this one in Israel. At times I was very frustrated or quite homesick for certain things. But at the end of every day when I got ready to go to sleep I thought to myself how I am nothing but fortunate to be here and able to dedicate my time to something that I am so passionate about. 
On our Sukkot break, I chose to travel to Jordan. There I was able to experience a new culture and see what one of Israel’s neighboring countries is like. I think the best part of the experience for me however, was realizing how much I missed Israel and looked forward to returning to what now truly feels like home. 
 
OTZMA gave me a little slice of the pie of what the rest of my experience will be. If the other slices taste as good as that one, then I cannot wait for the new knowledge, experiences, and memories that will surely have lifelong impacts.

Rachel Olstein

Rachel Olstein

Hebrew U MA in Leadership & Philanthropy
It was only as an adult, working in the non-profit sector, that I at last discovered my real place in the Jewish community – a place that combines my passion for social justice with my love of Jewish values and the State of Israel.
 
Three years ago, fueled by a desire to arm myself with management skills for this career, I enrolled in an Israel-based Masters program in Community Leadership & Philanthropy Studies. Today, I am the Director of Volunteer Services at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.
 
Growing up in a large Jewish community outside of Boston, Judaism was a significant part of my life. In college, however, my commitment wavered as I became disillusioned with what I saw as the insularity of the community; I turned my energies to poverty and education. As a student at Vassar College, where I majored in urban education, I became active in social justice causes and prepared for a teaching career. I wanted to follow the wisdom I had learned in AmeriCorps and leave the world better than I had found it. I spent two years teaching second grade in an underserved neighborhood in Connecticut.
 
But something was missing.
 
I took on the challenge of a second job, directing a local USY chapter. There, I learned about theTeva Learning Center, a Jewish environmental education center where I found a community of active and engaged Jews dedicated to tikkun olam and educating youth, and each other, through radical amazement.
 
I left the formal classroom to work at Teva, where Israel was a popular topic of conversation. For thousands of years, Jews have wanted to be in Israel; not only did I feel privileged to be born into an era when it was possible to visit Israel – I felt obligated to spend an extended period of time there. I enrolled in the Masa Israel-accredited M.A. program at Hebrew University.
 
From the moment I landed in Israel, not a day passed when I did not want to be there. Once again, I found Jewish peers who believed in the importance of social responsibility that extends beyond one’s own community. While I spent the weeks gaining valuable skills for the nonprofit world, on weekends I traveled the country with a hiking group. On treks that took me to the Judean Desert and the wadis of the Negev, from Mount Hermon to the Kinneret, I met my husband.
 
Meanwhile, at Hebrew U, I decided to focus my studies on organizations that pursue social justice from a Jewish perspective, but work to help populations beyond the Jewish community. I believe that Israel needs positive ambassadors and that such globally-minded programs can leave communities around the world with a positive impression about Judaism and Israel. I believe that Jews have a social responsibility that extends beyond their own world and, to me, there’s something intrinsically Jewish about helping people, regardless of their race, religion or culture.
 
Today in my work as the Director of Volunteer Services for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, I am able to help young Jewish volunteers make a similar impact and be part of a revolutionary development initiative in Africa. The village, which was modeled after Yemin Orde and other Israeli youth villages created for orphans after the Holocaust, provides a nurturing, safe and structured environment designed to enable orphaned youth to realize their maximum potential. We offer housing, holistic health care, innovative education and extracurricular activities for 250 Rwandan teenagers, most of whom were orphaned during the 1994 genocide. I coordinate volunteer opportunities and programming in North America, Israel and at the village in Rwanda. I also lead groups of Jewish and interfaith volunteers from North America and Israel who come to the village for a few weeks at a time to help promote the future sustainability of the village.
 
Every day I am able to not only live the knowledge I gained in my Hebrew University Master’s program, but also apply it in a way that I find meaningful. I urge other young adults to spend an extended period of time on a Masa Israel program, developing their connection to Israel, and perhaps even discovering a clear path they want their lives to take.
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