After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis where she majored in Women’s Studies and Italian, Annie Lascoe knew she wanted to spend the year volunteering in Israel.
"I’ve spent a lot of time in European countries and have really enjoyed myself, but when it’s time to leave, I’ve always felt ready," says Annie. "Between trips to Israel, I’ve only felt those aches to return, like there was something missing in me."
Having previously traveled to Israel with her family, Birthright and Young Judaea summer programs, Annie wanted a longer and more immersive experience, so she enrolled in Otzma, a year-long service-focused program. "I believe in Israel and think that Jews should spend time there and feel like they have a personal stake in the land,” says Annie. "My goal for the year was to take part in contributing to Israel in significant ways."
During the first three months, Annie lived in an absorption center in Ashkelon, learning Hebrew, and volunteering in a foster center and a nursery school at the local Conservative synagogue. Within those first few months, Annie started to feel at home.
"I loved speaking Hebrew everyday and I loved having the time to develop my political opinions regarding Israel and Zionism," says Annie. "But my favorite thing was just seeing the guy selling vegetables on the corner of the street, knowing that the cucumbers and the irrigation tools used to grow them were both created in Israel. Each week, he’d wish me a Shabbat Shalom and it was a clear indication that all my experiences in Israel served the purpose of cultivating my Jewish identity."
In January, along with fellw Otzmaniks from New York and Los Angeles, Annie moved to Rehovot and volunteered at an after-school center for students with special needs, Naamat, a women’s organization, a high school where she taught English, and an Ethiopian community center. There, she also had the opportunity to perform in a Hebrew play alongside Ethiopian teenagers. The only non-Israeli in the play, Annie found it challenging but was thrilled when her friends filled up two rows of the theater.
"To have friends in a foreign country loving you and supporting you and believing in what you’re doing is really unique to Otzma,” says Annie. “The choice to contribute to a country for 10 months is a result of altruism and ideology."
In the United States, Annie had worked with nonprofits organizations as well, but often felt like she could not support their whole mission. “So many of them totally vilify Israel though their causes have nothing to do with Israel,” she says. "It was nice to finally be able to work in organizations that I believed in, while being an open Zionist."
A strong feminist, Annie spent her last three months in Israel interning for Galia Albin, a well-known Israeli businesswoman. Annie helped organize her annual Live Hatikva project, which unites people around the world to sing Hatikva on Israel’s Independence Day. Annie appreciated all the advice she received from her accomplished boss. When Galia told her that no matter what she decides to do, Annie should work with people, Annie listened.
Though she previously assumed she’d go into business, Annie realized that in order to do the kind of work she hoped to do—be it in a woman’s organization or in a nonprofit that seeks to end human trafficking—she needed a graduate degree in social work. Now living in Manhattan, Annie will begin her studies at Columbia’s School of Social Work in January.
"I was sitting with one of my best friends in a bar in Tel Aviv and talking about the things that were most important to me—women’s studies and my personal relationships," Annie says. "I’d spent the past several months helping people and I knew that’s what I wanted to continue to do. I’m so thankful Otzma helped me realize that."