Lisa Wilder
Lauren Plunka
2008-2009
Drew Fidler
Yahel Social Change, 2010-2011
Arielle Gottlieb

Tali Sachs

Tali Sachs

OTZMA
I first traveled to Israel with Ramah Israel Seminar the summer I turned seventeen, after attending Camp Ramah Darom since its opening in 1997. Back then, I never anticipated returning for another year, let alone choosing to live there.
 
While studying English with a focus on mythopoetics geared towards language-of-conflict, I became involved in dialogue facilitation and conflict resolution at Clark University as the result of an internship with the U.S. State Department. As one who has always been involved in Israel and its affairs I became increasingly interested in the Arab/Israel Conflict, which often entered the conversation at my politically and socially conscious university. This conflict spurred friction between students and became a serious campus-wide issue. I co-founded a dialogue group to enable open discussions surrounding the conflict but understood that the only way to understand the matter more fully was to immerse myself in the conflict’s location.
 
In the autumn following my college graduation, I enrolled in Masa Israel’s OTZMA, a post-college service program. During my first few months in Ashkelon, I immediately connected with the Israeli people. They were direct and honest. I understood their, dry dark humor. I liked how people said what they meant and didn’t just pay lip service. When I was told to “make myself at home,” I found myself elbow deep in peeled vegetables and chores, and as much a part of the family as anyone.
 
I felt a strong sense of community everywhere I went—on a paratrooper base near Rehovot where I folded parachutes alongside soldiers. I also felt it in Yokneam, a small city south of Haifa where I taught English and math at an elementary school, gave guitar lessons at a youth center, and volunteered at an old age day-care center.
 
I even felt this sense of community in my internship with Righteous Pictures, an American documentary film company, which enabled met o travel around the country, interviewing people from many socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds about their everyday lives, personal histories, and interconnectedness with each other.
 
In my life, I have spent time in many places and made friends the world over—in Georgia, Massachusetts, Luxembourg, Italy, the U.K., and Germany. I have grown used to the idea that no matter where I am, I will always miss someone. In Israel, though, there were just too many people to miss. I can’t live anywhere else.
 
The feeling that I might want to stay was there from the beginning, but it was while talking to a friend from Pennsylvania, that the feeling solidified. Living five minutes from the shuk in Tel Aviv, I told him about the delicious tomatoes that sold for one shekel per kilo. He laughs and said he’d just bought two disgusting tomatoes for seven dollars. My decision to stay was made.
 
Now in the process of making Aliyah, I plan to enroll in a Masters program in Conflict Resolution and to complete the remainder of my interviews for Righteous Pictures, which I intend on publishing in book form. In addition to the interviews I have already conducted with Jews, I have lined up interviews with Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians, Thai and Nepalese foreign workers, and African refugees for when I return.
 
I am very happy that I chose to participate in Masa Israel’s OTZMA. Through the educational seminars and trips, I was able to gain a greater understanding of Israeli society, see it in action, and become a part of it through my immersion. I was truly able to integrate into the Israeli community and I can’t wait to reenter it upon my return.

Arielle Gottlieb

Arielle Gottlieb

Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa
 
Graduating from Northwestern University in the midst of the economic crisis, a good job seemed unobtainable. So with a suitcase, JUF SKIP funds, and a Masa Israel scholarship, I escaped the U.S. economy altogether and went to volunteer in Israel. Hoping to learn more about the country while working in a meaningful field, I enrolled in the Community Service track of Masa Israel’s Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv – Jaffa program. Its focus on working with the immigrant and refugee communities of Tel Aviv attracted me initially, while the program’s intensive Hebrew lessons, classes about Jewish identity, and trips around the country promised to round out the experience.
 
My volunteering took me to parts of Tel Aviv that one doesn’t see as a tourist—from a prison in Ramle where I mentored minors who came into Israel without parents or guardians, to a local public school where I taught the children of refugee and migrant workers, to a therapeutic horse riding center for children with special needs, to a refugee shelter which was little more than a dingy apartment building in the rough part of town. 
 
I became particularly involved with the children at the refugee shelter. While most of our time together was spent laughing and playing, there were certain moments when I was overwhelmed by their personal stories. My first day there I met a bright and smiley eight-year- old girl from Sudan who giggled as she talked about school and friends. Another volunteer later told me how that happy girl had seen two of her older brothers shot and killed right in front of her. That same day, I was playing with her little sister who, between spinning in circles and tickle fights, wanted to know where I was from. “America,” I told her, and asked where she was from. “A bad place,” she responded solemnly in Hebrew. Even with my elementary level of Hebrew, there was no mistaking the meaning behind those words. 
 
Trips all over Israel further shaped my understanding of the country. As a group, we visited places such as Sderot, where we met people for whom rockets and bomb shelters had become a way of life, and recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages, where we talked about the particular challenges facing them and other minority populations.
 
Aside from the people I worked with on a daily basis and met during our travels, I also learned a lot from the Israeli soldiers who were part of our weekly classes. They did similar volunteer work to ours as part of their army service and their participation in our discussions was invaluable as it provided an Israeli perspective to what we saw and understood only as visiting volunteers.
 
Overall, I came to see Tel Aviv with new eyes. What was once all glitzy beaches and cosmopolitan glamour proved to be much more complicated and interesting. Being confronted with Israel’s problems on a daily basis challenged the rosy, idealistic view of Israel that I had always been taught to believe. How, for example, could a country founded by refugees for refugees be so hesitant, even negligent, towards the growing number of African refugees who are looking for a safe haven? Does being a Jewish state mean turning its back on non-Jews? As an American, I didn’t feel it was my place to provide the answers to these impossible questions, but rather to observe, learn, and help in whatever small way I could.
 
I don’t know what comes next now that my five months with Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv - Jaffa have ended. It’s difficult to predict how managing a class of toddlers in a roach-infested preschool or talking about Barack Obama with teenage boys living in prison will impact my professional or personal life. There were lessons learned and skills acquired to be sure, but it’s a little too soon to be wrapping up this story with a moral and a bow. Suffice it to say that my Israeli interlude was a valuable and meaningful experience, and I wish that every college graduate could say the same for their first few months in the real world.

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.

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.

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.
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