“I wanted to either study or work here, but I already have a master’s, so coming to study wasn’t really relevant,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Last year, while thinking about returning to the country, Palko had already figured out her career path: She was working at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, and she knew she wanted to keep working in the governmental field.
After speaking to workers at the Israeli Cultural Center in Budapest, she was advised to look into a program that would enable her to both keep on doing what she loved while living in the country she had been missing.
Palko is among 24 other young Diaspora Jews who arrived earlier this month to participate in the Israel Government Fellows program, during which they intern in government offices, including the various ministries, the government press office, and the Israel Antitrust Authority, for 10 months.
The program, which is operated by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in affiliation with the Masa (Hebrew for “journey”) project, is endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office and begins with a month-long orientation seminar.
While they complete their internships in government offices and policy and diplomacy organizations, participants also attend weekly seminars, which deal with topics such as Israeli politics or culture.
Ulpan, trips around the country and meetings with officials, policy makers and journalists are also part of the experience.
“It is very exiting to work for the Israeli government,” Palko, who is interning at the Public Security Ministry, said. “The things they have to take care of every day are complicated and huge responsibilities.
“Now I see it from the inside,” she added. “I’ve always looked at Israeli politics from a European point of view, and it’s a whole different perspective.”
Palko added that from her experience so far, she feels that she can “really learn from the program,” which provides her with “invaluable experience.”
“People ask me what it is that I like so much about the Israeli political system.
They don’t understand it,” she said. “I tell them I am envious that here you have a very well-functioning democracy.
In some democratic countries, people are afraid to voice their opinions; but here – from the cleaning lady to the prime minister – everyone has an opinion, and they are not scared to express it.
“I think that learning about both historical and current issues, and politics, and interacting with speakers, having debates with them, grants me a very unique opportunity,” Palko added. “I really feel like it was made for me.”
Herzl Makov, head of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, told the Post that to get accepted into the program, candidates – who must be between the ages of 22 and 30 – have to have at least an undergraduate degree and two years of work experience. Most participants hold degrees in domains such as law, international relations, economics, and health.
“The applicants are usually people who are interested in Israel,” he explained. “They haven’t necessarily grown up with a Zionist education, but they are interested in exploring their relation to Israel. Some are not sure what that is yet.
“They are also people who see themselves working in public service,” he added.
According to Makov, the goal of the IGF program, which is in its seventh year of activity, is to “strengthen the connection of young international Jews to Israel.”
“We found that the connection to government offices is something that gives them quite a good picture of what Israel is, what happens here,” he told the Post. “In many ways, this becomes an aliya program, too, because a lot of them – after experiencing work in Israel, which is always one of the more problematic factors in the decision-making – realize that they can work and live here.”
Makov said that in some of the previous years, the percentage of fellows making aliya was “very high.”
Upon their arrival, all fellows are placed in internship positions, according to their areas of interest. The selected participants are charged close to $11,000 each for the project, an amount that varies depending on their financial ability, the country they come from and the amount subsidized for them by their Masa scholarship. This fee includes accommodations, meals, travel and the cost of the program activities.
The government offices they work for during the 10 months reimburse them for expenses such as transportation, for example.
“It’s a unique experience,” Makov stated. “I think these people go through a formative experience both for them and for their connection to Israel... They go back home with a lot of Israel in their souls.”
Another participant in this year’s program, 23-year-old Yair Cohenca, told the Post that for him, the IGF program is a way to “get a foot in the door of Israel government offices.”
Cohenca, who has a bachelor’s degree in international studies – with a Middle East focus – and architecture from the University of Washington, grew up in Israel and the United States.
His 88-year-old grandfather, who had been an Israeli ambassador in six countries of South America, has very much inspired Cohenca to pursue a career in diplomacy. He is interning at the Foreign Ministry.
“It’s definitely something that runs in the family,” he said, “Even during my university years I engaged very much in international affairs. It was always something that interested me.”
His early childhood in Israel left a mark in Cohenca’s mind.
“I always had this desire to come back at some point,” he explained. “The program for me is also a test to see if I can really live here, independently, with a more mature perspective. It allows me to consider moving back to Israel.
“I want to get a feel of everyday work in the ministry, and I think regardless of what I do in the office, it’s about the experience and the relationships I build for the future,” Cohenca added.
According to organizers of the program, many of the IGF graduates have gone on to work in Israeli and Jewish organizations abroad as well as Israeli consulates back in their home countries.