Smooth Sailing and Community Immersion on Otzma

April 5, 2011

As a Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies major at George Washington University, Detroit-native Emily Schwartz did not have a chance to study abroad so she decided to spend a year in Israel after college.
She had previously been on short-term trips and enrolled in Masa Israel’s Otzma, a 10-month program. “I liked that it was volunteer-based and that it would allow me to experience many different aspects of the country,” said Emily.
During her first three months in Israel, Emily and her peers lived in an absorption center in Ashkelon, learning Hebrew in an intensive ulpan and volunteering in the community. Emily brought her guitar to Israel and was able to use her skills as a musician, leading services at a nearby congregation. She also volunteered at an after-school program and at the marina, helping run boating and sailing activities.
While living in an absorption center in Nazereth-Illit, Detroit’s sister city, Emily enjoyed that the location was close to Detroit’s partnership office. “The staff adopted us and had us over their homes,” she said. “They were amazing people and really reached out to us.”
As a music and English teacher at nearby public schools, Emily enjoyed being immersed in a new community that many tourists do not have a chance to visit. “I loved that we weren’t stuck in an American bubble, but that we were able to interact with Israelis on a daily basis,” Emily said. “It really made the community feel like home for me.”
During the weekends, Emily traveled throughout the country, hiking in the Carmel and taking a bus to Jerusalem. She headed south for her last three months in Israel, serving as a volunteer at Kibbutz Lotan. “I knew it would be a different experience than anything I’d ever do in the States,” she said. She milked goats and made yogurt and cheese. “It was really hard work,” she said. “But at the same time, I was living in this relaxed desert environment. It was like a dream world.”
Emily also liked the less-dreamy two-week army experience. “I’ll never forget what it was like to put on a uniform and listen to people ordering us around,” she said. “It wasn’t easy but I was proud to be doing it.”
After she returned, Emily moved to Chicago and now she works for the Community Foundation for Jewish Education. In addition to being a song leader and teacher, Emily works with Jewish youth groups. “I talk about Israel a lot with my kids. “People who have been to Israel get a certain feeling when they’re there that’s hard for others who haven’t been there to grasp. But hearing about it makes them want to go to Israel and experience it too.”
Emily will soon be leading a trip for 7th and 8th graders from Chicago to Israel. She is also in the process of applying to cantorial school.