After all, it was easy to be Jewish in his hometown of Roslyn, NY – where synagogues are as ubiquitous as Woody Allen at a New York Knicks’ game.
It wasn’t until Shillman attended the State University of New York at Buffalo that he was exposed to Christian America. “I was driving around on my first day with my roommate and I said to him, ‘Wow! There are a lot of churches here!’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. But it was the first time I was exposed to the world outside of my little shell.”
After graduating in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, Shillman knew one thing: He wasn’t ready to jump into work just yet.
He first wanted to experience Israel.
“Everyone was always talking about Israel, about how much they love it, and it’s constantly in the newspaper, and yet I had never been here,” said the 22-year-old Shillman. “I wanted to come before I have a career and family. I needed this place to be tangible to me.”
He started searching online for the perfect program – something that would be for a significant amount of time and that would give him hands-on life and working experience. He found it in the WUJS Israel Hadassah
“WUJS Intern Tel Aviv was the best fit because it combined a work internship in Tel Aviv with tiyulim (day trips). It’s really a nice balance between working and being on your own and exploring the country,” said Shillman.
The WUJS program is under the umbrella of Masa Israel, a joint project of the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel to bring young people on long-term programs to Israel.
Masa Israel enables thousands of Jewish youth to spend a semester or a year in Israel close to 200 different programs, helping them build a life-long relationship with Israel and a firm commitment to Jewish life.
Since arriving here in September, Shillman completed an intensive ulpan (Hebrew language instruction), participates in weekly trips across the country with the rest of the WUJS Israel Hadassah interns, and is an intern at Oppenheimer Financial Services Co., where he is getting on the job training and experience.
The WUJS program’s mission has always been to strengthen the connection between the participants and Israel, according to Mike Mitchell, Program Director of WUJS Israel Hadassah.
The internship programs were established in 2008, beginning in Tel Aviv and expanding into Jerusalem a year later. For five months, participants study Hebrew, explore the country, and are exposed to experiential lessons in Israeli culture and history. Each participant on the Jerusalem Arts Track
is paired with a mentor while those on the Jerusalem Learning Track explore their routes through Jewish text and discovery.
What is unique about the WUJS program is its “boutique, personal feel,” said Ricky Yihye, Program Coordinator for the WUJS internship program in Tel Aviv, which is reflected in the way they will tailor the internship to the interests of the participants. Shillman, for example, had interned at Merrill Lynch in the United States and so requested to continue in the financial arena.
The 26 current Tel Aviv WUJS interns hail mostly from the United States but also include participants from India, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Germany and Russia. They are working in a fascinating cross section of internships, including everything from interning in the make-up and costume department at Israel’s Cameri Theatre and writing for the Haaretz newspaper to nursing at Ichilov hospital.
“There are 150 opportunities for different internships and it is always changing,” said Ricky Yihye who will seek out new internships in response to participants’ requests.
For his part, Shillman is thrilled with his WUJS experience – and for its potential to boost his marketability to future employers.
“I wanted to do something different and add something different to my resume and in the process develop a whole new network. In the end, I strive for a good recommendation to take back with me to America,” he said.
And when he does return to the States in February, he will remember his time in Israel fondly.
“My main goal in coming here was to establish a real connection to Israel. I wanted to know what it is like to live here and to develop relationships with this place and the people,” he said. “And I am doing that. I really love Israel and understand now why everyone is so passionate about it.”
Participation in semester or year programs in Israel is directly linked to stronger Jewish affiliation and leadership – regardless of the Jewish background growing up, a study
commissioned by Masa Israel Journey finds.
The study found that the longer the time program participants spent in Israel and the more repeated the experiences, the greater the level of Jewish identification.
“We are convinced – and the data from this reports affirm – that a continuum of Israel experiences for young adults correlates directly to them feeling, thinking and doing more things Jewish and Israel with each step they take along the Israel experience spiral,” said Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.