Rachel Kesner

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.