Why did you decide to volunteer with OTZMA in Israel?
Alex: I always knew that Israel was going to be a big part of my life, so I wanted the chance to experience the country on my own terms, putting roots down while making my own impact on the people there. I looked around for a program that would give me an realistic sense of Israel by putting me in different places around the country and give me the chance to live on my own; aside from arranging housing I was totally responsible for my own cooking, learning the bus routes and finding other people to hang out with after work.
Unlike a lot of other programs in the center of the country, Otzma gives you the chance to live outside the bubble and only interact with Israelis-- definitely the best way to understand the country and learn Hebrew! Plus, with the different tracks, educational opportunities and workshops there were tons of new experiences to add to and enrich my own exploration.
What made this experience unique and special?
Alex: Otzma stands out for me by being the only program I know to send participants off the beaten track, to parts of the country where most visitors (and even Israelis!) never think to go. Aside from the intense language experience, that helps participants to forge a very deep bond with the places that they live because they have to discover everything for themselves and make their own way.
The Israel-based staff and regional liaisons were incredibly warm and helpful, eager to have us and to make the experience the most educational and meaningful time of our lives. Also, as one of few programs with a variety of tracks and experiences during the year, it's the best way to see a lot of Israel, meet a ton of people, and build your own link with the country. For college graduates, it's the way to go!
How has this experience impacted your future?
Alex: My year on Otzma helped me, as a Jew, to figure out my religious identity and learn more about the incredibly diverse-- ethnically, geographically, culturally and philosophically-- Jewish communities that exist around the world. Israel is an unparalleled melting pot of Jews from every corner of the planet, and Otzma is a chance to see and experience them all. Because of the many Jewish characteristics of the country, every day-- not just the holidays-- is a learning opportunity, but it only gets religious if you want it to be. Just as there are religious kibbutzim to volunteer on, there are reform and secular ones, too. But no other place helped me better understand the global Jewish community as well.
I decided, shortly after Otzma, to spend my career in the Jewish communal sector, and my experience and expertise from Otzma gives me an authority on many related topics that I would otherwise lack. There is no better way to understand Israel and world Jewry than by going on Otzma, if you want it. Otherwise, it's still a pretty spectacular place to eat foreign foods and meet amazingly warm people, all of whom will invite you over for shabbat without even knowing you.