Otzma participants say living in Israel changes lives

Marla Kolman was on her way to law school in 1993 when she deferred her acceptance to spend a year living in Israel on a nationally run program called Project Otzma.

She had just completed graduate school, had every intention of beginning law school the following year and thought she had her life all figured out.

Kolman never did make it to law school and instead has dedicated herself to a career in Jewish communal work.

"I completely changed my professional direction," said Kolman, who credits time spent on Otzma — a 10-month fellowship program drawing hundreds of participants throughout North America — with giving her the courage to redirect her career path.

Founded in 1986 by a group of Israelis and Americans determined to strengthen the Israel-diaspora relationship by developing young leadership, Otzma is jointly sponsored by the Israel Forum and United Jewish Communities in cooperation with the education department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Locally, the Otzma program, designed for Jewish young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, is funded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and operates through its Israel Center.

"Otzma encourages you to remain active in the Jewish community upon your return," Kolman said.

Many participants are volunteers for synagogues and other Jewish community nonprofit agencies. Others, such as Kolman, Elliot Brandt and Sean Mandell chose careers in Jewish communal service. Brandt is regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Mandell works for the federation.

Upon settling back home, Kolman first landed a job with the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services' homeless program. She also worked for a prison program sponsored by another Jewish agency in which she was responsible for taking volunteers to visit Jewish inmates at more than a dozen state prisons.

Today, Kolman works for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council as its New Leaders Project coordinator. The Alameda resident said she is using skills learned during her year in Israel each day on the job.

While on the Otzma program, participants like Kolman move from one track to the next, living on kibbutzim and learning Hebrew, assisting immigrants in absorption centers, working in youth villages, helping at a cooperative farm or working at an Israeli company. In addition, they get together as a group for weekly seminars and discussions and are assigned an "adopted" Israeli family.

It's been 10 years since Brandt was on the Otzma program. But, even now, the AIPAC official and former director of the JCF's Young Adults Division describes Otzma as the best way for young adults to "get off the tour bus" and "get into the homes and lives of Israelis."

Brandt had just graduated from Stanford and had never been to Israel when he signed up for Otzma after hearing friends rave about the program. Once there, the Sacramento native got more than he bargained for.

"I was there when the Gulf War hit," he said. "We were given the option to leave the program, and all of us were getting a lot of pressure from friends and family to come back home."

"But I was working on this youth village and I just couldn't look at those kids — who I knew were going to be stuck in a sealed room with gas masks — and tell them I was leaving. So I stayed on."

Brandt was also in Israel during Operation Solomon and was able to witness the historic airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. At the time, he was living in Kiryat Shmona — the JCF's partner city in northern Israel — and teaching English to ex-Soviet emigres.

Unlike Brandt, it has only been a few years since Mandell went on the Otzma program, which he found out about while he was a student at Ohio State University. Growing up in Cincinnati, Mandell said he was already plugged into Jewish life before he went on the program.

"But after I came back I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working in the Jewish community," recalled Mandell, who is now the federation's YAD campaign associate in the south Peninsula.

Mandell said the best thing about the Otzma program is the chance it affords participants to "live, breathe and work side by side with Israelis."

When he first arrived in Israel, Mandell said the only Hebrew he knew was what he had learned in Hebrew school. By the end of his stay, his Hebrew was fluent and he was working with Israelis, shopping in markets and taking buses with ease.

According to Sacha Reich, the Israel Center's Otzma program coordinator, the Bay Area is filled with Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders who have been on Otzma.

"Our Otzma participants come back able to handle just about anything thrown at them. It's sort of like going through an Israeli peace corps," said Marty Fleisher, chair of Otzma for the Israel Center. "If two people were competing for a job and one had Otzma experience on their resume, I think that person would get a second look."