Danielle Peckman loved being a tourist on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in December 2012 — her first visit to the Jewish state — but she knew upon her return to Pittsburgh that she wanted something more.
“I wanted to go back without being on a tour,” said Peckman, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. “I wanted to be able to live in the place that felt like home the first time I stepped off the plane.”
So, the applied developmental psychology major began looking for opportunities. She found the perfect one, she said, through Onward Israel, an immersive resume-building experience in Israel that includes internships, service learning, academic courses and fellowships.
Through Onward Israel’s collaboration with the Pittsburgh Hillel-Jewish University Center, undergraduate and graduate students attending universities in Pittsburgh or who are from Pittsburgh and attend school in other cities, are matched with eight-week summer internships at businesses or nonprofits that are relevant to their fields of study in or near Tel Aviv.
Peckman’s internship last summer was at AMICHAI, a nonprofit center in Hod HaSharon that provides a daytime program for men with physical and intellectual disabilities. Serving as “an extra set of hands,” Peckman helped the men engage in activities ranging from music to cooking to gardening. And, because she was there during last summer’s war in Gaza, she was also called upon to help the men manage their stress over what they were seeing on television and, she said, “how people were treating each other.”
The experience she acquired while there was invaluable, she said. “And it will look awesome on my resume. … My adviser was so happy to hear about it.”
Pittsburgh was one of only a few pilot communities for Onward Israel when it was launched in 2013. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, it now has a host of partners from around the world.
The idea of an internship/educational program for young adults who previously had traveled to Israel with Birthright or similar programs was conceived by Pittsburgher Cindy Shapira while serving on the strategic planning committee of the board of the Jewish Agency under the leadership of Natan Sharansky. Since its inception three years ago, the program has grown exponentially each year. In 2012, 103 young Jewish adults from four different communities participated in Onward Israel. In 2015, it is projected that there will be 440 participants from 12 local partners, including 35 from Pittsburgh, according to statistics provided by Ilan Wagner, the Jewish Agency’s director of Onward Israel and the Unit for Educational Experiences in Israel. Leadership is currently in various stages of conversations with several additional communities, Wagner said, and anticipates three to five new communities joining in 2016.
The program has not only grown in numbers, but in length, expanding from six weeks at its inception to its current duration of eight weeks. The education component also has been expanding: In 2013, a Hebrew enrichment program was added, and in 2014, a new staff-training program focusing on individual guidance and empowerment became part of the project.
“Our overall growth plan aspires to reach 5,000 participants by 2020,” Wagner said. “Our goal for 2016 is 2,000 participants.”
The program provides an opportunity for students who have been on a Birthright or similar short-term trip the chance to have “a longer term, more in-depth Israel experience,” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel-JUC. Moreover, he added, it provides them with a job relevant to their studies and planned career and also offers an educational and travel component as well as exposure to Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether communities of Karmiel/Misgav.
Programs such as Onward Israel that provide a deeper connection to Israel than do short tours have long-lasting outcomes in strengthening Jewish connection, Marcus stressed.
“What we’ve learned over the last several years,” he said, “is that nothing inculcates a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and a sense of Israel, like being in Israel. We’re trying to create an enduring commitment to Israel, and Onward Israel does it in actuality.”
Ben Weiner, a neuroscience major at Pitt, “fell in love with the country” during a Birthright trip two winters ago, he said, and wanted to experience Israel on a deeper level.
Through Onward Israel, Weiner was able to work in a neuroscience lab at a hospital affiliated with Tel Aviv University. Over the course of the summer, he not only worked on developing treatments for sciatic nerve injuries and autism, but also developed a stronger bond to his heritage, he said. “To have another connection to my Jewish identity by being in Israel is something I hope to never lose. It was life-changing for me.”
Thanks to funding from national and local sources — including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation — students are only responsible for paying their airfare to Israel and a $600 fee for meals, said Sue Linzer, associate director of planning and director of overseas operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“A Federation subsidy helps to fund the housing, educational programming, and other costs associated with the Pittsburgh trip provider, Israel Experience Inc.,” according to Linzer.
Alexis Miller, a senior at Pitt who is majoring in applied developmental psychology, broadened not only her connection to her Jewish identity last summer through her Onward Israel internship, but also her skill set, she said.
Miller, who plans to enter a master’s program for social work with a certificate in Jewish communal service next year, explored the world of artisanal food while interning at Koofsa, a service that ships spice blends, sauces, oils, snacks and other premium products that reflect the diversity of Israeli cuisine to subscribing customers four times a year. Miller helped with public relations and marketing for the subscription service, which launched over the summer.
“It was the most amazing experience, ever,” Miller said, adding that she also appreciated the weekly educational programming provided by Onward Israel, in which the students were exposed to a variety of speakers and perspectives and were instructed on how to use social media to advocate for Israel.
She brought what she learned back home.
“After being there, I found myself posting a lot of things about Israel,” Miller said. “And I still do it. I think it’s so important to get the word out and for people to understand the facts versus opinion.”
Miller also valued the time she spent with a host family in Karmiel/Misgav.
“I still keep in touch with this family,” she said. “It was just so interesting to live like an Israeli.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.