Onward Israel particpants reflect on summer of learning and fun
Onward IsraelMeaningful internships and time abroad

Onward Israel particpants reflect on summer of learning and fun

Daya Sharon and Benjamin Ahlmark enjoyed professional experiences and sightseeing in Israel.

Onward Israel participants visited beautiful Haifa. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ahlmark
Onward Israel participants visited beautiful Haifa. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ahlmark

School is back in session but two students aren’t ready to let go of summer. University of Pittsburgh sophomores Benjamin Ahlmark and Daya Sharon recently returned from participating in Onward Israel, a heavily subsidized immersive resume building experience, largely supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, for students and recent graduates interested in exploring particular fields of work in the Jewish state.

For Ahlmark, a chemical engineering major, the opportunity to spend eight weeks in Israel at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot was transformative.

“I learned about lab techniques. I did a lot of procedures, worked under a postdoc student and got to experience how to present in a professional setting,” said Ahlmark.

Ahlmark’s PowerPoint presentation, which he delivered in English before professionals, allowed him to “practice communicating in scientific terms, which is not as easy as it sounds,” he noted.

There is a definite value in being able to express complex ideas in simplistic ways, especially in an environment where most people don’t share a common tongue. In Ahlmark’s laboratory, there were Israelis, Eastern Europeans, Americans and people from all over the world, but “everyone spoke English,” he said. Even so, delivering a sophisticated yet accessible presentation on protein purification was a highlight, he explained.

For Sharon, understanding how much freedom is afforded to computer programmers was illuminating. “I kind of saw how a normal day in a programmer’s life was. I got to see what I would be doing in my job,” she said.

Sharon, a computer science major, spent the summer with Picktorial, a Jerusalem-based company that creates photo editing tools for Mac users. During her time there, Sharon worked on programming matters related to the company’s website as well as helping Picktorial transition to “a different data viewing style,” she said. Whereas Picktorial staff had previously created manual charts and graphs, Sharon was charged with learning how to use Google Charts and teaching others how to employ it in the future.

Benjamin Ahlmark. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ahlmark

Sharon acknowledged that she had little experience with the work she was supposed to do, but that’s basically the nature of the beast. “Computer science is very much learn as you go. You learn the concepts in class but applications are sort of learn on the job,” she said.

Despite spending her workdays in a Givat Ram office setting, Sharon was able to see vast parts of the country. Program officials from Onward Israel scheduled regular trips in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. “There was also a little Shabbaton we had on some sort of campgrounds,” she added.

As beneficial as it was to gain an instructive internship, the social component was equally rewarding, explained Sharon, who participated in Onward Israel through its camp counselor track.

The specially tailored program enables individuals to complete a 5-week internship between early May and early June, thus allowing enough time for participants to serve as camp counselors during summer’s latter half.

In Sharon’s case, after completing her internship at Picktorial, she worked at Camp Tevya, a Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire. Being in Israel prepared her for the camp experience by enabling greater social connections, she explained. “When we were in Israel I organized a little meetup between my friends who went on Onward with me and the Israeli counselors who would be joining us, so coming back to camp we knew most of the Israeli counselors we were going to be working with.”

Participating in Onward Israel has become a sort of rite of passage for returning counselors at Camp Tevye, she added. “It’s just kind of a thing at my camp for returning third year counselors to do Onward. It was started a few years ago and people realized it was a great opportunity to do both an internship and camp in the same summer and it gives you an opportunity to go back to Israel.”

Daya Sharon outside of the Old City. Photo courtesy of Daya Sharon

As a teenager, Sharon traveled to the Jewish state with her camp for a similar period of time, but participating in Onward Israel was quite different. Going with camp “it was really packed with activities and tours and a lot of sightseeing. On Onward, you just go and they give you an apartment and a weekly stipend for food, a bus pass and your internship. Your free time is yours to do what you want with it. There’s a lot more independence,” she said.

Such autonomy really boosts participants’ experience, explained Dan Marcus, CEO and executive director of Hillel JUC, who thanked Pittsburgh’s Federation for supporting the endeavor. “First, there is the opportunity to immerse and live in Israel in a more in-depth and holistic way. Second, there is an opportunity to do an internship in your field of profession in Israel, and doing an internship in a foreign country separates you from others who are doing that work here. Third, there is value added by being in an immersive Jewish experience and getting to understand the modern Jewish experience by living it.”

Ahlmark, who had never left the United States prior to participating in Onward Israel, agreed. “I was surprised how connected I felt to the country,” he said.

Between experiencing Shabbat, observing an abundance of kosher food and enjoying the Sephardi and Mizrahi influences in cuisine, “I really like the experience of living there. I really like the culture,” he said. “I felt connected to the country.”

Ahlmark and Sharon were two of nearly 50 Steel City college students who participated in Onward Israel this summer.

“It was our biggest group ever,” said Marcus.

“It’s so much fun to live with your friends in a different country. We cooked for ourselves, we went out for dinner and we also got some work experience in our fields,” said Sharon.

“Overall, I had a lot of fun.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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