Onward Israel CEO offers North American students professional internships

What is Onward Israel and what is its purpose?

A delegation of Onward Israel interns upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 15, 2020 (photo credit: ONWARD ISRAEL)
A delegation of Onward Israel interns upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 15, 2020
(photo credit: ONWARD ISRAEL)
Thousands of young people from around the Jewish world choose every year to do their professional internship with Onward Israel, which gives students high-quality professional summer internships while aiming to strengthen their Jewish identity. In an interview with The Jerusalem Report, Ilan Wagner, chief executive officer and president of Onward Israel, talks about this special organization and its mission. “Our vision is two-fold: 5,000 interns a year and a doubling of the number of Israeli companies absorbing interns,” he says.
Wagner, 57, was born in New Jersey and made aliyah from Boston in 1986. After serving as director of the Jewish Agency’s North American regional office, he returned to Israel in 2009 and was involved in the creation of Onward Israel. He lives in Modi’in with his wife Shoshi, two children, Amit and Adi, and their dog, Eddie.

What is Onward Israel and what is its purpose?
Onward Israel, originally a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel in collaboration with North American philanthropists, was created in 2012. Its purpose was to increase dramatically the number of short-term Israel program alumni who returned to Israel for longer, more immersive experiences. Multiple studies show the powerful impact of return Israel experiences on strengthening the Jewish identification and connection to Israel. And yet, the vast majority of participants in first-time Israel programs, despite a stated desire to return to Israel, were not in actuality doing so. When asked, they cited formidable barriers, such as time, cost and the perceived value of an additional experience.
Our market research, conducted among North American Birthright Israel returnees, highlighted the potential of a two-month program at an affordable cost, that would emphasize resume building experiences in Israel for students and young adults. In particular, we noted the growing popularity of summer internships and the value placed on “global” experiences by employers and graduate schools. Accordingly, Onward Israel is essentially a summer internship program in Israel for students and young adults from throughout the Jewish world. Summer internships offer a practical hands-on way for young people to gain critical professional experience, and they do so within the ecosystem of Israeli business, culture and society. Through such internships, participants experience Israel in a direct, unmediated and authentic way, allowing them to pursue their own interests and passions and to do so through ongoing interactions with their Israeli peers.

You have called it a partnership project. Can you explain?
Onward Israel was set up from the outset as a partnership, engaging generations, campus groups, communal organizations and Israeli-based NGOs in the common agenda of building summer internships in Israel. One of the most critical partners in this agenda is the Tamid Group, which has established student led Israel business clubs on dozens of campuses throughout the world. Reaching Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, Tamid is a high-level and very attractive way for young people to learn about, engage with and assist Israeli businesses, in particular start-ups. The Tamid summer fellowship, which operates in partnership with Onward Israel, has helped spearhead dramatic growth in summer internships in Israel. In 2016, Onward Israel was established as an independent board led 501c3 in the United States and as a public value company in Israel. Most of its programs are carried out in partnership with Masa Israel Journey.

How many interns have come to Israel to date? Why do you think they choose to come to Israel?
Since the establishment of the initiative in 2012, close to 12,000 students and young adults have interned in Israel. In 2020 alone (before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus), some 3,000 were expected to arrive, the vast majority between May and September, establishing Israel as the most attractive country for summer internships for North American participants. This success is driven by the pull of the Start-Up Nation and Israel’s strong reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship. Young people choose to intern in Israel in order to have a “real life” immersion experience in Israel, consisting of independent living, a peer cohort, individually selected placements and opportunities for self-exploration and travel. They also are empowered by the atmosphere and structure of many Israeli companies: informal, direct, less hierarchical, and by the very real possibility that their contribution will provide value for their host companies- that they can actually make a difference.

What does their stay in Israel include, where they specialize and in what roles, and what do they do besides the internship itself?
While there is some variety among summer internship programs, the core components are often the same. To begin with, interns work across the full spectrum of the Israeli economy: from start-ups to multinationals, business and finance to non-profits and academic research to direct work with beneficiaries of social services. Most internships are located in the Gush Dan area, but some 30% are in Jerusalem with additional concentrations in Beersheba and Haifa. Interns work 30 days over the course of the two months. They find their placements through the guidance of internship coordinators and are directly interviewed by prospective companies before being selected. While the internship is at the core of the experience, the overall framework offers much more: interns are part of cohorts which allows for co-living arrangements and social networks to form; they are provided with housing, free urban transportation and partial living stipends; and programs include educational content- through travel seminar days, evening programs and weekend retreats – prompting engagement with authentic, polemical and multi-vocal content on key issues and dilemmas of Israeli society, polity, history and culture. The structure offers enough guidance and support to help interns overcome the anxiety of being far from home while at the same time cultivating their independence and ownership of the experience.

Do you have a way of knowing the impact of your activity on interns and employers?
The influence of the internship on the interns and on the companies themselves is quite profound. Our annual employer survey highlights the influence of the interns on the employers and their high degree of satisfaction with the program. Some 76% of the employers reported the intern brought clear value to their company and more than 80% believed they were contributing significantly to the intern’s professional growth and giving them real professional tools. Tamid’s research, supported by additional participant surveys, focuses on the impact on the participant: 79% reported on much deeper knowledge about the Israeli start-up scene and 70% now have much greater appreciation about what they can learn from Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, 90% report a much stronger emotional connection to Israel after the experience. Additional research and evaluation has focused on the longer-term impact of the program, showing significant increases in knowledge, affection and behavior in three critical spheres: Jewish identity, engagement with Israel and professional growth. This impact is retained several years after program return.

Do you feel that the interns are becoming Israeli ambassadors in the world?
Over the years, we have learned that the two-month immersion into the Israeli workplace and society gives participants a much deeper level of understanding and knowledge about Israel – and a sense of authenticity and confidence in that knowledge because they have gained it directly through their experience. This level of understanding augments the emotional connection to Israel that had been generated in earlier trips or from their childhood. Affection combined with knowledge leads to a sense of agency and competence on Jewish and Israel related issues that translates into higher levels of involvement and initiative for a clear majority of participants. This involvement expresses itself in many ways: casual conversations, engagement with family and friends, higher participation levels in campus and community activities and for some, activism and initiative to organize others. Throughout all of these activities, alumni are communicating the dynamism, innovation and excitement of modern Israeli society. They are also to reflect Israel’s democracy – expressing a variety of viewpoints on the issues about which they care. In this sense, they are true ambassadors for Israeli society and for its people. In this context, it is worth stressing that Tamid strategically integrates Jewish and non-Jewish interns, finding a common language around their interest in the Israeli business world. Tamid graduates returning to key campuses, including elite universities, are especially impactful.

Which “Israel” do the interns meet? Does the program have a political or ideological tone?
There are two highly significant axes of interaction between interns and Israeli society: the workplace and social contexts. In each, interns meet and interact with a wide variety of Israelis of different political persuasions, levels of religious observance, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. These interactions are unmediated and unscripted and such give an authentic taste of modern Israel, both its accomplishments and its challenges and problems. The program itself strives to encourage this engagement, through educational activities as well, but without any political, religious or ideological direction. To the degree that there is an ideology at work, it puts the emphasis on multi-vocality, free discussion and exposure to a range of views. We want interns to think more deeply about Israel, to consider the implications for what they are experiencing on their own identities and to develop, amongst the pluralism of their encounters, their own unique voices. Our goal is for them to return from their internships with sharpened professional skills, and a deeper commitment to their own relationship with their Jewishness and with Israel.

What is your vision for the next decade?
When our work began, a decade ago, the concept of summer internships in Israel barely existed. In 2019, more than 1,400 Israeli companies absorbed more than 2,400 interns. Over this period, fields of internship have expanded, new companies have been recruited, best practices of summer internships have been articulated and thousands of Israeli companies and more than 10,000 interns have benefited from this unique interaction. Masa has done similar work in expanding longer-term internships as well. This is a new type of Israel Experience- based not on the bus tour, the frontal educator and an intensive group dynamic. For thousands of young adults from around the world, the Israel Experience is a real life work internship- a fascinating opportunity to gain skills, build networks and social capital and discover Israel in an authentic and unmediated matter. We believe that this is already having a powerful impact on the relationship of this young adult generation with Israel. Participation in summer internship programs is becoming a rite of passage, particularly on North American campuses; additional growth is limited primarily by financial constraints. Our vision is two-fold: 5,000 interns a year and a doubling of the number of Israeli companies absorbing interns. For Israelis, the opportunity to engage with young adults from around the world in this new type of Israel Experience, gives them the chance not just to aid their business and professional objectives but also to contribute personally to strengthening the critical connection between Israeli society and the Diaspora.