Coming for the long haul

Shlomo (Momo) Lifshitz believes that through exposure to Israel he can achieve for the current crop of young Jews what his generation failed to achieve themselves.

By RON FRIEDMAN
September 17, 2010 13:16
Oranim interns helping clean up the city of Ramle.

311_interns from help. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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When Shlomo (Momo) Lifshitz talks about Zionism, he can’t help but speak in a grandiose manner. A big man, he has a big vision – reshaping Jewish history.

Lifshitz is the co-owner and CEO of Oranim, a travel company that specializes in educational tours to Israel. Lifshitz believes that through exposure to Israel and a few nudges in the right direction, he can achieve for the current crop of young Jews what his generation failed to achieve themselves, the creation of authentic Jewish peoplehood, with the Jewish family at its heart.

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In the past, Oranim was one of the main sub contractors for Taglit-Birthright, offering Jewish youth free 10-day trips to Israel, but Lifshitz was dissatisfied and left Birthright nearly two years ago. He said that while he appreciates the importance of the initiative, it fails to accomplish what he envisions for Israel and the Jewish people. He believes that the Jewish people needs to do everything possible to discourage intermarriage and promote immigration to Israel; both issues that he feels are insufficiently addressed in other programs.

“I never said to anyone: ‘If you don’t make aliya, I’m going to shoot you.’ I tell them, ‘I have a dream,’” said Lifshitz. “Sometimes I wish that I could take their passports and make them all Israelis. I really want to do it.

“What would happen to this country if two or three hundred thousand Jews, young Jews coming from the free world, who choose to come here – not because they have no other choice, but because it’s cool to live in Israel and they really want to make a change – decided to move here? The country would be unrecognizable.“ Lifshitz decided that 10 days was simply not a long enough period for the values he champions to sink in, and that the only way young Jews would really get to know Israel would be if they came to live here for an extensive period.

Since leaving Birthright, Oranim has partnered with MASA – a government-sponsored umbrella organization encompassing nearly 200 long-term programs – and has begun offering a range of long-term programs aimed at the young Jewish person who wants to really experience Israel.

“I took 50,000 kids on Birthright. I know to describe exactly what I did to them. They all landed, and when they landed I put them in a bubble. Throughout their stay, they were so excited, so emotionally exhausted, that the bubble remained until they left Israel. I think it blew up a week after they landed back,” said Lifshitz.



“Here, it’s something real. A quarter of the people who come on our long-term programs have never visited Israel. Around 20 percent of the participants do not leave Israel when the program is over,” he said.

“Those who leave, leave as changed people with much stronger ties to Israel, and much stronger ties to the Jewish people.

“They understand that an Israeli is a member of their family, and that Israel is their homeland… the ideology of the long-term program can change the path of history.”

Oranim’s programs are divided into two major categories, community involvement programs and professional internship programs. In both cases, the participants stay in Israel for five or 10 months, go to ulpan to study Hebrew, travel around the country, volunteer in the community and spend time with Israeli host families.

Oranim also offers an academic program, in which participants can complete a master’s degree while living in Tel Aviv.

In the community involvement programs, participants can choose whether they want to take part in old-fashioned, all-purpose volunteering on a kibbutz, or live and work in one of Oranim’s three urban volunteer centers. In both cases, participants spend their days immersed in the local communities, mostly teaching English, but also taking part in a range of other helpful activities ranging from caring for the elderly to picking cucumbers.

The professional internship program includes two weeks of intense, job-oriented ulpan, job placement assisted by Oranim’s staff, and a full college-accredited internship. Accommodations are based in Tel Aviv, Eilat, or one of Oranim’s periphery urban centers.

“Tel Aviv is replacing Jerusalem as the focus point for young Jews coming to Israel. If once most of the young Jews wanted to come and stay in Jerusalem, today people prefer Tel Aviv,” said Ofer Gutman, Oranim’s director of long-term programs.

“Tel Aviv also attracts a different type of Jew, more secular Jews, people who are not necessarily affiliated with a synagogue or a youth movement.”

ORANIM’S LONG-TERM programs have been running for a year and a half. According to Gutman, every program encompasses between 15 and 50 participants.

“Last year, over 500 young people participated in our programs,” said Gutman. “Many of the longterm programs operated by other organizations – yeshivot, universities or youth movements – have been operating for years, but their numbers have not gone up. We are targeting a specific population of post-college young people who wouldn’t have come here otherwise.”

Todd Edelman, Oranim’s director of marketing, explained that what’s unique about Oranim’s programs is that they begin once every two weeks, or once a month, and not twice a year like most other programs, and that they thus cater to a wider variety of young Jews.

“We are the only organization out there right now that builds the programs to fit the secular Jew, the Jew who knows he’s Jewish but didn’t live a classic Jewish youth lifestyle – didn’t attend Hebrew school, didn’t go to synagogue, didn’t go to Jewish summer camp or a Jewish youth movement,” said Edelman, himself an alumnus of one of the group’s long-term programs.

Sitvanit Chishinski, placement coordinator for Oranim’s professional internship program, added that the people who participate in the program range from actors and artists to engineers and businesspeople.

“We don’t refuse anyone and do our best to find positions for anybody, with any interest and from any background.

The program is tailormade.

Participants are placed according to their professional goals, skills and experience, and there are endless opportunities in a wide range of companies,” she said.

According to Chishinski, many of the participants are offered jobs at the end of the internship and some companies even set out goals that, if met during the course of the internship, promise future employment.

“One of the main challenges for people immigrating to Israel is finding a job.

This program enables people to get a taste of the Israeli job market and network with people from their field. It opens the door to employment possibilities if they decide to make aliya,” said Gutman.

“Many of the companies that responded to our requests or approached us about internships did it out of Zionist motives.”

There are currently 70 people participating in the professional internship programs, and the jobs they have range from programming in start-up firms to transportation design in the Tel Aviv municipality.

Paula Szyller was born and grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and went to college in New York City. While on vacation in Brazil, she met her fiancé, an Israeli, who was also there vacationing. When she returned to the United States, she visited the aliya offices, but was not convinced that she was ready to immigrate.

She said the people in the office suggested she try one of Masa’s longterm programs, and that Oranim’s professional internship program seemed to be the best fit.

IN THE US, Szyller trained for the law, but needing to find a job to pay for tuition, found herself working in finance.

“When I signed up for the program, they immediately gave me Sitvanit’s e-mail, and we got in touch three or four months before I even got here. We spoke a lot so she could understand exactly what I wanted.

“I am not directly out of college,” said Szyller. “I worked for two years already, I knew exactly what I wanted. She did a really good job finding the perfect fit for me.”

Oranim found Szyller a job as an analyst and investment consultant at More Investment House in Tel Aviv. She said she had had several interviews lined up, but that after the first meeting with More’s deputy director she was convinced it was the right place.

“I had to make a decision – do I continue going to work every day, but come home alone every day; or do I come to Israel, follow through with this relationship and be around my family? And I chose to do that.

“Professionally, it’s working better for me because the [US] economy is horrible and the more experience you get that broadens your resumé, the better. More is an international finance company, so working there really enhances my resumé,” said Szyller. “I am learning new things all the time.

“It’s not a ‘make copies’ kind of internship. They really take me seriously. Every day I go there and there is something for me to do. They even hold meetings in English so that I can understand what’s being said.”

For Szyller, coming to Israel meant reuniting with her Jewish heritage. Growing up in Brazil, she was part of a thriving Jewish community with a rich community life, but when she lived in the US, she found herself drifting away from Jewish life.

“Moving here offered me much more than just professional experience. It gave me the opportunity to rediscover my Judaism. Today I love attending Shabbat dinner at my boyfriend’s parents’ house and he’s finding that he’s enjoying it more too because I’m bringing back what used to be unique about Shabbat when he was growing up,” said Szyller.

Szyller, who had never been to Israel before coming on the program, said she has fallen in love with Tel Aviv.

“In my mind, I’m still in Manhattan. Everybody speaks English. I can do everything I did there, from getting my nails done to meeting with friends for coffee,” she said. “I love my neighborhood. I’m in the middle of everything. I feel like I’ve lucked out.”

Szyller’s bosses also feel that they’ve lucked out. Eli Levy, deputy director-general of More Investments, said that he recognized her potential from their first meeting.

“When Oranim first contacted me to take part in the program, I immediately saw the value of it on an ideological level. But when I met with Paula, I realized that there could be a big benefit in terms of the company too. Paula is an extremely bright young woman and the internship resulted in a real cross-fertilization. She got international experience working for an Israeli company, and we received an experienced, English-speaking professional, who added a fresh perspective to our company,” said Levy.

“AFTER PAULA, if we didn’t continue to take on interns from Oranim, it would be a great folly. I would recommend that any company in any sector take on interns. It does wonders for the company, both in terms of straight business sense as well as in rejuvenating worker morale."

“Paula always comes back from her trips with Oranim full of stories and new information. It reminds us Israelis how good it is to be here.”

While Szyller chose the professional path to Israel, Falan Metzer chose to experience Israel through intensive community involvement. Originally from Boca Raton, Florida, Metzer now lives in the mixed Jewish- Arab city of Ramle.

Unlike Szyller, Metzer had been to Israel before, both with her high school and with Birthright. But none of her previous visits had taken her to Ramle, a city known for its tough socioeconomic conditions.

Despite her family’s misgivings about her being in Israel for five months, Metzer knew she wanted to live here. When the Federation listed the available opportunities, Oranim’s community involvement program seemed to her to be the best fit.

“I had never been to Ramle before and anything I did hear about it was usually pretty negative, but when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised. Ramle is heaven compared to some of the bad neighborhoods in Florida,” said Metzer.

As part of the community involvement program, she is required to do volunteer work for 25 hours a week. A communications graduate, she teaches English to Jewish and Arab children at local schools.

“When it comes to the Arab schools, foreign volunteers are often the only people who come to help the teachers, who sometimes aren’t proficient in English themselves. The Israeli volunteers tend to help out in the Jewish schools and there is a severe shortage of assistance from the Arab sector, so it turns out that we are the only help they get,” said Metzer. We are always greeted warmly by the community. Sometimes the kids fight for our attention.

“I feel that it is a great opportunity for me to share in people’s lives, and that I can positively influence the community I’m in – even if it’s a small change, and even if it’s for only a few months,” said Metzer.

Edelman said that it took time to realize the impact the volunteer work had on people’s lives. Himself a graduate of the Ramle program, he said he recently went back to visit Ramle and one of his former students, now a soldier in the IDF, recognized him and approached him at a shwarma stand.

“He came up and said ‘Hello’ and ‘How do you do,’ in English. I was surprised he even remembered me. When I completed my program I didn’t realize the impact that we have on the community. It takes time to get perspective,” said Edelman.

“It’s important to realize that young people who come to Israel affect it as much as it affects them,” said Lifshitz. “Our participants are constantly asked ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘What is there here for you?’ Israelis don’t appreciate what a special place we have, and how lucky they are to be here."

“My vision includes a transformation of Israeli society. I don’t want a nation of pioneers; I’ll settle for a nation of people who say, ‘Good morning.’”

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