After 26 years, Otzma program for young adults in Israel to be axed

After 26 years, Otzma program for young adults in Israel to be axed

Alumni protest Federations' decision to scrap 'premier Israel experience' that produced high rates of aliya and communal involvement in the US and Canada

Illustrative photo of young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)

One of the longest-running programs designed to bring young Jewish adults to Israel is being eliminated by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

Otzma, which has brought more than 1,400 US and Canadian Jews to Israel since 1986, will shut down at the end of its current year, the president and CEO of JFNA, Jerry Silverman, announced in a letter published online Thursday.

During its 26-year run, Otzma was widely recognized for the rate of aliya among its participants, and frequently touted the high level of Jewish communal involvement among alumni who returned to the US and Canada.

Even before news of the program’s elimination went public, JFNA’s decision inspired an online protest by Otzma alumni, nearly 200 of whom have signed a petition calling for the program’s reinstatement.

While JFNA’s announcement didn’t cite specific reasons for the program’s end, the letter suggested it had lost its place among competing programs that were often partly modeled on its success. Silverman‘s letter noted the existence of “more than 200 Israel programs for young Jewish adults, built upon OTZMA’s shoulders.”

Former participants believe the program’s cost contributed to its elimination: In contrast to participants on other Israel programs, Otzma volunteers received financial support from the Jewish Federation in their hometowns, in addition to contributing funds of their own.

Since its launch in the mid-’80s, Otzma has served as a durable template for other long-term Israel programs, bringing Jews between ages 18 and 26 to Israel for 10-month stays. A combination of intensive Hebrew study, volunteer work and professional internships, Otzma has helped to inspire numerous spinoff programs, and outlasted repeated threats to its survival. After attracting as many as 80 participants annually during the late 1990s, the program dwindled to 12 between 2002 and 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada. The program rebounded as Israeli-Palestinian violence fell, attracting dozens of participants in subsequent years.

But questions about the program’s future intensified following the 2005 creation of Masa Israel, an umbrella organization of long-term Israel programs supported by JFNA, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, among other organizations.

In their online petition, alumni and other supporters described Otzma as “the premier Israel experience program,” highlighting volunteer work performed in impoverished Israeli communities often overlooked by other Masa programs.

Alumni comments also emphasized the program’s success in achieving one of its key goals: cultivating future leaders for Jewish communities in North America.

According to a “CEO Message” about Otzma written earlier this year by Silverman, 65 percent of Otzma participants have gone on to work for a Jewish organization, with a quarter making such work “their long-term career.” More than half of Otzma alumni donate to their local Jewish Federations, the letter notes.

While not officially intended to encourage aliya, Otzma also produced numerous immigrants to Israel. Although precise figures aren’t available, former participants estimate that dozens of former “Otzmanikim” now live in the country permanently.

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