If Birthright helps North American students and young adults to dip their big toe into the waters of Israeli culture and business, Onward Israel is a jump into the deep end.
Birthright has been such a success that thousands of participants who come on programs each year clamor for a more intensive Israeli experience. And for those interested in Israeli business and tech, Onward Israel offers an intensive “Israel immersion” experience: It places students with tech companies, financial institutions, schools, and community organizations, where they get to see the country the way their Israeli coworkers experience it.
Among the organizations working with Onward Israel is the Hi-Center accelerator in Haifa, which will place students in one of the start-ups at the accelerator itself. According to Hi-Center director Yael Mittelman, “This program enables Jewish students from the Diaspora who have an affinity for hi-tech to get professional experience, and become familiar with the culture of Israeli entrepreneurship.”
Birthright — in Hebrew, Taglit — is considered one of the biggest successes ever in promoting a connection among young Jews to the state of Israel as well as to their Jewish identity. Over the past 14 years, hundreds of thousands of students and young adults have taken the free, 10-day educational tour of the country offered by the organization.
Unlike Birthright, however, which follows a generic recipe designed to introduce students to Israel and to Jewish issues, Onward Israel’s program is tailor-made per specific group. Each curriculum is based on consultations between the Jewish Agency and the pertinent community.
The Onward Israel program lasts 6-10 weeks, with costs varying from zero to several hundred dollars. Subsidies come from local community organizations, along with the Jewish Agency and the Israeli company or organization where students will be placed.
Hi-Center offers program participants a chance to experience Israel like a native, said Mittelman. The accelerator is designed for late-stage start-ups, and “there is no other center in the north that helps such companies come to market,” she claimed. “We want to expand and serve more communities in the north. The more companies we can help, the more opportunities there will be in the north, and the more people will move here.”
Onward Israel provides an opportunity for the development of a positive “buzz” for the high-tech community in Haifa and the north, Mittelman added. “Hi-Center is one of the best expressions of creative energy in Israel, and especially in Haifa. We hope program participants will return to their homes in the US and tell their friends and relatives about their experiences, thus encouraging others to tie their future to ours.”
Among the alumni of Hi-Center is Lexifone, which has developed a unique technology that lets people speak in their own language on the phone, or via an app, with the listener hearing the words in their own language. Canada-based Intertainment Media recently invested $2 million in Lexifone.
The Hi-Center program started last week; participants are set to work for four full days a week, with the fifth day set aside for tours, educational and culture activities, and fun events. “After all, it is summer,” said Mittelman.
The US students are working with three different start-ups in the accelerator: Gbooking, which is building a platform for search, comparison, and booking of online flights; Veems, which is developing an app that allows users to add sounds to images; and Pronto, which transfers data wirelessly between devices.
The Hi-Center Onward Israel participants were welcomed at a special ceremony last Wednesday by Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav:
“We are proud that Jewish communities abroad see Haifa as an important destination for business and technology, as well as a place for tourists to visit. Our visitors will enjoy all the great things our city has to offer, and be a part of the process of turning Haifa into a technological center of the north, pioneered by Hi-Center.”