Gathered in front of the Western Wall with iPads in hand, 25 students involved with Onward Israel, a two-to-three month volunteer program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, stood ready to take an interactive “Jew Quest” through the Old City.
During their mission they took photos with street musicians, gathered audio from local merchants and navigated from monument to monument capturing what they saw to post on social media sites, all in an effort to connect with Israel and their Jewish heritage.
“I love the spirituality and life here,” said Brett Loewenstern, 20, a student from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “It’s like carefree living but in a caring way.”
Branded as a Birthright follow-up program, Onward Israel serves as the middle ground between a short, tourism-driven visit and a longer-term internship program, like Masa.
In its second year, Onward Israel currently works with over 500 students from around the world who are looking for a hands-on approach to living in Israel within six to nine weeks.
Each student lives in an apartment with other students from the same city or organization, where they engage in resume building opportunities such as internships, volunteer work and academic study fellowships.
The program is funded by the Jewish Agency, which also sponsors Birthright trips, and global Jewish organizations, which work with the students at home, and private donors. The students pay about $400 in addition to their airfare, according to Ilan Wagner, director of Onward.
Wagner said almost 90 percent of those who take Birthright trips say they want to return to Israel, but only 20 percent actually do.
“Most of them don’t come back,” said Wagner, who’s been with the Jewish Agency since 2002. “So the idea is to encourage people to come back to Israel for our second experience.”
Wagner said a new element of the program is an optional social media fellowship, where students involved can document their personal and professional journey on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler and their own personal blogs.
Jessica Siskind, head of the social media fellows, said these online platforms are giving students invaluable skills they can apply to their personal and professional life.
“It’s giving them additional experiences that they can add to their resume at the same time exposing their friends and family to their experiences here in Israel,” Siskind said.
‘I feel like the goal of the program is for us to go home and do PR for Israel’
But though Siskind said she gives the participants full control over their personal blogs and accounts, some students said they were encouraged to promote Israel and the Onward experience.
“I feel like the goal of the program is for us to go home and do PR for Israel,” said Nicole Levin, an Onward participant from Harvard University, adding, “I feel like that because they pretty much told us.”
Officials of the program made it a point to insist the goal of the program is not to encourage young folk to move to Israel, though many of the students said they were seriously thinking about making aliya after the program.
Jon Beer, 19, a student from Albany, NY, interning at Checkmarx, a provider of code analysis tools, said his sponsor organization, the UJA Federation of New York, wasn’t betting on any of its students moving to Israel after Onward.
“I don’t even think they wanted to know,” Beer said. “But I’m definitely considering it.”