The Jewish Federations of North America announced Friday that it will transfer ownership of its OTZMA Israel Experience, one of the first programs that enabled young adults to live and learn in Israel, to a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel, effective July 1.
JFNA runs trips to Israel, but OTZMA is its only long-term program, and JFNA no longer sees program provision as central to what it does, Sandy Schlenoff, North American Director of OTZMA, told The Jewish Week.
“We are looking at what JFNA’s mision is, and program provider doesn’t really fit,” she said. “When the program started there wasn’t anything else, so it was JFNA’s job to come up with something new and unique and innovative and over the last 27 years, hundreds of programs have sprouted up to do just that.”
Israel Experience Educational Tourism Services, the Jewish Agency subsidiary that will take over OTZMA, provides trips to Israel for teens, university students and young adults. It currently provides OTZMA with logistical services.
OTZMA, which provides 5 and 10-month volunteer and learning opportunities for young Jewish adults in Israel, started in 1986 and says it has 1,400 alumni.
JFNA, the umbrella organization representing local federations, has struggled in recent years to define itself amid a shrinking budget from their members, who sometimes question the need for a national group and resist their obligation to dedicate portions of their fundraising to JFNA and its overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency. It changed its name in 2009 from the United Jewish Communities; overhauled its top professional staff and hired Jerry Silverman, a former high-level retail executive.
Once Israel Experience takes over OTZMA, it will be able to alter the program, but JFNA doesn’t anticipate that it will make any major changes, Schlenoff said.
“One of the reasons we chose Israel Experience is because they are committed to the program as it stands now,” she said.
When JFNA announced in November that it would divest itself of the program, more than a third of OTZMA’s alumni signed a petition imploring JFNA to reconsider on the grounds that the move would hurt federations’ ability to recruit leadership and generate financial support from them.
JFNA will still nurture connections with young American Jews in the hope of bringing them into the federation system as supporters, volunteers and leaders, but will do so by working primarily with Masa Israel Experience, another unit of the Jewish Agency, that works as a kind of portal to Israel programs for participants ages 22 and 30, Schlenoff said. Masa has more than 20,000 alumni.