It is hard to believe that only 10 years ago there was no organized summer internship program in Israel for North American Jewish college students wishing to intern overseas.
Cynthia Shapira’s daughter was one of these students. So Cynthia and her husband, David, decided to take action.
As president and chairman, respectively, of the David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation, the Shapiras are concerned about Jewish identity and assimilation among young North American Jews.
Their experience as national Jewish communal lay leaders taught them that they needed to meet young people where they are to strengthen their connection to Judaism and to Israel.
“Most college students are focused on their careers,” says Cynthia. “They want to get professional experience and build their resumes before they graduate.”
The Shapiras saw the need for an intermediate alternative to the 10-day Birthright Israel program and the longer-term Masa program.
“Our goal was to create a program that gives the students what they want — high-quality professional summer internships that fit into their college schedules — while we worked toward the aim to strengthen Jewish identity,” says David.
Onward Israel was launched in 2012, assisted by the Jewish Agency. It then became an independent and autonomous organization, working closely with Masa, Birthright, Hillel and local Jewish federations.
The driving motivation is to address the critical question facing the world Jewish community today: In an open society, where all choices and identities are possible, will young Jews choose to remain Jewish?
The Shapiras were instrumental in creating the program and funding formula and providing both intellectual and financial capital.
“I knew that we needed to provide an affordable two-month summer internship with real work experience,” explains Cynthia. “Others wanted to include community-service work, but we were very focused on giving students actual professional experience and Israel engagement opportunities.”
She also insisted on having supervision and a point of contact for parents. For many of the participants it was their first time living on their own in a different country.
David viewed Onward Israel as a startup and brought his business acumen to the table to make sure that there was a secure business model and proof of concept.
Everything needed to align: idea, management, value-added product, ability to attract participants and a new leveraged funding model that brought together strategic partners, programmatic partners and participants.
Major foundations, sharing in the program’s vision, came on board. This included the Jim Joseph Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Koret Foundation and the Paul E. Singer Foundation. Continually expanding the strategic partnerships is an essential part of Onward’s growth.
Nearly 12,000 alumni
In Israel, there were logistical hurdles to overcome.
International companies and leading Israeli companies needed to be convinced of the advantage of taking on an English-speaking intern for two months, as this was not part of the business culture in Israel. Finding affordable summer housing, especially in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was another challenge.
From the beginning, evaluation protocols were put into place. An external evaluator, Rosov Consulting, continually evaluates experience, outcomes and impact measurement. This includes pre- and post-program evaluations, annual evaluations and a three-year longitudinal study.
Onward Israel was launched in 2012 with 265 participants in 12 programs. In the summer of 2019 it had 2,806 people in 99 programs and reached close to 12,000 alumni. The organization’s goal is to reach 5,000 participants annually in the next five years.
Although the original target audience was Jewish students with minimal Jewish background, the program has also become popular among more observant students and even non-Jewish participants.
Onward has significantly changed the internship landscape in Israel. In the beginning, companies were wary. Today, some 1,400 companies work with Onward Israel interns.
Startups are especially receptive as they see the intrinsic value of having English-speaking personnel who can contribute to their team. Internships span Israel’s burgeoning high-tech, business, media, health, education, non-profit and other business sectors.
Both company mentors and students report high rates of satisfaction with the experience. A large percentage of students feel that they are given real responsibility and gain valuable work experience.
A longitudinal alumni study, A Deep Dive into Onward Israel’s Contribution to Alumni’s Personal and Professional Trajectories, showed that three years on 73% of graduates increased or maintained their involvement in Jewish and Israel-related activities, 68% felt a strong connection to their Jewish identity, 55% retained an emotional connection to Israel and 48% felt that their professional choices were influenced by their Onward internship, with the majority in finance, engineering and high tech.
“We love the statistics, and they are very important,” say the Shapiras. “We also meet with students all the time, hear their thoughts and their stories and listen to their recommendations. We then work with Onward management to try to improve the program accordingly.”
“Onward Israel does everything it can to make sure that our customers, Jewish students around the world, are satisfied with their professional and personal experience,” say the Shapiras. “This is a pivotal time in their lives as they define career goals and make important decisions about personal and communal identities.”
Lisa Samin is a Jerusalem-based resource development and marketing communications consultant for non-profits. She works with Onward Israel to expand its partnership base.
This summer, a student from Onward Israel, Anna Wachspress, joined ISRAEL21c as a photographic intern. You can find out more about her experiences here.