When Olivia Bodzin graduated with a degree in business and finance from California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo in 2007, she had no idea she'd be interning for The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) doing research about Jewish identity in Israel. But the opportunity came along and she jumped at the chance to increase her knowledge, skills and experience while living in Israel.
Olivia Bodzin joined the Hadassah-WUJS Internship Program in Jerusalem in September last year. The first part of the program was spent learning Hebrew, getting to know the other participants, and travelling around Israel. Her internship with JFNA started in mid-October and she has been working closely with Lee Perlman, the organization's director of Program and Planning, on a paper on Jewish identity, a topic far removed from her studies.
"I chose to study business and finance because I knew it could translate into many different fields," says Olivia. "But I also want to do something that would give me more exposure to other areas and I saw this internship as an opportunity to broaden my skills and knowledge. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I know it's going to be marketable and it will only help me in whatever direction I choose to go."
Perlman has put Olivia in charge of coordinating and researching an important report that is being prepared on Jewish identity in Israel for a group of senior professional leaders in the Federation movement and beyond. In mid-January, a group of senior North American Jewish leaders will be sitting in the United States discussing, among other issues, this paper.
"It's a very ambitious project that we have to put together in a very short period," says Perlman. "It involves significant research, joining me for interviews, transcription and data analysis. It also involves helping to devise a survey of the members of the group we're meeting and conducting data analysis of their responses.
"Olivia has been coordinating the entire research project. It's a very challenging task for all of us to get the information and present it in a credible and balanced way instead of pushing a particular agenda. So there are a lot of intellectual challenges and Olivia has been wonderful. She brings her 'smarts' to the task and has been doing a great job. This project has really been stretching her interests and also her skills. I think the data analysis has been her biggest challenge, but she finds the content very interesting," he says.
Olivia wasn't planning to stay in Israel on a long-term program when she first arrived for her friend's wedding in July. Although she had previously experienced Israel through the eyes of a Taglit-Birthright participant and had loved being here, she had no intention of returning for any length of time.
"But once I was here, I realized that this was where I was supposed to be for the time being and needed a way to stay longer," she says. "I wanted to make it a meaningful experience and so, after my friend's wedding, I ended up on a three-week Jewish learning program. That's when I decided to look into something more long-term."
Back home in San Diego, California, the 25-year-old was working for her parents' software business "just waiting out the economic situation". She was responsible for bookkeeping and accounts. "I was very lucky to have that kind of a break, but I wanted to do something different."
Once in Israel, she began to look through MASA's post-college programs and discovered the Hadassah-WUJS internship, which allowed her to combine learning Hebrew while working and living in Jerusalem. When she applied to WUJS two weeks before the program started and was accepted, she couldn't believe the organizers were willing to take her on such short notice, another reason she feels that she was meant to be in the country.
Hadassah-WUJS provides young Jewish adults from around the world with an unforgettable Israel experience. Based in the simultaneously ancient, historic and modern cities of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, Hadassah-WUJS provides participants with the opportunity to combine study, volunteering and professional internships all within a dynamic, safe environment.
The Hebrew language course ("ulpan") has proven to be the hardest part for her, and although she is starting to feel more comfortable with the language, she knows there is plenty of room for improvement. "At the Federation, everyone speaks fluent English and fluent Hebrew, so I hear both languages all the time. Everyone is happy to talk to me in Hebrew during our coffee breaks and I can practice and get feedback from them. When it comes to the work though, I obviously need the English. But I plan to be here at least until July, so I'll have more time to work on it," she says.
Olivia is fast learning how different this internship is from the work she did in finance where things are black and white, right or wrong. She says the work flows more freely and there are more variables. "The project with Lee is fascinating. We're interpreting people's views and experiences of Jewish identity, about the issue of being an Israeli or living in Israel in whatever way, being a tourist, an immigrant. It's very interesting.
"Coming from America, your Jewish identity is always changing and developing. Unless you're living in a community of Jewish people, you have to figure out how you fit into society while still maintaining your Jewish identity. While here, it's a Jewish state, most of the people around you are Jewish, whether religious or secular."
While this internship is completely outside her field, Olivia is well aware of what it can add to the experience she already has. She realizes this is something she could not have done in the States, especially so soon after graduating. Usually, she says, companies don't want to invest time and money in someone who's just interested in a field. They want people who have studied and have skills to offer.
"So I see Israel as the place to take those risks because it's a place where people are willing to take a risk on you. It was a perfect set-up – somebody was willing to give me a chance and I wanted to take one, so everything worked out well."
Perlman believes interns make a tremendous contribution to JFNA. As an umbrella organization for Jewish Federations, many different services are offered, and he feels that interns are helpful in key areas.
In addition, every intern who has a positive experience – personal and professional – can spread the word about federations in general, about the work that they're doing, and about their impact. At JFNA, they're afforded an opportunity while they're interning to really get exposed in a way that very few people do, and he knows they will share and spread the word about the important work of the movement.
"Olivia's situation is a good example of our approach to interns," says Perlman. "We like to enable them, in the short time they're here, to help out on at least one project that they can sink their teeth into and really help make happen. This means that, beyond the satisfaction they get of not being spread around doing a lot of different things, they can credibly say, as in Olivia's case, they were working on a specific project over the four or five months they were with us."
Olivia is looking forward to seeing the final product. Not only has she gained enormously from her WUJS internship experience, but through her research, she has also learned a remarkable amount about Jewish identity, about Israel and about its people.
"It's such a relevant topic," she says, "and many people are struggling with this issue on a daily basis. It's in the public sphere; it's about how the country is governed, how people live their lives, how the country celebrates the holidays and, on a more private level, they have to negotiate how they're going to express themselves in the Jewish way. But I think it's important for people to have the opportunity to figure it out for themselves. Everybody's Jewish identity is different and that's what I think is most important to understand."
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