Project Otzma returnee radiates enthusiasm
“I saw so much, I did so much, I learned so much … there were so many coincidences,” said the tall, animated young woman, talking almost non-stop about her Otzma experience.
The biggest coincidence?
Her first time in Israel was in June 2006 as part of a Birthright contingent. “We went on the March of the Living, and I had just left Poland and arrived in Israel when Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas. … What a terrible day.” Back in Israel for the first time since that trip, she was also in Israel on Oct. 18, 2011 the day that the young Israeli soldier, released from captivity in Gaza, returned home.
“It was unbelievable,” Waite said. “That entire day of Shalit’s return all of Israel focused on him — his experiences in captivity and his arrival back home…We refused to think of the prisoners released to Hamas for his freedom until the day after.”
Project Otzma brings 20-25- year-old Diaspora Jews to Israel for approximately a year of intense service and leadership training under the aegis of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Waite, whose mother Lynn Waite lives in Marlton, was selected as an “Otzmanik” by the Department of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey following a series of interviews. The South Jersey Federation also helped to subsidize her participation in the program.
As one of six 2010-2011 US participants in Otzma’s Israel Teaching Corps, Waite spent her first three months at an Ashkelon absorption center and ulpan prior to moving to Arad, South Jersey Federation’s Partnership2Gether community. In Arad, in the Negev about an hour from Be’er Sheva, she taught English in two elementary schools, volunteered as a special education tutor and helped out in the Partnership office. “I loved watching the sunrise as I walked to work,” Waite recalled. “I really loved everything about the program.”
Her orientation in Ashkelon was especially interesting because there were some 200 Ethiopian immigrants at the absorption center. “Also, we were just 15 minutes from the beach.” Even with five hours of ulpan a day and tutoring religious schoolgirls in English afterwards, “there was plenty of time for recreation.”
That recreation included “Getting to see almost everything — like all the major Jewish sites. What they didn’t take us to see, they gave us the opportunity to see on our own. We had Fridays and Saturdays off and often traveled for Shabbat.”
The best part of Otzma was relationships, according to Waite. “My host family (a mom and dad with an 11 and nineyear old daughter and a fouryear old son) really is family. And many townspeople are friends. People reach out to you.”
The 33 North American Jews in her Otzma contingent “also became a family.” Thanksgiving in Ashkelon with that group (some of them brought guests) will long remain among her favorite memories. “We had to cook our kosher turkey in toaster ovens, but we had our American Thanksgiving and it was wonderful,” she said. “Next, we’re having a Chanukah party at my mom’s house. Whoever can come is welcome, and I expect colleagues from all over the country.”
Religious experiences in the homeland were also especially meaningful to the young woman whose high school years were spent in a Methodist boarding school.
“I went to synagogue In Israel on the High Holidays for two years in a row,” she beamed. “I loved being in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur.” The first year she attended a Masorti (Conservative) shul. The second year she went to the Great Synagogue.
“That was magnificent. I loved that everyone wore white. And erev Yom Kippur a group of us walked through the Old City and sat and talked in front of the Wall…I felt the need to explore everything.”
Waite will miss being able to go to the Wall. “I find it very calming. It puts me at peace,” she said.
Along with friendships, memories, strong ties to Israel and new skills—especially the ability to speak a pretty decent Hebrew—Waite has acquired two important pieces of selfknowledge:
One: She doesn’t want to teach for the rest of my life.
Two: She does want to work for the Jewish community.
Waite is a spring 2009 graduate of Denison University with majors in history and theater. Anybody out there have a job? .