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From the Heart, In the Heart

October 18, 2011

The Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center, located on Rehov Keren HaYesod in the center of Jerusalem, is a heart pulsing with life and hope for the Jewish people — all Jews, of all ages, of all backgrounds. With the vision and leadership of its Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman, the OU Israel Center has evolved into a center of Jewish communal activity and programming par excellence.

Since coming to work for the OU Department of Public Relations in April 2010, it has been my wish to intern at the OU Israel Center – to learn about its activities, report on its programs and interact with the hundreds of teens sent by NCSY and Yachad for summer experiences. During the process, I hoped to deep my professional skills by drafting feature articles for OU Headquarters in New York.

When frequently asked, “What, exactly, do you do for the OU?” I enjoy explaining that my job is to promote the wonderful Torah-based actions of the OU. As part of the Orthodox Union Public Relations team, I am constantly striving to improve my craft. To the best of my abilities, I interact with others to meet the ever-expanding goals of the OU and its departments via internal and external media sources, internet communications and social media.

It’s been two years since my last stay in Eretz Yisrael; at that time I was living in Jerusalem as a full-time seminary student after college. The decision to return to America was not simple choice back then. I firmly believed, and still do, that Eretz Yisrael is where every Jew is meant to live — yet I also recognized that residency in the United States was where I needed to be temporarily.

Two years is not such an extensive period of absence – but even a short term trip to Eretz Yisrael can never fall into the category of “ordinary vacation”; nothing about Israel is ordinary. Six years prior, during my first visit, I made the difficult discovery that I had no halachic status as a Jew; my Jewish “identity” was inherited from my halachically Jewish father, my mother, however, is not Jewish.

I was privileged to merit returning to Israel many times during my college year. As my thirst for truth and interest in Judaism increased, I was able to participate in student leadership missions with Hillel International; a professional internship with The Jewish Agency; and a disaster relief mission with Livnot U’Lehibanot. After the process of halachic conversion, my year of learning at She’arim College for Women in Har Nof further established all the refined qualities of Jewish womanhood. But not knowing when I would next enjoy the privilege of praying at the Kotel, or be able to watch the brilliantly hued sunsets of Har Nof, left me feeling quite unsettled.

The apex of my hope to return to Israel came this past spring. Following the heart wrenching murders in Itamar of the Fogel family members, I was offered an opportunity to meet with the yishuv’s Mayor, Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith and his wife Leah, during their travels to various communities in North America. Their purpose was to educate American Jews about life “on the line” in yishuv communities and I was able to interview them during their stop at OU headquarters. The idea occurred that perhaps I might combine my yearning to go back to Israel with work in a way that would be mutually beneficial for my OU responsibilities. This would be the ultimate application of both skills and interests.

In the following weeks, I presented a business proposal of logistical details – When would I go? How long would I stay? What were my goals to make this trip beneficial for the OU? How would I maintain my responsibilities for the New York office? How could I access the files necessary to maintain my work in New York from abroad? How could I coordinate work schedules with the New York office when Israel is seven hours ahead? (It wasn’t always easy to remember the time difference).

With strong support from my supervisors, the gracious assistance of co-workers in New York, and enthusiastic cooperation from OU Israel Center’s staff, I was encouraged to spread my wings, and turn my dream into reality.

My goals for the summer included:

- To be on site whenever multiple departments of the OU could be serviced and to better understand the work of OU Israel Center, NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, and OU Leadership

- Reinforce one-on-one relationships with OU Israel staff and to better understand the objectives and inner workings of the Jerusalem office

- Assist in content development for the OU Israel Center’s website and English resources

- Collect, update and expand information regarding the Orthodox Union’s work in Israel in order to strengthen and promote more content for the greater public

- Collaborate with Rabbi Berman’s staff, and interact with my summertime colleagues Phil Chernofsky, OU Israel Director of Education; David Katz, OU Israel Chief Financial Officer; and Menachem Persoff, OU Israel Director of Programs and Israel Director of OU’s Taglit-Birthright trip (also known as Israel Free Spirit, or IFS).

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As a young woman, it was particularly appealing to participate in a recent addition to OU Israel programming which specifically focuses on the interests of Jewish women, a division called L’Ayla – with the mission “Reaching Higher…Together.” Across the spectrum of observance, I observed Jewish women bonding and forming friendships through artistic expression, humor, life skills and networking, all within the Torah framework. L’Ayla Director Mrs. Rivka Segal, who happens to be my former teacher from She’arim, introduced me to the insight of Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. The Rabbanit has become a regular speaker for the women’s initiative, though she rarely addresses English-speaking audiences. On another occasion, I was able to learn from Chana Rachel Mark, a chef from the Jerusalem Culinary Institute, on the subject of incorporating more leafy greens into one’s diet. She was quite skilled in demonstrating original techniques that resulted in delicious recipes.

One memorable Thursday night, I found myself at The Pearl and Harold Jacobs Outreach Zula Center, a safe alternative for teenagers; at once far removed from the street culture of downtown Jerusalem, but also offering positive social influences. Being from small-town America, and aware of my proverbial rose-colored glasses, I was unsure of what to expect. And yet, I was warmly greeted, and encouraged to join a gathering where young ladies were singing, strumming guitars, playing bongo drums, and enjoying each other’s company. I met many lovely young women that evening, who knew shared the feeling that good company could always be found at Hatzroni’s Zula, as it is popularly referred to.

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I was also privileged to join an IFS trip for a special Bar Mitzvah ceremony held at Masada. The concept of allowing those with limited Jewish education (or who had never been called to the Torah) to experience a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, to select a meaningful Jewish name for themselves (if not previously given), and to reflect upon what it meant to be recognized as an adult member within the Jewish nation, is a special aspect of IFS. There were no girls during this particular trip who wished to participate, so I listened as four young men became Baruch, Aryeh, Aharon, and Yaakov. Their faces, glowing with pride, impressed all of us as they enthusiastically addressed topics of Jewish thought related to personal interests: guarding one’s language, defining leadership, the value of friendship, and the practice of conflict resolution. It was impressive to learn how each of them had voluntarily spent the previous night engaged in study in order to share their new information with their peers.

At Mini Israel, a park of miniature replications of the country’s most recognized landmarks; I joined more than 1,000 Jewish teenagers from across North America participating in NCSY Summer Programs for this year’s Yom NCSY extravaganza. The electricity in the air that night permeated my memory — how I wish I knew about NCSY as a teenager! As a former regional adviser for Upstate New York NCSY, a region that truly is “large enough to be a region, small enough to be a family,” I had tremendous excitement to see my students starry-eyed at creating bonds with other dynamic Jewish teens in the Jewish homeland, to experience the warmth and breadth of Jewish pride and camaraderie on such a grand scale. Oh yes, there was squealing, and hugging — and as the performances continued into the night by members of the Israeli Defense Force Choir and Israeli’s favorite musicians, there was tremendous celebration. We were all kids in a candy store that night – the sweetness of achdut (unity), and the sweetness of excitement for how our future as a nation would be influenced by the passion of this next generation.

My rusty Hebrew became more fluent on the streets; relearning the bus routes of Jerusalem did not leave me running late so often; if I was not visiting with friends or working, I used my time in Jerusalem to simply breathe and reflect on the directions my life has taken — to reflect on who I have become, and where I still wish to go. Walking as much as I could, I visited the Kotel often and took in the sunsets, as glorious as ever.

A month in Eretz Yisrael was the gift bestowed upon me this summer – a month of rewarding opportunities and insight into the inner workings of the Orthodox Union. I felt privileged to be a part of it. In self-reflection, I was also able to trace the path of the dedicated Jewish woman I have become. Returning to work and my desk in New York, it was an object of pride for me to know that at the OU Israel Center, there will always be a desk waiting for me when I can next return.

Batya Graber currently works for the OU Department of Public Relations and is a frequent contributor to the OU’s weekly Shabbat Shalom newsletter. Her previous feature article, What’s in a Name? Everything! describes her personal journey and halachic conversion.

To learn more about the OU’s various programs in Israel, please visit: The Seymour J. Abrams OU Israel Center