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My Internship Experience at JFNA - Ben Druce

 

It was a cold November morning in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  I looked out the frosty window at tall church spires, grey delivery trucks, wondering if it would snow today.  On the other end of the phone line was a friend from high school, who was studying at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It was the days before Skype, after all, a real long distance phone call… 1AM their time, 7am NJ time.  He was animatedly telling about his night, spent with friends on Ben Yehuda Street, after spending a Shabbat on a kibbutz.  Warily I told him about the all-nighters, how over here I had just attempted to cram 300 pages of Psychology notes into my head for just one morning of testing.  We said our goodbyes – to talk again in maybe a month… it was the days before Skype, after all.

 

Trudging off to Scott Hall, I thought about my group of friends having the time of their life in sunny Israel as I was stuck in college, my teeth chattering in the cold.   I vowed to myself that I would get to Israel somehow, and that I would not get left out again.

 

Spending the year abroad in Israel during the year after high-school is becoming ever-more popular.  As American 18 year olds first began to spend time in Israel, they could choose options like volunteering at a Kibbutz, enrolling in a Talmud program, or getting a spot on the occasional leadership seminar.  Today, there are over 150 MASA affiliated programs (where students can get significant tuition subsidies) and even more non-MASA programs to choose from. After graduating in 2002 from Kushner Yeshiva High school, during the most violent period of the 2nd intifada, more than half of my classmates attended such programs, and many of them stayed for an additional semester or more.  This was a true testament to how popular these programs had become.  I, however, remained in New Jersey. 

 

Luckily, the college student also has many ways to discover Israel.  My chance came again and again, and I attended several programs during my winter breaks from Rutgers University, all subsidized by generous organizations who wanted to train the new generation of leaders.  One of the programs was a leadership training seminar run by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles - they actually flew me out from N.J. to L.A. for an orientation before the long flight to Tel Aviv.  Another program was run by the youth-movement Betar – while not politically-inclined, that may have been my trial by fire to the world of Israeli politics.  During one of my summers I was an intern for successful internet startup Answers.com, through the internship program Yavneh Olami.  When I think about the leadership skills I have accumulated, I often forget how many hours were spent in Jerusalem hotel conference rooms with speakers and interactive workshops.

 

College passed by quickly, and not all the days were as cold or bleak as that November day where I resolved to get to Israel.  Three months after I graduated, I found myself studying in Yeshivat Hamivtar, a seminary where college graduates engage in intense study of traditional Jewish texts.   After spending most of my young life observing traditional Judaism, I wanted to understand the sources in depth.  The program was one of the many that is supported by MASA, which is sponsored by the Jewish Federation and the Office of the Prime Minister.   Through the study and by meeting other students on a similar journey, I began to feel an even stronger connection to the people and land of Israel. 

 

I officially made Aliyah the following year….  I was finally doing it!  What had started off as a feeling of being left out of the party back at Rutgers turned into a journey of self discovery, where I had found friends, teachers, a bright new future and a new home.  I began the Aliyah process.  I learned proper grammar at Ulpan Etzion, then un-learned it all over again during my 6 months in the army.   I had always wanted to direct my career towards helping the Jewish people, and was impressed by the large organizations that ran such big projects that directly influenced me – Birthright, Hillel, the Jewish Agency, to name a few…  this led me to The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which had a hand in so many activities.

Hoping to get my foot in the door of the nonprofit world, a friend showed me JFNA’s internship website, and I shot them an email.

 

I got confused with JAFI (The Jewish Agency for Israel) and JFNA, two four letter acronyms who do work together and also in the same building.  Luckily, the staff looked past my blunder and saw the positives on my CV, and I joined them for a 3 month stint working in the programming and communications departments.

 

At JFNA I learned about how large philanthropic nonprofits use their size to take on very large projects, and combine their fundraising efforts.    Just like large businesses use economies of scale – such as merging together to make their operations bigger and therefore more efficient, JFNA acts as a convener between the 157 federations in North America to bring their resources together.  I worked with Managing director of Program and Planning, Lee Perlman, on a paper that gave examples of how federations convene and collaborate, using both theories from classic non-profit texts that Lee provided, and anecdotal experience provided through interviewing the professionals who worked on these projects. 

 

A highlight of the internship was visiting the Knesset.  I had visited the Knesset many times before through my leadership training courses in college, but visiting with JFNA was my first visit as a professional.  The purpose of the visit was to brief a group of journalists and advisors on the Jewish community in North America.   We gave the delegation a resource packet that I had complied, and they were briefed by both Federation staff and outside speakers such as Deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon and MK Yuli Edelstein.  The delegates were also briefed on cultural differences – for example, in Israel, during a meeting, it is common to see the participants fiddling or even talking on mobile phones.  The delegates were surprised to hear that in the United States, this would be interpreted as rude or indifferent behavior.

 

 

The people of JFNA are a diverse bunch, but to me, typified down-to earth excellence that made working with them a pleasure. Lee Perlman was my direct supervisor.  Concurrently pursuing a Phd in film, Lee often used the strangest industry jargon, but always took time to explain his new favorite word, whether it was co-opetition, or intrapeneurship.   He would often call me into his office for an impromptu brainstorming session, and we would bounce ideas off each other.  Despite being at different ends of spectrum in seniority, Lee would welcome and encourage opposing opinions.

 

Linda Epstein, Associate VP of the Chicago Federation, and Barbara Promislow, head of the UIA, worked with me on the developing a proposal for a new fund.  Both were clear and specific about the realistic expectations for the fund, and as a result, no time was wasted and no words spared.  The proposal had to be very carefully worded, and Linda’s background in law and considerable experience helped direct my writing and research in an efficient manner.

 

I shared an office with Naama Moshkovitz, Office and Finance Manager; it was clear that much of what went on in the office was supported by her work.  I continue to be impressed how immediately she took care of any task that went her way, and plan to hire her at any cost when I start my own business.  I also enjoyed practicing my Hebrew with her and showing off the slang I learned in the army.  During the first week at JFNA, I got to meet the entire staff, and I continue to meet with CEO Becky Caspi regularly to catch up and discuss the challenges that face the ever-changing organized philanthropic world.

 

I found my time at JFNA to be an eye-opening experience, and would recommend it to anyone with aspirations in the Non-Profit sector.

Ben, intern at JFNA, immigrating to Israel with Nefesh b'Nefesh
Ben making aliya
ben, intern at JFNA, volunteering
Ben doing army service 
Ben, intern at JFNA, Israel & Overseas