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Independently Powerful – Otzma XXVI Group Graduation

"You are tomorrow’s leaders, serving the Jewish people. At Jewish Federations, we honor your service to Israel, and celebrate your work to help the global Jewish community." Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America saluted the group of outgoing Otzma participants at an evening graduation held at the JFNA Israel headquarters, June 11, 2012. Via video link, Silverman expressed his sincere gratitude to the group for their year of service.

28 graduates from Otzma XXVI had come together to celebrate their nine months program in Israel. The ranks included 19 participants from the classic program and 9 Israel Teaching Fellowship participants. Present were teachers, internship advisors, P2K colleagues, and adoptive families, all abuzz with the enjoyment of meeting up with friends and having final formal goodbyes before the formal closure to the year.

Hailing from 18 different cities across the States, each Otzma participant had their own individual experience, which they shared with the group. Many had chosen to come on the program as part of their professional development, others to cultivate a stronger connection with the country: said one participant, "We are coming back more well-rounded, with clearer links to Israel, our homeland."

Otzma's selection process is very rigorous, "We know we're getting the best," says Dganit Jenshil, Otzma Israel CEO. Sarah Cohen, Otzma Israel staff noted, "Generally at the beginning, the common similarities are ambition and excitement about being in Israel. At the end, we know that the connection forged with the group is strong." After moving out from their accommodation, the participants spent their last five days of the program together on a trip up North.

The evening was full of good cheer and the warmth exhibited between the adoptive families and the Otzma participants was testament to the closeness of the bonds forged over the year. Language was no barrier for the American-Israeli group as all cheered when each student received their graduation certification from the program. Catch a glimpse of one of the great videos shown.

Participants spoke of the work they'd been doing and of the highlights they'd enjoyed. Ilana spent her first few months in Carmiel, working in a soup kitchen and planning a carnival for new immigrants in an absorption center. Michael and Alexander spent weeks volunteering for the IDF with Sar-El, bonding and developing a sense of camaraderie. June, who spent time in Cleveland's partner city, Beit Shean, was enveloped by hugs from her host family after speaking. June has loved her time so much she's moving back to Beit Shean this summer.

Dganit gave words to the full range of their experiences this year. "You are now sitting in the room where Chaim Weitzman sat. When you go back to the States, you'll be able to say, "I was here at the same time as the social protests, Arab Spring, return of Gilad Shalit, Beit Shemesh riots, missiles in the south, hadarat nashim.""

Billy lived in Jerusalem and interned at the New Israel Fund. "It was a very transformative experience for me. I've gone from the person least likely to stay to the person least likely to leave." Billy credited Erica, one of Otzma Israel's key team members, for the reasons she'd stayed.

Many links between American and Israeli communities were strengthened over the year. Ariella spent her time in Chicago's partner city, Kiryat Gat, otherwise known as 'K Gat', working with MDA as a medic. Grace spoke of Netivot, twinned with Philadelphia and her home for the year, as a "synonym for community."

Yossi Rosner-Wachs, CFO of JFNA Israel, shared his hopes that the time had enabled the participants to connect meaningfully with Israel, their home for a year, and that they would maintain that connection on their return to America, if not cultivate it further. "Otzma is a gateway to the philanthropy world in the Federations. It has an active alumni group and Otzma channels opportunities for internships in Federations."

From Perry's words, it is clear that the group will maintain that connection. Perry, who lived in Haifa, Boston's partnership city and involved himself with the local women's shelter and the local old people's home, stressed that "The love we received from everyone here was incredible." The Otzma program continues to enable each participant to flourish, independently, intensifying each person's skills, creating a fresh community of engaged leaders in America.

"I'm just so proud of them. And they should be proud of themselves," said one adoptive parent, as she left.