Jonathan Willis came from a "pretty secular Jewish family, with a typical Reform upbringing," in Sacramento. Today, at 27, he is in his third year of rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
For Willis, the road from Jewish marginality to spirituality and activism started in Israel, where he spent a year on Project Otzma, a 10-month whirlwind service tour of the Jewish state.
Visiting Israel for the first time, and experiencing Jewish life there, pushed him squarely in the direction of the rabbinate, he said. "It was the intense feeling of the oneness of the Jewish people. It really hits home in Israel on Shabbat or when the country shuts down for Jewish holidays."
Willis said the Otzma program not only defined his career path but made him a "happier person, more centered."
He attributed the change mainly to a stint tutoring Ethiopian students, a period he said made him realize he could truly make a difference in people's lives.
Working in youth villages has been only one part of the typical Otzma trip, which also has included intensive Hebrew study on a kibbutz, a stay at an immigrant absorption center, time on a moshav, and optional tracks volunteering for the Israeli army or working with disadvantaged and handicapped children and seniors.
Many participants have taken a similar path to that of Willis, who is among at least 800 young American Jews who have graduated from the Peace Corps-style program since its inception 10 years ago.
In fact, most Otzma alumni have flown in the face of the image of Generation X Jews as overwhelmingly detached from their religion. And while Jewish leaders wonder how to solve the problems of intermarriage and alienation in that age group, many Otzmaniks have been quietly working long hours at Jewish schools and camps, forgoing graduate school for rabbinical school, and even making aliyah (immigrating to Israel).
Nearly 80 percent of them have volunteered for Jewish causes, and countless returnees have been tripping over each other to get the limited number of jobs in Jewish communal service.
"You come back with an in-your-gut, in-your-kishkes understanding of Israel. At the risk of being overly dramatic, it really is life-changing," said Elliot Brandt, 26, who participated four years ago.
Brandt, who works for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in San Francisco, is one of about 300 Otzma alumni now on staff at Jewish agencies nationally, according to a survey conducted three years ago by the University of Haifa.
That means 40 percent of Otzma participants have been spending at least some part of their careers as communal workers.
Otzma, now a joint venture between the Israeli Forum and North American Jewish Federations, got its start in the Bay Area more than a decade ago, when Rabbi Brian Lurie, then executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, created the concept.
Lurie, now executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal, planned to create a Jewish program modeled on the Peace Corps. Hospitals, schools, remote border settlements and community centers would benefit from the otzma — Hebrew for strength — of America's best and brightest young Jews. Meanwhile, the young Jews would be required to give a year of service to their own Jewish community upon returning.
Since the beginning of the program, the S.F.-based JCF has sponsored one of the nation's largest Otzma delegations through its Overseas Committee.
The Bay Area, however, is about to lose one of its many Otzma alumni. Anna Miller Aboutboul, 27, a public affairs officer at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, loved Israel so much she is making it her permanent home.
In October, Aboutboul; her Israeli husband, Erik; and their 3-week-old-daughter, Roni, will make aliyah. After tasting life in Israel, she says, she's compelled to return.
"Here, you have to make your life Jewish. There, every day is Jewish. Friday, you walk in the street and everybody says, `Shabbat shalom.' It's subtle things, like mezzuzahs on the doors at the mall. You smell the holidays in the air before they come," said Aboutboul.
Many Otzmaniks agreed they have worked to maintain a Jewish life here in the Bay Area. Brandt, who served the JCF before joining AIPAC, has attended services every Friday night and worked at keeping kosher.
Fellow Otzmanik Lisa Apfelberg said that after leading a "very non-Jewish life," growing up in Palo Alto, Shabbat has become an oasis in her week. "When I have a bad day, I think, at least I have Shabbat. It means so much to me now," she said.
These days, Apfelberg works in Palo Alto for the Senior Coordinating Council, a secular agency. When she returned from Israel two years ago, she was determined to find full-time employment working for a Jewish agency.
Unfortunately, she reported, so was everyone else.
Unable to find a paid position in the Jewish community, she began volunteering as a docent at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. She also has been teaching a Russian family English and helping them adapt to American life each week through Jewish Family and Children's Services, where she said she dreamed of finding employment.
"After we came back, we would get together and people felt like, after all we've done, it was hard and frustrating to not get more of a welcome from the Jewish community," said Apfelberg, who is now active in Otzma's alumni association.
Seeking to help Otzma graduates find Bay Area jobs, this year the alumni have been sending out letters to local Jewish agencies on behalf of returning Otzma participants. In addition, alumni newsletters, mentor programs and frequent get-togethers have been implemented to help ease the transition back to life in the states.
Many have returned to find that the only positions available in the Jewish community are volunteer slots. Volunteering is fine, said alumni, but many Otzma returnees have arrived in the Bay Area unemployed, without apartments and flat broke.
Local coordinator Shalva Sorani, who administers the program through the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, said financial considerations are beginning to affect the program in other ways.
This summer, for example, fewer than 100 young people are expected to participate in the project, compared to about 120 two years ago.
With a tight job market and a larger number of students saddled with college loans, fewer people are willing to take a year off without pay, said Sorani. More students are going straight into the job market or to graduate school. Others who would have liked to participate in Otzma have had trouble bankrolling the year.
The cost of participation has dramatically increased since Otzma's first year, when $250 paid for the whole trip, excluding airfare. Now, the fee is $1,850. Factoring in airfare and spending money, the trip could cost up to $5,000, said Sorani.
In the Bay Area, the Koret Foundation has been providing scholarships to help defray those costs, but Sorani is still worried that the prospect of not earning for a year leaves young people nervously clutching their student loans.
In her recruiting, Sorani has been trying to convince students they aren't just checking out of reality for a year but actually making themselves more marketable.
Whether or not that's true, what seems clear is that Otzmaniks are coming back emotionally — if not fiscally — stronger than when they left. Most said they wouldn't think of swapping their year in the Jewish state for a year's worth of pay stubs.
Aaron Goldsmith went on Otzma 10 years ago when the program began. He was 21 then, and describes himself as a sloppy, shy and confused student struggling with a hearing impairment.
Now he's the national director of Otzma in New York. The year in Israel "woke me up and got me back on track," he said, noting that the experience bolstered his confidence.
"Everyone who goes on Otzma, comes back transformed," he added.