Despite COVID restrictions, Pittsburgh students enjoy Onward Israel internships
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Despite COVID restrictions, Pittsburgh students enjoy Onward Israel internships

COVID tests and masks on public transportation are required, but that has little impact on the students in the program's Pittsburgh cohort

Some of the students from Onward Israel's Pittsburgh cohort in Haifa (Photo courtesy of Etan Cohn)
Some of the students from Onward Israel's Pittsburgh cohort in Haifa (Photo courtesy of Etan Cohn)

Onward Israel: Pittsburgh, the local branch of a heavily subsidized program allowing university students to travel to Israel for high-level summer internships, is up and running in person again after last summer’s program had to be conducted virtually because of the pandemic.

The 29 participants in Onward Israel’s Pittsburgh cohort are either native Pittsburghers or attend a university in Pittsburgh. They are paired with an Israeli company based upon their skills, professional interests and future plans.

The program was first established in 2012 under the umbrella of the Jewish Agency for Israel, but is now an independent U.S.-based nonprofit. It was conceived by Pittsburgher Cindy Shapira while she served on the strategic planning committee of the board of the Jewish Agency under the leadership of Natan Sharansky.

The Pittsburgh branch of Onward Israel is one of the first to return to in-person internships for the 2021 summer session, according to organizers, and, because of the ongoing pandemic, precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of participants.

Before boarding their plane to Israel, students were required to be fully vaccinated and tested for COVID within 72 hours of their flight. They were then tested for COVID again at the airport upon arrival in Israel, and required to quarantine until they received confirmation of a negative test result.

After these precautions were taken, members of the Onward Israel: Pittsburgh cohort were allowed to attend their internships in-person, without social distancing protocols, although masks on public transportation have been required.

Members of the Pittsburgh are interning for a broad range of companies and nonprofits. Sam Meyers, a rising junior at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, is interning as a Hebrew-English translator with a nonprofit called Paamonim, which helps Israelis with financial literacy. Etan Cohn, a rising junior at Carnegie Mellon University, is working in the field of data science for Myndlift, a company that makes neurofeedback therapy more accessible by offering it to patients remotely from their own homes.

Cohn said the COVID restrictions in the Jewish state have been manageable so far.

“We need to wear masks sometimes, for example on buses,” he told the Chronicle. “Other than these travel restrictions, Israel’s pandemic restrictions have barely influenced the trip. Israel has relaxed many mask requirements early on in the trip, and tightened them a little bit with the risks from the delta variant. For us, that means wearing the masks during bus rides and at some restaurants, but not much more than that.”

Onward Israel: Pittsburgh departed on June 9 and is set to return on Aug. 3. In addition to working at their internships, the participants have toured Masada and the Dead Sea, the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. Going to the Kinneret and staying at a Kibbutz for a night were also on the itinerary.

“Thanks to the phenomenal work and dedication of the Onward Israel team, even during such challenging conditions that we’ve experienced in the pandemic, our students were still able to have meaningful and productive internships and Jewish education opportunities,” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC, who helps facilitate programming for Onward Israel: Pittsburgh. “Hillel JUC is so proud of the Onward Israel program and is grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for allowing us to provide our students with this remarkable program.”

Onward Israel is heavily subsidized by the Jewish Agency, the Beacon and Shapira Foundations, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Onward Israel: Pittsburgh is organized by Sachlav. PJC

Sarah Abrams can be reached at sabrams@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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