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Without jobs in U.S., college grads are finding opportunities in Israel

NEW YORK (JTA) — In her final months as a political science major at the University of Pittsburgh, Susanna Zlotnikov had a positive outlook about landing a job.

But as the months passed and her network of contacts led only to dead ends, Zlotnikov decided she needed a backup. Instead of spending the summer after her May graduation sending out more resumes, Zlotnikov took a pair of internships and moved to Israel.

It worked out well: In November she expects to be starting a full-time job in Israel as grants coordinator with Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based humanitarian organization that provides cardiac surgery for children from the developing world.

With the U.S. economy still sputtering, a growing number of college graduates are turning to Israel programs to bridge their educational and professional careers. In many cases, these young American Jews are drawn to the programs not out of Zionist sensibilities but because they’re looking for workplace experience or seeking a way to do something Jewish. Some are even finding jobs in Israel and staying.

After losing a job in Hollywood, Jessica Fass decided to go on a Birthright Israel trip and then stayed in the country for an extra month. Upon returning to the United States, Fass felt as if she were in culture shock and kept thinking about returning to Israel. She decided to do an internship through WUJS Israel Hadassah, which helps college graduates find opportunities in Israel.

“It seemed like the perfect time go,” she said.

Within six months, Fass had found a full-time job in Israel and now is working in marketing for a company in Tel Aviv, which she described as being like Los Angeles “but with Hebrew.” Fass said she was surprised to find how much more willing Israelis were to take a chance on a new hire.

“I don’t think that would have happened in the States because I had no experience in marketing,” she said.

Organizations that bring Jewish youth to Israel are trying to capitalize on the bleak job prospects for college graduates in the United States, and programs that offer internships in Israel say they have seen a spike in applicants since the recession hit in 2008.

“I remember in 2008 when our numbers skyrocketed,” said Amy Gross, the program recruiter at WUJS Israel Hadassah. “It’s mostly recent college graduates because they have trouble finding a job, but they want to experience Israel as well.”

WUJS offers five-month internships in Israel. Participants also have weekly trips to explore the country, Hebrew classes twice a week and immersion in Israeli culture.

MASA Israel, which helps place Diaspora Jews in long-term Israel programs, created a program called A Better Stimulus Plan targeted at recent college graduates looking for internship opportunities in Israel while they wait out the economic troubles in the U.S. Avi Rubel, MASA’s North American director, says about 1,800 participants are doing post-college internship experiences — double the rate of recent years.

“So many grads are at a loss because there aren’t opportunities and they need to find ways to differentiate themselves to get the jobs that are there,” Rubel told JTA. “For young Jewish students, coming to Israel gives them career development experience, which is likely more substantive than one in the States. In Israel you will end up in the mix of interesting things instead of making coffee.”

Roselle Feldman had just returned to the United States from a Birthright Israel trip before the economy collapsed. She had been scheduled to teach more than 30 hip-hop classes at dance studios in Massachusetts, but the market crashed and her gigs disappeared.

Instead of filing for unemployment, she hopped on a plane to Israel for MASA Israel’s Dance Journey, a five-month program for international dancers aged 18 to 30 in the western Galilee. She received training from the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, and at the end of the program Feldman was invited to audition for a spot with the dance company.

“I loved every second of it,” she told JTA. “There’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s such a unique experience. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could afford it.”

Now she is back in Massachusetts, teaching dance as the director of her own performance company, Intensity Dance Company. Soon she hopes to be teaching at a Jewish school — a desire she credits to her experience in Israel.

Jesse Zryb, who graduated recently from Tulane University with a master’s degree in architecture, also decided to sign up for MASA after a job he had been promised in Manhattan disappeared when his company merged with another firm. The guarantee of work experience was why he joined the program, he said. Through MASA, he was hired as an intern at Stav Architects in Ramat Gan, just outside of Tel Aviv.

Zryb said he thinks the program made him more attractive to potential employers back home. Soon after finishing the four-month program, he was hired as a designer at Pink Powered by Moss, a fabric design firm in New York.

“It kept me fresh, especially considering that back home any kind of employment was uncertain,” he said of his Israeli internship. “I think it certainly looked good that I was being proactive during the situation and that I was keeping active during the recession. Keeping yourself fresh was important at the time.”

Plus, Zryb added, “I had a great experience there.”