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For 'Gesher Girls,' Being Interns Is Bridge to Future

October 8, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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While internships are a common rite of passage for many young adults, for Orthodox teens, it may not be all that simple, since their community faces challenges different from other communities (whether Jewish or not). With these distinctions in mind, the career strategies branch of JEVS Human Services last year launched Gesher L'Machar ("Bridge to the Future"), an internship program aimed specifically at young Orthodox women.

According to JEVS career strategies director Penny Kardon, Gesher came about as an offshoot of the Tuttleman-Lasko Internship Program, which places high school juniors as interns in Jewish organizations during the summer. Kardon said the organizers realized that the Orthodox girls needed a similar program but with a more-tailored approach -- one that took the pressure off of the girls by removing them from a heterogeneous group and was, at heart, more sensitive to religious lifestyle concerns.

"We realized we couldn't really give them everything the other students were getting. They couldn't really partake in the social activities the same way, and they had different ideas as to what they could do as far as a career," said Kardon.

Additional Prep Time
Like their Tuttleman-Lasko counterparts, Gesher interns work at Jewish organizations in the summer months, while also receiving SAT prep time and participating in community-building activities, and lectures and workshops given by female Orthodox professionals. As interns, they receive a stipend, as well as $1,000 once they're enrolled in a four-year college.

The program was initiated with the help of a philanthropic gift from the families of Jerry Stern, and Gary and Vicki Erlbaum. According to outreach coordinator Rhonda Cohen, it was important to make sure every detail of the program fit into the girls' lifestyles.

"In the past, we've put [interns] at a Jewish organization, but with the 'Gesher Girls,' as we call them, we make a point of finding a placement where kashrut is not an issue, and days off for certain holidays that come throughout the year is not an issue," said Cohen.

"It sounded like it was too good to be true," said Yocheved Heyman, age 17. "You work Monday through Wednesday, do SAT prep Thursday and Friday, and get $1,000 when you get into college -- I just kept wondering 'What's the catch?' "

Heyman was one of five inaugural interns, and she spent four weeks this summer working at the Friendship Circle, an organization providing assistance to the families of special-needs children. She helped organize work on the computer and in the storerooms, as well as helping the group prepare for the fall season.

New Sense of Independence
While Heyman enjoyed her work and the time with friends -- she and the other four interns are all students at Torah Academy Girls High School in Wynnewood -- she said one of the biggest benefits for her was the tutoring, which also included some one-on-one help with her math skills. But more than anything, she said she gained a new sense of independence.

"I was on my own; I took a train by myself; I walked there by myself. It was an individual thing that taught me a lot -- me being independent, figuring out what I want to do."

That sense of independence and ability is at the heart of the program, which, it is hoped, will be expanded next year by including 10 or 12 students.

"We're really trying to empower these girls," said Kardon. "We're separating them because we really want to show them all they can do, in a much-more-comfortable setting. Not being involved in coed groups gives us the opportunity to have these girls' ears a little more."

Now a senior, Heyman is trying to decide between spending time in Israel after high school or going directly to college to study social work or physical therapy.

"JEVS is still helping me, even though the whole course is over," she said. "They're still helping me choose what I want to do. They're still sticking with me, and that's really great." 

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