ALUMNI SERIES: Inspiring growth, one organization at a time

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By NOA AMOUYAL

While venturing into her first real job as a young adult, Orit Mizner was unprepared for the way her stint as a Jewish camp counselor in Russia in 1996 would dramatically change the trajectory of her life. Her time in the country showed her the importance of building and empowering a vibrant global Jewish community beyond Israel’s borders and made her determined to not only dedicate herself to enhancing Jewish communities outside of Israel, but also using what she learned from these communities to grow both personally and professionally.

Newsletter OritToday, after over two decades working in both the non- and for-profit sectors, Mizner is Chief Operating Officer at Momentum — an organization that empowers Jewish parents (primarily mothers) to elevate their homes and communities through Jewish values and connection to Israel. Previously, she served as Chief Program Officer at itrek, Senior Director of National Programs at the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and Chief Project Officer at the Israel Innovation Institute.

Mizner sat down with American Society of the University of Haifa to discuss her time at the University, where she earned her BA in Political Science and Criminology; the challenges the Jewish world faces today; and why Jewish non-profit work is so appealing to her.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself — where did you grow up and what made you want to enroll at University of Haifa?

I was born and raised in Katzrin, which is in the Golan. Like most people in the North, Haifa was the closest major university. My two older sisters also went to Haifa. So, it was an easy and only choice. It also helped that they had a good program for political science and criminology, which were the topics I wanted to study, so there was no need to venture out.

What skills/knowledge did you gain at the university that put you on a path to success?

Before enrolling at the University, I was a Jewish Agency emissary in England. When it was time to start studying at the University, I made the decision to study something I am interested in, even if it would not influence my career choice. And so, I chose to study Political Science and Criminology, and I loved it.

I really appreciated that University of Haifa recognized the fact that I already had some professional experience. As such, they allowed me to propel forward instead of backwards. That meant that some professors allowed me to do extra credit work or enroll in classes that typically weren’t open to freshman and sophomore students. They supported my studies and helped with a demanding schedule when I worked full-time in my junior year. They recognized that I wasn’t fresh out of the army, but someone who already had a professional foundation and my unique needs.

You’ve held several influential positions for prominent organizations in the Jewish world. Why did you decide to work in this field?

Ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to make an impact that will make positive changes to people’s lives. And as mentioned, the Jewish world has appealed to me since I was 18, when I went to be a camp counselor in Russia in 1996. There, I discovered the importance of a robust Jewish life outside of Israel — that is not to be taken for granted. I liked that it demands strategic thinking, partnerships and creativity, and it got me hooked and impacted me and my life in a meaningful way. It allowed me to pursue more professional opportunities working with a broad community of people that I otherwise would not have been exposed to had I stayed in Israel. As a result, I had an opportunity from The Jewish Agency for Israel to be an emissary in northern England for two years. I knew that school could wait, and I’d even get more out of my education if I had meaningful experience under my belt.

My time in the U.K. was an eye-opening experience. I learned what it means to be Jewish and not just Israeli. I loved the fact that I can grow merely by being exposed and working with people who are different from me. It’s something that enjoy today as well, and I believe it makes me a stronger leader. This time in my life helped me discover different layers of my personality that I probably wouldn’t have acknowledged if I stayed in my comfort zone in Israel. My work at The Jewish Agency involved heading the training program for emissaries, and I also managed Jewish Agency communities, which helped me understand certain trends in the Jewish world. And I was able to hone in on my leadership skills.

I soon realized that if I want to grow as a leader, I need to diversify the tools in my toolkit and engage with different fields in the for-profit and non-profit sectors in Israel. It also worked well with my curious and versatile personality. As such, I took a break from the Jewish world and worked in a few different organizations in Israel so I could gain new knowledge, strategies, methods and language, and I also engaged in learning. For example, I completed a course in corporate social responsibility and another one in public relations. At the Israel Innovation Institute, for instance, I wanted to learn more about entrepreneurs’ way of work and innovation processes, and implement that expertise for Jewish non-profits.

Eight years ago, I moved back to Jewish non-profit work, and moved to the United States, where I worked with the Israeli-American Council and later itrek.

Now, I’m the COO of Momentum. It’s important for me to position myself to be in a role where I am most impactful, but also grow as a person. I decided to join Momentum because it’s a growing organization and their mission of empowering Jewish parents — usually mothers — to elevate their homes and communities through Jewish values is an inspiring one that can be scaled in myriad ways.

What are the biggest challenges Jewish organizations are facing today? Any suggestions to address these challenges?

At this point in time, I recognize two major challenges. The first is internal to the Jewish community and the second has to do with allyship.

I think Jewish organizations and institutions are facing a crisis in Jewish identity and how to hold Jewish and universal values together for the younger generation. We need to reimagine and build relevant spaces to address that. For many years, we focused on the question of who is included in the Jewish tent, and while it is somewhat important, we also need to focus on what is actually happening within the tent. We need to work to build a positive sense of Jewish identity while still allowing people to hold other identities that are important to them. Jewish organizations need to identify the different assets we have, including Jewish teaching, experiences, innovative programming and helping people create meaningful opportunities for kids, teens, young adults, parents and communities to engage with their Jewish heritage and empower them to have space for it in the present and future.

If the past eight months have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t continue avoid this conversation, or believe that positive impactful Jewish identity and living will just happen by itself. This is complex work that demands groundbreaking solutions and innovative thinking, but we need to start doing the work. There are amazing initiatives already happening, we need to learn it, share knowledge, build partnerships and work across the different organizations.

Ever since October 7, it has been clear that Israel and the Jewish community didn’t do a great job in building allies with organizations and communities outside the Jewish world. There is a very loud silence we’ve experienced for the past eight months, which should be used as a warning sign for all of us. Jewish communities, local Jewish organizations, Jewish umbrella organizations and others need to focus efforts on building relationships with moderate Jewish communities and organizations near them. I believe that building long-term relationships that will result in deep knowledge and understanding will increase willingness to speak up, to care. While we are so resilient, and we know how to rebuild ourselves, we can’t do it alone, nor should we need to.

What brought you to Momentum?

The short answer is Momentum’s mission and unique value proposition, empowering Jewish mothers to lead our Jewish future. For me, this is the best answer to the rise in antisemitism and hatred towards Israel. In some ways, it’s a prevention organization. Momentum instills a sense of belonging and meaning to Jewish life in parents’ homes and eventually, in their communities at-large. We are giving women spaces to unlock their leadership with other likeminded mothers, so they can feel confidence to stand with Israel and the Jewish community in their own way. One of Momentum’s goals is unity without uniformity, and it’s not a slogan. It’s a decision that influences our ability to work with a diverse Jewish community, allowing people to come together around shared values, heritage and traditions while celebrating a variety of voices. Being a part of such an organization is important for me, even more so post-October 7.

Momentum is also growing. Having an opportunity to bring my skills and knowledge to support it grow even more and increasing its impact, while growing and developing myself, is exciting.

Have you had a chance to be on any of Momentum’s missions to Israel yet? If so, what stood out to you?

During my first week on the job, I actually joined a Momentum trip. What stood out to me most was the energy that is created on these trips. Mothers — who hail from all over the world — allow themselves to be vulnerable and present. They listen to their peers without judgment and ask difficult questions in a safe space. The Momentum journey allows individuals to connect meaningfully and elevate one another. To see these relationships grow and flourish has been inspiring.