JEWISH EXPONENT — Every summer, JEVS hosts the Franklin C. Ash Summer Internship Program and Lasko College Prep Program. These signature programs allow for high school and college students to get hands-on experience in Jewish organizations. But, thanks to COVID-19, this will be a vastly different summer experience than what was planned.

“When we came to the realization that this is was happening, there was a lot of concern about how we were going to make these internships happen,” JEVS Career Strategies Director Peggy Truitt said. “We even discussed canceling them altogether. But after discussing it with our generous donors, we decided to make it work in whatever way was possible.”

While JEVS began to build out a virtual internship program, it knew that not everyone would be willing to give up the hands-on experience for a digital one. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, JEVS immediately began reaching out to the accepted students and the placement organizations to see if they still wanted to participate, and were pleasantly surprised to hear that everyone wanted to move forward in some shape or form.

For Rhonda Cohen, administrator of community relations at JEVS Career Strategies, this enthusiasm is a reflection on the strength of the program.

“The Jewish organizations just know that our interns are great,” she said. “So, they didn’t want to give up the opportunity to have their intern this summer. They have been amazing at coming up with projects the interns can do at home. It’s not going to be the same, but they are delighted to have them, and the students are grateful to retain a paid internship.”

She noted that, due to the ailing economy, many of the interns’ friends had lost their internships and summer job opportunities.

The Ash and Lasko internship programs expose students to real-life work experiences, while also providing them the opportunity to practice Jewish values through volunteer opportunities and mitzvah projects throughout the Philadelphia region. The placements are highly competitive: JEVS usually gets about 50-60 applicants for 14 spots and one Brandeis fellow. Every summer provides the interns with valuable lessons and relationships that they will carry with them into their next steps. The internships are made possible by Frank Ash, the Lasko Family Foundation and many other generous supporters.

Even though this is a different experience, the interns are still enthused. For Elyse Goldstein, a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin, she feels incredibly fortunate to spend her summer working remotely with her JEVS placement.

“I am extremely excited to work with JEVS this summer because I feel that their values resonate with me,” she said. “I appreciate that they are continuing the program even during this challenging time. The JEVS community seems extremely passionate about their mission and so far, and everyone has been so welcoming towards me already. I am eager to continue learning more.”

In a typical summer, the interns would work 28 hours a week. But this summer, most are working 15-25. There is a challenge to fill these extra hours, particularly for the high school students who are placed at camps and JCCs or at the Jewish Federation’s Mitzvah Food and where it is not possible to do
remote work.

“This was a huge challenge for us — how do we fill this time with meaningful experiences?” Cohen said. “What we thought was to replace that time during the week with some sort of community service or other types of panel discussions. We’ve been coming up with different ideas to replace that time, and our partners have really stepped up to help.”

In these extra hours, JEVS is offering much of their same programming but just doing it over Zoom. Throughout the summer, they will continue to host career panels with people from different HR departments to discuss what they’re looking for in first jobs. They will also hold mock online interviews for jobs, which both Cohen and Truitt noted could very well be how interviews are conducted in the future.

“We actually are finding that we are offering an enhanced internship experience for these kids,” Truitt remarked. “Because we’re doing everything online, we can offer even more programs to our interns, such as hearing from Holocaust speakers and doing programs focused on food insecurity. We’re also doing a new program with Challah for Hunger where everyone will bake challah in their own homes. Overall, our interns are getting more exposure to their Jewish
communities than during a normal summer.”

Cohen added that JEVS has had so much success with doing programs on Zoom that it will be moving many programs to the platform in the future. For example, JEVS would normally take its school students to visit two college campuses in one day of the program. But now they’re able to visit multiple campuses virtually, and the students have the chance to discuss the pros and cons and other elements they normally wouldn’t be able to.

Also changed is the mentor-mentee program, where the Ash interns would mentor the Lasko interns about college.

“In the past, they would only meet face-to-face on one or two occasions, since not everyone lived near each other,” Truitt explained. “But this year it’s all over Zoom or on the phone or text. They can now have a more structured relationship and find out even more about the college experience, the good and bad, meal plans etc. Doing it virtually allows them to get mentored better and more personally.”

Every year, the Ash and Lasko programs at JEVS helps to ensure local youths are prepared for the future. But after this summer, the participants may be even better prepared for a digital and virtual working world then the rest of us.

“These kids are on Zoom all day; they’ve accepted the new normal,” Cohen said, with a laugh. “It’s the adults we’ve had to train.”

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