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Life changes

Aya Inbar Shechter: Labors of love

Sometimes finding yourself means refining and redefining yourself, changing and chiseling and reformatting, step by logical step, until you end up as someone you never thought you’d be – but it’s the real you.

Case in point – Aya Inbar Shechter of Cliffside Park, who at 32 is a biotechnologist-turned lawyer-turned small nonprofit CEO-turned head of Israel Connection at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Schechter was born in Kiryat Ono, close to Tel Aviv. She always was drawn to the sciences, she recalls – as a child, she wanted to become a doctor – but once she got out of the army and began thinking about college, she shifted her sights to biotechnology. It was 2001, Israeli high-tech ventures were booming, and biotech “was the hottest thing around,” she said.

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Aya Shechter works at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades now.

Shechter earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Bar Ilan University, and stayed on there to get a master’s in biotechnology. At the same time, she enrolled in night school at a local college and earned a second undergraduate degree, this one in law. (Unlike the system in the United States, where the entry-level degree for lawyers is a JD, earned with three years of graduate study, in Israel lawyers can begin with a bachelor’s in law.)

“I wanted to be a patent lawyer,” she said. “My original idea was to combine my knowledge in biotechnology and law.”

But there was a problem. Israel was oversupplied with attorneys.

“I knew that the Israeli market for lawyers was very crowded, so I looked for something that would give me an edge,” Shechter said. “So I decided to come to New York, to take the New York State bar exam.” Because so much patent work in Israel is international, that “would give me an edge over other young attorneys.”

Shechter came to New York in 2006; she lived with relatives in Fair Lawn. Her plan was to pass the bar and then go back to Israel, but she had to take a bar review course, and there she met “a guy, an Israeli American guy, who helped me study, and today he is my husband.”

Aya and Jonathan Shechter married in 2009. That was wonderful, of course, but it demanded a change in plans. “I had either to find a job or to go back to school,” she said. “I needed to figure out what to do.”

The problem was that although she had passed the bar, her lack of a graduate law degree made her anomalous and, therefore, hard to hire. She enrolled at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law for a one-year program for an LLM in intellectual property. (An LLM is an advanced law degree that often is awarded to foreign students in situations similar to hers.) She also began an internship with an Israeli law firm in New York; after she graduated, she worked there full time.

Through the law firm – the oddly named Shiboleth – “I started getting to know people who work with Israelis and Israeli-related organizations, and I got more and more involved in the amazing world of Jewish nonprofits,” Shechter said.

She became an active volunteer with a new group called Dor Chadash (New Generation), an organization created “to bring young Americans and Israelis together to create meaningful relationships with Israel.” Soon she was chairing committees, and eventually she joined its board. “Every time I left a Dor Chadash meeting, I felt so good – there was such great energy, such good feelings – that I told myself that I want to do that for a living.

“I wanted to do that every day.”

Realizing that, Shechter left the practice of law to become Dor Chadash’s executive director. She kept that job for two years, and then, deciding that she wanted to “learn more about the organized Jewish world,” and that “the JCC would be a good place to do that,” she took the job she holds now.

She remained as board chair of Dor Chadash for another few years. Her odyssey from volunteer to lay leader to professional leader to lay leader is unusual, and has provided her with valuable and rare insights into the workings of a grassroots nonprofit from every vantage point.

Now, at the JCC, she can draw on experiences from a wealth of fields, reaching as far back as her army days. Her job then, as a noncommissioned officer, was to act as liaison between soldiers who come from impoverished backgrounds, and the social services to which they and their families were entitled. That job took intuition and tact, as well as organizational skills.

At the JCC, Shechter works with both Israelis and Americans, providing Israelis contact with their home culture, to which many yearn to stay connected, and giving the Americans a firsthand look at that culture. There is a large and growing Israeli community centered in northeastern Bergen County, and her department works to help its members both fit into their new home and keep their ties to their old one strong.

She also undertook a new volunteer project. She is a founding member and vice chair of Moatza Mekomit New York – an umbrella organization that is the tristate area’s local council for Israelis.

Aya and Jonathan Shechter now have two young daughters, and they hope one day to move back to Israel. Aya Shechter says that she does not miss biotech or the law, although certainly she uses many of the skills she learned as an attorney. “But I really believe that whatever you study stays with you,” she said. “And the work that you do for a nonprofit, the work that you really believe in and love, is more than work.

“It’s a mission. It’s what I’m going to do with my life. I am going to try to serve Israel in any way that I can, from wherever I am.”

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