By: Aliza Naiman | Features  | 

How I Made $125 Talking About Israel

“You all have only one thing in common,” she said, as she looked at the seven nervous members of the conference room and tossed the door shut behind her. Loving this dramatic start, I absorbed the room. One wall had a window facing NYC, another a one-way mirror, and cameras were positioned above every seat; the room had a modern-day Twelve Angry Men vibe. Or maybe that’s my overactive imagination. Alternatively, one could imagine that the power-suited woman in the crocodile leather office chair seated at the front of the table was about to reveal something appalling; a real Mr. Poirot scenario. Or maybe that’s my affinity for Agatha Christie. Someone sneezed, and her folded paper name card scooted forward on the mahogany table. Not a “bless you” was offered.

The unknown number had lit up my screen while I was at work, and I had silenced my phone. The caller, a Mr. Garvey, left a voice message, stating that he was calling from Focus Pointe Global to invite me to a focus group the next day. I would be reimbursed $125 for my time, and he requested that I call him back so that we could proceed with a questionnaire that would confirm if I was indeed a candidate. I had no knowledge of a focus group’s function, Focus Pointe Global, or this Mr. Garvey. The only things I was certain of were his proper pronunciation of my name, an occurrence unusual without initial correction, and how fine that $125 sounded. So, naive at worst, up for an adventure at best, I called back.

To assuage my initial skepticism of the legitimacy of the call, Mr. Garvey explained his company’s function. Focus Pointe Global is a marketing company that assists organizations and companies in gaining unbiased, productive data regarding population interest and perceptions of their product or idea before it proceeds to production. A focus group, the assembly of a diverse group of individuals with no prior knowledge of the subject, media, or product being researched, is a mode in which market research companies like FPG provide such feedback to their clients.

Mr. Garvey was ready to continue on to the questionnaire portion of the phone call. The questions were posed in ascending agreement order, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” At first, they seemed like general protocol necessary to ascertain if I would be an asset to such an environment: “Do you consider yourself a people person?” “Are you quick to form opinions?” “Do your friends consider you to be an outgoing individual?” Yes, no, yes. We moved on. “Do you consider yourself Jewish?” “Have you visited Israel within the last five years for over three months?” “How likely would you be to pursue a degree or residency in Israel?” As the questions dropped their initial format, I grew confused. I certainly had never signed up or created a profile on the company’s website, and yet Mr. Garvey had known my name, number and, in some indirect capacity, my religious affiliation.

After the final questions were asked and I was deemed a suitable addition to the following day’s three pm focus group, I interjected Mr. Garvey’s reminder to be punctual and asked exactly how my name had found its way to FBG’s list of appropriate participants.

“On December 21st we got your name and information from our client, whose company name we are not permitted to reveal at this time.” Sketchy, I thought. And with that, the call ended.

Naturally, I informed my friends of my exact coordinates before departing to the focus group the following day. Not wholly convinced this wasn’t an elaborate kidnapping scheme, they were under strict command to enter the scene if I did not return unharmed by 4:30. Snipers were assigned rooftops. With only conjecture available regarding the focus group’s topic, I was concerned that the discussion would pertain to the current political state of Israel, a topic about which I know next to nary. Acutely aware of my religious appearance, I feared that I was not up to the task of playing a token Jew in the room.

Upon my arrival, I sat in a waiting room with six other young men and women and filled out a questionnaire identical to the one Mr. Garvey and I had completed over the phone. I glanced up and made occasional, wary eye contact with the others in the room. Only when we had completed our assignments and were ushered into a conference room was I was able to get a better look at the next hour’s companions.

First, there was Todd, a redhaired, cowlicked white male who didn’t seem particularly jubilant to be involved with FPG. It was later revealed that Todd shared a sole passion for basketball, and intended to seek a career in, well, basketball. Next, there was Shawn, an African American male who was pre-med at a CUNY school. Alexandra, as president of Columbia University’s medical society, shared the same aspiration. Next to her sat Fatima, a Hispanic girl from the Bronx, who wanted to be a massage therapist. Lastly, to my right was Becky, a nervous girl with a shoulder tick and an undecided major. Sarah, our pinstriped power-suited focus group leader, entered the room. “You all have only one thing in common,” she said. “You guys are college students in the New York Metropolitan area.”

Looks and a couple of timid smiles were scattered around, and as I arranged my skirt to settle better into my seat, I hoped that my feeling of being an outsider in such a diversely secular group wasn’t printed on my cheeks. The next thirty minutes did, indeed, reveal no other commonalities among us. Sarah would pose an innocent question relating to college or our career goals, and responses were stilted and intentionally impersonal. We talked about the importance of resume building and broke down the process into three segments: academic achievement (grades), experience, and extracurricular activities. Then we took turns describing what an ideal internship or other such experience gaining opportunity would look like to each individual. Location, length of internship, and actual job details were discussed. Alexandra felt that a chance to work alongside Doctors Without Borders for a summer would be life-changing, and Todd posited that interning for a Knicks’ coach would be “dope.”

Religion and Israel were words unmentioned, and I found myself relaxing into the conversation, even as I remained curious about the purpose of such extensive questioning prior to my entering the room. It wasn’t until the last twenty-five minutes that Sarah dropped her truth-bomb in the form of a white and blue flag. “There is one other thing uniting the room.” She said, and a smile traveled north to her eyes. “Each of you considers his or herself to be Jewish.”

What happened next was subtly glorious. Todd slammed his hand on the table and yelled “I knew it!” and Fatima began to giggle uncontrollably. Shawn and I shared looks of surprise and grinned at one another. It suddenly occurred to me that each of us had sat there for the past forty minutes fostering the same simmering discomfort. Like vigilantes, we had all anxiously waited for our religious loyalty to be called upon.

From there, the conversation took intent. Sarah revealed that the focus group’s client was actually Taglit-Birthright. The not-for-profit organization is looking to start a summer internship program that would allow American college students to spend an extended period of time in Israel gaining interactive experience in their area of study while simultaneously enjoying a dynamic, multi-dimensional summer of growth. We had been chosen from the Birthright database as individuals who had an account with Birthright but hadn’t participated in a trip yet. Sarah then asked us to describe what such a trip would look like to us, and the conversation continued in high spirits. Fatima explained that, as a Shabbat-keeping Jew, she would like to have Sundays off to do some independent exploring.

The last question Sarah posed was what Birthright and Israel meant to us personally. Alexandra enthusiastically described her family’s annual visits to her sister’s kibbutz. On a personal note, I described how my community attends women’s seminaries post high school, and how I had chosen to forgo the opportunity. Hailing from the East Coast but having attended an intensive Bais Yaakov in Denver for two years, an adventure of an experience that I can only describe as character building but exhausting (great skiing, though!), I had opted out of another year of boarding school life and came to Stern as a true-freshman in order to be closer to home. With immensely Aliya-oriented parents and two siblings already living in the land, Israel is a country that I hope to explore fully, even if my college schedule has not allowed for a birthright trip just yet.

As the hour drew to a close, conversation winded down and our coats and phones were returned to us. Each participant was handed an envelope containing a prepaid visa (you thought it was a scam, didn’t you?), and we headed out into the hallway, where warm goodbyes were exchanged. Before exiting into the cold, I glanced into the waiting room at the next group of unsuspecting, “unconnected” college students nervously scribbling in their questionnaires. Overall, ‘twas not a bad way to make 125 dollars. I sent my snipers home.