The first time I called Rachel Zaff (C '22), she sat in a nondescript hotel room. Later that night, she flew back to the United States, finishing a trip to Israel only to return just a month later. Except next time, she’ll be going with thirty teenagers in tow.
Rachel is one of four counselors leading this year’s Summer Israel Experience with Camp Young Judaea, a Jewish sleepaway camp in New Hampshire. The Summer Israel Experience offers sixteen–year–old campers the opportunity to go on a month–long adventure abroad before aging out of their summer camp program. As a counselor, it is her responsibility to lead these teens around the country and teach them about Israel’s culture and history. Rachel looks back on her own Summer Israel Experience fondly, covering ground everywhere from major cities to small towns to barren deserts.
Her favorite memory is camping in the Makhtesh Ramon crater in the Negev Desert, sleeping without tents under the night sky. “We just got to watch all the stars all night. It was the most incredible thing. I had never seen a sky that dark or that many stars in my life. We were learning all the constellations and [looking at] a bunch of shooting stars, and it was just a really magical moment.” To Rachel, life is about wonder.
The feeling of adventure is familiar to Rachel. It motivated her to take the leap and transfer to Penn in her sophomore year of college, and then leap further to la Universidad de Sevilla in Spain during her junior fall. That same boldness, plus a desire to create the most change she could in the world, fueled a career switch from climate policy to corporate sustainability, where she can help tackle climate inaction through some of its largest sources. “I know that climate change is a huge issue that's facing us,” she says. “I think we need people who are going to be really dedicated to that cause in order to really change the course of our future. I'm hoping to find a nice combination of feeling like I'm doing enough to be working on those issues and also feeling personally fulfilled, inspired, and energized by my work.”
When her junior spring was cut short by the pandemic, Rachel’s next adventure was a year–long leave of absence from Penn, during which she campaigned for President Joe Biden in Florida and interned with a brand consulting firm. That consulting internship inspired Rachel to take a management consulting position this fall, during which she hopes to gain the skills that will help her transition into a corporate sustainability role.
What connects Rachel’s seemingly disparate adventures is people: a deep desire to connect with them, work together with them, and help them. In recounting all of her experiences, Rachel centers the discussion around the people she met. “It was very social work,” she says of her time with the Biden campaign, working within a small team of eight organizers and a larger network of volunteers. “I really enjoyed that kind of people work, feeling how excited [they were] and getting energy from others.” Other than her time with the Biden campaign, Rachel recounts chatting with visitors while volunteering at Penn Hillel’s soup kitchen, having personal conversations in the religious studies course Existential Despair in her senior fall, and connecting with Penn’s Choral Society and Reform Jewish Community through music. At her core, Rachel is a people person.
And of course, through it all, Rachel emphasizes the people with whom she went to Israel when she was sixteen—both her fellow campers and her counselors. “My counselors, when I was a participant, came up with all these games and fun activities for us to do that really brought us together and helped us really connect with each other … It’s the little moments in–between that I’m hoping to help create for the participants this summer,” she says.
According to Rachel, being in nature and escaping from the stress of the real world makes everyone more willing to be vulnerable. It’s part of why she loves the outdoors, especially hiking, which she looks forward to doing in Israel next month. “I think the joy that's a part of summer camp, [I try] to carry that into everyday life—finding the small moments that make you happy and tapping into those,” she says. “Summer camp is just a happy place.”
As her face lights up throughout our conversations, it’s clear that part of this joy for Rachel comes from the simple experience of being near others. She says it herself, when I ask why she chose to take a gap year mid–pandemic: “I really value the in–person experience [of college].”
This invaluable joy—a joy that seeps into the food of the Hillel soup kitchen, her work for the Biden campaign, and the songs of Penn's Choral Society—is what keeps Rachel going during difficult times. Her family and friends—her people—give her the energy and confidence to make adventurous decisions.
She points to the people from the Summer Israel Experience as fuel for her plans to venture into consulting in the fall. “I know that consulting can be stressful and the hours can be long, and I've heard that there can be a lot of burnout in the field. I'm just going to be hoping to take happy memories and a lot of joy from the summer and use it to really energize [me] going into this work, and hopefully bring some of the laughter and joy to my daily tasks.”
And nothing is more “Rachel” than that.