Employment is goal of new programs for Israels poor

The directors of a new program designed to alleviate poverty among Ethiopians and other minority groups in Israel said the country must develop new ways of addressing the issue.

“There is a new paradigm, where our focus is much more on employment than combating poverty,” Yossi Tamir, executive director of the Tevet Employment Initiative, said last week in San Francisco.

“We’re trying to shift away from just giving cash benefits, which hasn’t historically worked. It’s like trying to show people the road to a great fishing spot, rather than catching the fish for them.”

Tevet is run under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has worked with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to sponsor the programs. Tamir and other representatives of programs aimed at reducing the number of Israel’s poor were brought to San Francisco by JCF to discuss the problem.

Other facets of the JDC Employment Initiative include entrepreneurial courses for Arab Israeli women, classes for disadvantaged youth, and programs designed to inculcate members of the Orthodox community into the workforce.

According to statistics cited by the JDC, the need for such interventions is imperative. The JDC cited statistics that showed only 17 percent of Arab Israeli women were in the workforce, and that nearly 60 percent of the Ethiopian Israeli community lacked a working family member.

To ameliorate these circumstances, the JDC has targeted those populations with programs specifically designed to address specialized needs. For example, the Mati Small Business Center, geared toward Arab Israeli women, provides courses in professional training, business entrepreneurship and “personal empowerment.”

The Gesher (Bridge to Life) program assists teens and young adults with “soft skills” such as interpersonal communication and teamwork.

Yossi Rosen, national director of the Reshet Employment Incubator, said the programs all face significant hurdles beyond just navigating the traditional obstacles facing any nascent organization.

He alluded to significant cultural barriers that can be difficult to overcome in some minority communities, such as the reluctance to have women in the workforce.

“We are not in the business of making people forget their traditions and toss away their cultures,” said Rosen. “But by the same token, there are very large problems that need to be addressed, when a community needs to make changes to adapt to a new society. For example, over the past two decades since the Ethiopian community has arrived, there is a tremendous gap between those who have and those who don’t.”

Rosen said that Reshet started as a pilot program in 2002 in Ashdod. Its first graduating class had 100 people. Since then, according to the JDC, Reshet has serviced 600 Ethiopian Israelis in eight locations.

“We like to think of it as the ‘tell-a-friend’ program,” said Rosen. “We want to provide a platform for people to jump higher, rather than just handing out welfare payments and hoping people will succeed on their own.”

Another salient facet of Reshet, according to the JDC, is that its leadership is largely comprised of members of the Ethiopian community. Although only 2 percent of the Israeli population is Ethiopian, some 15 to 20 percent of Tevet is comprised of Ethiopian émigrés.

Ruti Amir, an Ethiopian émigré who arrived in 1977 (and became the first woman of Ethiopian ancestry to join the Israeli army), is national coordinator of the Women of Valor program.

The organization, an offshoot of Tevet, relies on people like Amir to bridge the cultural divide that often hampers successful transitions into new cultures.

“There are obviously parts of Israeli society that didn’t exist in Ethiopia,” Amir said, mentioning technology and women in the workforce as two primary examples. “We try to sit down with people — as members of their community — and show them how to work within the framework of Israeli society. But that doesn’t mean throwing away our culture and our traditions.”