Immigrants train for profession and Israeli life

When Eden Gobow came to Israel from Ethiopia at age 16, she moved into an absorption center in Kiryat Gat and soon afterward began to work in a factory.

From there, she followed a path that has become typical for many of Israel’s more than 100,000 Ethiopian immigrants. Married and supporting three children, Gobow moved from one low-income job to another, becoming a preschool caretaker and a hotel housekeeper.

Now, Gobow works amid gemstones. Sitting at a wooden desk under a bright fluorescent light, she balances a razor-thin saw at a sharp angle against her chest as she cuts through a ring pinched in her left hand. It’s the meticulous work she’s been doing since 2010, when she enrolled in a course that trains Ethiopian immigrants to be jewelers.

Eden Gobow resizes a ring. photos/ben sales

“I wanted a profession, to do something,” said Gobow, 28. “I like to make jewelry, to make the design, to play with it. To create something is nice.”

Gobow learned how to make jewelry at Megemeria — or “beginning” in Amharic, Ethiopian Jews’ native language. The school has graduated 42 students in two classes in the four years since it was founded.

Megemeria was created with the dual mission of training Ethiopian immigrants in a profession and helping them integrate into Israeli society.

Founded by Yvel, an Israeli jewelry company with 650 retail stores across five continents, including the U.S., Megemeria also receives funding from Yedid, an Israeli nonprofit promoting social justice, and received grants totaling $140,000 from 2011 to 2013 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Megemeria hopes to eventually support itself by selling graduates’ handiwork. The school now employs more than half of its graduates in its own workshop.

“The hardest-hit immigrants are people who don’t have skills,” said Yedid executive director Sari Revkin, who is visiting the Bay Area this week with Wendy Borodkin of Yedid USA.

They will have a trunk showing and sale of jewelry made by Megemeria students at a fundraiser from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, hosted by Alef Bet Judaica in Los Gatos.

“The Ethiopian population that came as adults didn’t have any education and skills,” Revkin said in an interview at Megemeria. “This is a place to teach them something, so they could have a profession. The school is a social business enterprise.”

One of Yvel’s founders, Isaac Levy, is himself an immigrant to Israel. After arriving from Argentina at age 4 in 1963, he had a difficult time acclimating to the country, so he was well aware of the challenges of being an immigrant.

Finished jewelry

When Levy founded Yvel with his wife, Oma, in 1986 and the business began to grow, they decided to use it to help other immigrants succeed in Israel. In addition to the students and employees of Megemeria, 90 of Yvel’s 100 employees hail from places as diverse as Syria and Mexico.

But while Yvel’s employees come into the company with jeweling skills, Megemeria’s students begin from scratch. Applicants to Megemeria are tested on their dexterity and natural talent for crafts, and then sit for an interview with one of the Levys. Twenty-one students are admitted out of more than 200 applicants, and receive a stipend of over $1,000 per month while at Megemeria.

Students get a yearlong master class in a range of skills — including gemsetting, soldering, casting, engraving and metalwork — and they learn the different characteristics of metals and the fundamentals of drawing. At the conclusion of the course, students take a certification test from Israel’s Economy Ministry.

Following graduation, the most recent class spent 13-hour days crafting jewelry for an order from the U.S.-based Home Shopping Network.

“Without knowing anything about the simple material, they now know the difference between the metals,” said Meir Yosipov, who teaches the course. “The most challenging thing was to close all the gaps, but then at the end they knew how to create large amounts of jewelry.”

The program’s goal, though, stretches beyond teaching technical skills, aiming also to further integrate students into Israeli society. Students take Hebrew-language classes, and staff helps them adapt to a Western work schedule.

Regardless of cultural barriers, Megemeria students have proven conscientious, some holding jobs outside of school while caring for children. Adisalem Warkenach, a graduate of the most recent Megemeria course, works at a supermarket while her husband cares for their children after he returns from work.

It’s a tough schedule, but for Warkenach, the sacrifice is worth it. Like Gobow, she had done custodial work before coming to Megemeria. Fashioning beautiful crafts in a workstation surrounded by jewelry, she says, is far more fulfilling.

“You can’t work your whole life in cleaning,” Warkenach said. “You need something different. They took us in like family. Now we do ‘normal’ work. We’re not washing bathrooms.”

Jewelry crafted at Megemeria will be on sale from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7 at Alef Bet Judaica, 14103-D Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.