Big business takes on the Negev

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
January 12, 2006 11:12

IDT is making commercial headway in the south.




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jib.awards.298.vote. (photo credit: )

Howard Jonas is about to put his money where his mouth is. Again. Business tycoon Jonas - whose book I'm Not the Boss, I Just Work Here explains how applying the wisdom of the Torah brings success in modern business - is poised to perform the same kind of mitzva in the Negev as he pulled off in Jerusalem in 2001. Jonas, whiz-kid founder of IDT Global, a NYSE company with a market capitalization of $2 billion, was first inspired to venture into Israel when he visited Jerusalem in 2001. The city was suffering a double blow - the intifada had just started in earnest, and tourists had all but disappeared. At the same time, the worldwide hi-tech industry had crashed. Having spoken to many Anglo immigrants, Jonas was dismayed. Many were considering going back to North America. There were no jobs, he was told. No one was hiring. They had no way to support their families in Israel. Jonas is widely known as a people person, someone who genuinely likes and enjoys meeting all kinds of people. He frequently says his favorite job was selling hot dogs outside a Bronx methadone clinic when he was 14. Why? Because he liked the interesting people he met. So when he saw the genuine distress of so many highly qualified people in Jerusalem who were out of work, he wanted to help - not by giving charity but by what the Sages have called a higher mitzva, by providing jobs. Jonas decided to open a branch of his highly successful communications company IDT in Jerusalem for the specific purpose of providing employment for English-speaking immigrants. "That was three and a half years ago," says Judy Lowy, director of recruitment for IDT in Jerusalem. "We started with 20 employees. Now we have 750 and are hoping for 1,000 in the immediate future. We need more people right now to handle our existing contracts, and we have new contracts coming up in the near future. Our ultimate goal is to be the biggest employer in Jerusalem." But not just in Jerusalem. Now Jonas has moved into mitzva-mode again, this time extending his helping hand into the Negev, where little economic recovery has been seen as yet. "We're beginning by hiring 50 people from Beersheba and the surrounding area," says Lowy. "We will provide a bus to transport our Beersheba employees up to the Jerusalem offices where they'll work. But as soon as we hit 100 employees from the south, our goal is to open another call center in Beersheba itself so people will work locally. We have no doubt that there are hundreds of good people in the south who would be an asset to IDT. We're interviewing and hiring right now." Earlier this month, IDT staffers went to Beersheba to address a capacity crowd. The room at the city's new Youth Center was packed as English-speakers from all over the south listened to a condensed version of the IDT story before completing application forms and undergoing a preliminary screening. Those who appear to meet the required criteria - English speakers with basic computer skills who project the positive, outgoing personality essential for telephone work - will be brought to Jerusalem for further interviews. "We're well on our way to hiring the first 50, so we can provide the free bus transportation," says Laura Ben-David, a former nurse and new immigrant who is Lowy's assistant. "We're doing the follow-up interviews right now." One Beersheba couple has already been working for IDT for several weeks. David and Beth Arnstein, who live in Beersheba's Tet neighborhood and have been making the commute on their own, went to the IDT session to encourage fellow Negev residents to apply. "We'd been out of work for three years," says Beth, who's known for her jewelry designs. "David and I had started our own businesses, but mine wasn't doing well and David's was struggling. For us, IDT is a major blessing - even though we spend a lot of time on buses." "Right now, it's costing us NIS 150 a day in commuting costs," David told the crowd, adding that all he really wanted was 48 more people to be hired so the company bus would start running. The Arnsteins put in a long day. "We catch the 8 p.m. bus to Jerusalem and work the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift - night work because that coincides with the business day in North America. When our shift is over, we catch a bus back to Beersheba and get home at about 9:30 a.m. We sleep, then get ready to do it again." "It was tough to adjust to working at night," Beth admits. "But the work is fun, and we really have a great time. Sometimes I can't believe it - I'll look at the clock and realize that several hours had passed and I didn't even notice." What specifically do the Arnsteins do? At the moment, they are working in customer retention for the Internet server AOL. "When an AOL client calls AOL saying that he/she wants to stop the service, that call is routed to us in Jerusalem," explains David. "Our job is to talk them out of quitting, to stay an AOL customer. It's almost like we're working for AOL. Sometimes their executives come here, walk around and talk with us. They've been very nice. It's a good company to work for, too." Lowy says that several companies, including AOL, have contracts for IDT call center services. "Somewhere people call us when they've seen something they want. We also do outbound calls: sales, fundraising and surveys. In just a few weeks we'll be marketing an exciting new specialty medical product, a lifesaving heart monitor that was actually invented in Israel. For those positions, we want to hire people with some medical background," she says. This time, when Jonas ventures into the Negev, he's getting a lot of support. Several other organizations are working overtime to bring IDT in, both for the jobs themselves and as a catalyst for other businesses. "Our partner in this whole effort is the Or movement," says Lowy. "They've been with us from day one, working very hard." "Or National Missions is a grassroots NGO dedicated to developing and strengthening the Negev," explains Or strategist Miri Arviv. "For us, having IDT come to the Negev is incredible. It will offer employment; but even beyond that, it will bring the kind of energetic business and work ethic we need to set the standard for the south in general." Much of the success of the current employee drive is due to the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) and the Ministry of Absorption's Employee Referral Center. "The Negev is the final area of Israel that remains to be developed," says Zolan Golan of the Absorption Ministry. "IDT represents our best chance to bring a segment of Anglo culture to the potential of the Negev. We're very enthusiastic and have been encouraging all our English-speaking job hunters to seek out IDT. We're hoping for great things here." Miriam Green, AACI southern region counselor, has logged dozens of hours working the phones, encouraging people to explore the opportunities offered by IDT. Green emphasizes that it's not just former Anglos who are applying. "There's a big Indian community here, too. The Black Hebrews from Dimona are interested - there are people from many different home countries who would qualify." Green's observation appears to be accurate. When Lowy asks the Beersheba audience how many hailed from North America, fewer than half raised their hands. The next largest demographic group appears to be native-born Israelis who have acquired excellent English in one way or another. The remainder came from all over the globe - the UK, India, South Africa, Australia, and two from Nigeria. "The day will come," says AACI counselor Green, "when people won't say, 'I have to work for IDT' but rather 'I want to work for IDT.' This is a great chance to get in on the ground floor. It's a fantastic opportunity." Howard Jonas thinks so, too. His venture into the Negev follows two other rules of success he's advocated: First, "If you have an idea, don't overprepare. Just go for it." A second pithy rule seems to apply specifically to the Negev itself: "There's great potential locked inside everyone. You just need to give it a chance to come out."


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