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(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Seriously affected by war last summer, hundreds of small businesses in the north of Israel are still struggling to continue to do just that: business. Many are run by women either from their own homes or from rented commercial space.
The businesses are as diverse as the women themselves: Jewish and Arab, city and village dwellers covering a wide range of ages, family situations and social environments. But whatever their differences might be, one thing they share - apart from gender - is their dream of building up a sound business. They are dedicated to succeeding where it is easy to fail in normal times, and practically an impossibility to stay on the right side of the bank manager during times of strife such as following the Second Lebanon War.
As a result of the heavy damage inflicted by the war on the women who were going it alone in business, the necessity for counseling has risen dramatically and many of the organizations involved in assisting the women are straining at the seams.
Recognizing the seriousness of the situation for the self-employed and owners of home-based enterprises, Shatil - the New Israel Fund's empowerment and training center - created the Northern Exposure initiative in partnership with Israel's leading economic empowerment organizations. At its Haifa offices serving the northern periphery, Shatil's multi-cultural staff provides training and technical assistance to the straining NGOs shoring up the Galilean entrepreneurs.
Shatil created the Northern Exposure project with the aim of introducing hundreds of artisans and small business owners in Israel to prospective interested parties abroad. The project's still-under-construction website (www.nes.org.il) includes descriptions and photographs of the proud folks struggling but determined to maintain their macro-enterprises, short bios and details of how their businesses were affected by the Second Lebanon War. The website also presents the possibility to purchase products on-line and facilitate a personal connection with the gritty northern Israelis.
Setting up an independent livelihood is a struggle, stressful and risky, but the lady entrepreneurs of the Lower and Upper Galilee took the chance of changing their lives by using their natural talents and a fair portion of self-belief.
A group of Arab Muslim women in the village of Judeida-Makr near Acre formed a co-operative two years ago. They attended a local women's center and gradually gravitated toward the idea of creating something of their own, to boost their economic situation while continuing to spend quality time together outside their homes. Sitting on battered couches under a frond-covered succah on the edge of land rented by the "Women, Land and Za'atar" sisterhood, a few of the ladies take a brief respite from the backbreaking work entailed in growing za'atar (hyssop) and cucumbers, the crops these high-spirited, energetic women decided their enterprise would be based on.
Zata'ar, known to be a "healthy" herb with medicinal properties, is consumed in large quantities by the Arab population and not a small percentage of Israeli Jews with eastern taste buds.
"There are nine of us in the organization, all hard working older women but without an academic education and no work experience outside the home," explains Rudina Malcham of her peers, the youngest of whom is 40 years old and the oldest 60-something.
The group comprises three widows, two single women and four married women with children in high school or university. "Understanding the importance of education, we also want to contribute toward paying for a good education for our children," adds one of her co-workers as she pours thick black coffee from a thermos flask.
Like many others, the villagers sought and received free advice from various non-profit organizations set up to help women. Having decided they wanted to work the land and grow za'atar, the first thing they set out to do was to ensure financial backing.
Each of the women applied for and received a bank loan ranging from NIS 6,000 to NIS 10,000. Of the eight dunams (some two acres) of land they rented, five dunams were planted with za'atar and three with cucumbers. The women put in five hours every morning from 5 am to 10 am, and are back out again in the afternoons from 4:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. They hold a weekly meeting where all aspects of the running of the organization are discussed.
One of them quips that they are almost running themselves kibbutz-style and only need a work roster to go the extra mile. Malcham smiles broadly as she pulls a beige exercise book from within the folds of her expansive floral dress. "Here," she says, spreading the pages "is our work roster, everything planned and recorded properly - just like a kibbutz!"
Their first season was very successful, but then the war broke out. The women initially continued to work the fields even though Katyusha rockets were falling in nearby areas. "Then one day when we were working in the fields a Katyusha rocket fell about 50 meters away," recounts Malcham, pointing to an area near an electricity pylon in the near distance. "After that we were too afraid and couldn't tend the fields for weeks, and everything was ruined."
The resolute women returned to working the fields as soon as it was possible, and have done well. The majority of their za'atar is sold to locals from their 20,000-resident village, and the cucumbers are bought by a local merchant.
As proud as they are of themselves, they are thankful for the support and professional advice they received from the organizations supporting the empowerment of women and macro-enterprises - areas sorely neglected by government agencies. "There were low moments but we had professional people to advise us free of charge," added Hiriyia Hasedeh, another member of the cooperative.
The "Women, Land and Za'atar" co-workers are now aiming to expand the enterprise by renting and working more land, and dream of setting up a small sorting and packing station in the village so that they can offer employment to other village women.
A short drive away in Kiryat Haim, English teacher Paulina Geibel-Kravz was left without pupils almost overnight once the Hizbullah rockets began to fall. Geibel-Kravz made aliya seven years ago with a PhD in English, however her degree was not recognized in Israel. "At the age of 50 I didn't have the energy to start taking on the system and so decided to develop a different way of teaching English to children and set up a business here at home," explains the creative immigrant, who hails from near the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Geibel-Kravz was involved in an innovative English teaching method prior to her aliya and taught teachers. Since arriving in Israel, she has further developed the method and created an attractive and imaginative system using board games, place mats and puppets she designed and copyrighted.
Prior to the Second Lebanon War, she had 50 pupils attending classes at her home, as well as pupils in Haifa who were taught her system by teachers she instructed in Israel. With the outbreak of war and it being far too risky for her pupils to venture to their classes, she had to shut up shop and found herself quickly in debt. "Without the help of the Economic Empowerment for Women organization [a Haifa-based women's group] I don't know how we would have got by, but with a loan they organized it was possible to hang on, get up and running again and about 20 pupils have returned," explains Geibel-Kravz, who has a natural up-beat disposition and is convinced she will succeed in turning her business around - with continued advice from her professional friends.
Sochi was recently chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, much to Geibel-Kravz's delight. Her satisfaction also has a professional level: "With such an event coming up many people will need to learn English and this will, of course, create a huge volume of work for the English teachers I taught prior to aliya," she says proudly, as a few of her young pupils at an in-house gaming session in English nod in agreement.
Tucked away in a quiet, leafy corner on the Carmel Mountain range, graphic designer, photographer and artist Dorit Jordan Dotan pores over a drawing board. The view from the window above her head is a breathtaking, all-inclusive Haifa-to-Acre vista. However, this time last year the magnificent view was marred by huge clouds of black smoke where Katyusha rockets had landed - sometimes in other parts of the city, sometimes closer.
"One day a Katyusha landed just on the other side of that building there," she says, pointing to a small block of flats about 100 meters away. Even though she said it was a terrifying experience, Dotan reached for her camera. The photograph is framed and sits on a shelf close to her drawing board.
When her client businesses closed down, the self-employed graphic designer lost her means of livelihood. Many of her neighbors left town for the center of the country. "Although I was terrified I really didn't have anywhere else to go, and anyway my mother had to run away from Vienna. We are here to stay, not run," she says, opening her hands palm-up in a expressive gesture.
Dotan, determined to stay home in Haifa but also needing to generate money to pay her mortgage, decided to turn her hand to art, bearing in mind that in modern times one could sell work through cyberspace. Now she advertises and sells her wares - hand-drawn ketubot (marriage contracts) - via www.shop-ketubah.com, with most of her work purchased by clients overseas.
Dotan is thankful for the support she received from Sviva Tomechet (the Women's Business Development Center), a voluntary organization handing out professional advice and helping promote women's small businesses, and partner in the Northern Exposure project.
As Hiriyia Hasedeh of the Judeida-Makr-based Women, Land and Za'atar cooperative put it, "Just knowing that we were not totally alone made a huge difference."