Diamonds in the rough

While employing students from broken homes at her jewelry shop, a Netanya woman offers them the warmth and hope for a better future previously missing from their lives.

jewelry (photo credit: Itay Grossbard)
(photo credit: Itay Grossbard)
Entering Lily Grossbard's home, it is hard not to be surprised simply by how normal it is. Bathed in the sunshine filtering in from the lush garden outside, two teenaged girls - their hands perfectly manicured - sit at a kitchen table manipulating tiny purple pliers around hair-thin silver filigree. Periodically, one girl lifts the velvet pad to which she has anchored her latest project, and inspects it with a critical and professional certainty that belies her years. They speak in low voices to each other, as if respecting the sacred calm that pervades their workspace. Grossbard, 53, has given her young staff of jewelers the quiet miracle of normalcy. These adolescents, ranging in age from 16 to 20, attend boarding school in Netanya. Many of them are immigrants - primarily from the former Soviet Union - and because of the financial instability of their families, must work to earn the kind of pocket change most kids their age receive as allowance. Often, they come from such troubling backgrounds that the joy of being in a safe and warm home environment is so strong that they do not want to leave when school lets out for the summer. "Instead of [having] fun in the holiday time, they are asking for more and more work," says Grossbard, who works in conjunction with the boarding school to employ her staff. "Some of them prefer to stay at school and don't want to go home because they're afraid they'll have to give the small amount of money they make to their parents. They're afraid to go home." The young jewelers in Grossbard's care come from what she puts delicately as "very problematic families. Many of [their parents] are in prison, many of them are alcoholics, many of them are very poor people who cannot feed [their children]." According to Grossbard, some of her student-workers live in shame of their parents, dreading being visited at school should their family arrive under the influence of alcohol. While some of Grossbard's jewelers must cope with parents who cannot take care even of themselves, others have parents who wish they could do better for their children but simply cannot. "They knew they could not give their children the best - or even less," she explains of the parents who only want to see their children have a better life than their own. "They are in this place because they don't have another alternative." Anya (only first names are given to protect the student-workers), 17, immigrated to Israel when she was seven years old with her father and two siblings, forced to leave her non-Jewish mother behind in her native Russia. "I try to not involve my parents in [spending money]. I don't want to take from them," she says, describing what she spends her earnings on as "what every normal kid who lives at home gets from their parents." While the work is enjoyable for Anya - who even helps collaborate with Grossbard on some of the jewelry designs - she has bigger plans for herself, hoping to become a child psychologist one day. Ine, 15, also has major ambitions for herself: She wants to be a pediatrician to satisfy both her desire to be a doctor and work with children. Having immigrated to Israel from Kurdistan, Ine explains that enrolling at the boarding school was an essential opportunity for her, one that was almost taken away from her when budgets were cut in the regional schools. Grossbard, however, was committed to protect her young staff, and stepped in to ensure that the students could remain in her employ and not have to return to their difficult home situations if they did not wish to - even when she did not actually require any work from them. Even when the orders for her handmade jewelry slow down, Grossbard says that she cannot turn away a student empty-handed: She lets them work whenever they need to earn money. During the academic year, Grossbard has up to 20 students working in her studio. Currently, during the summer, she has eight. The relationship she forges with her workers continues even after they graduate from high school and enter the army. "They are afraid to go out [into the world] because they have no place to go," she says. Grossbard is one of the few constants in the lives of her workers. One young man, Sasha, refused to return to his family for almost the entire academic year, staying even over Pessah, working all night to avoid having to go home. After working straight through his vacation, Grossbard was shocked to find out that the money he had so recently earned was no longer in his possession: He lent it all out to other students in need. "They are connecting as a family," she explains. "Each one has a very sad story, but they don't ask each other about bad things in the school - they protect each other." Now enlisted in the army, Sasha lives near enough to Grossbard to work with her each day after he finishes his duty - sometimes staying past midnight. Grossbard's trust in her workers is so great that she used to give all of the wages her employees had earned to this young man, who would then divide the money evenly among his coworkers - even if he had worked longer and harder than the rest of them. In spite of Grossbard's altruism, her jewelry company, Naya Design Ltd, is a business - and a successful one at that. The product, which sells primarily in the US at retailer T.J. Maxx, was never advertised as a charity project overseas. In fact, Grossbard is tight-lipped about her instrumental role in creating and implementing the project, refusing to take any credit for what she has done and balking at any praise. She believes that her young employees have brought the business success on their own merit and the numbers prove it: Some of the most popular jewelry she has sold was made not by her but by her student-workers. Consequently, she shares a portion of the profits with them. "I'm blessed with their work, because the things we make with them have had big success in the United States. They are so grateful for what I'm doing for them, but I'm blessed because of them," says Grossbard, her own face childlike in its earnestness. The maternal warmth that she bestows upon her employees extends past financial and emotional support - she is even something of a budding matchmaker. Pointing to one of her young workers in the next room, she blushes just a little and whispers about the young love that began in her studio while her back was turned. "I would come in here and say 'what are you doing?' and they'd say 'oh, nothing!'" She mimes a coy game of footsy and giggles. "It's a good place," she says, "and it's a warm place."