Employing the unemployable

Over past 30 years, JDC-Israel has been coordinating social initiatives to improve lives of country's most vulnerable.

haredi job training 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haredi job training 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prior to getting a job at Office Depot through the Joint Distribution Committee's Strive program, Ze'ev had been earning a living, but his line of work - dealing drugs - could have landed him in jail. Today, Ze'ev is earning high marks from his boss, thriving in his new job and hoping for a promotion in the near future. Strive was developed more than 20 years ago in Harlem, and is a month-long, intensive work-readiness program that seeks to train and equip the "difficult to employ" with the skills needed for success in a full-time work environment. The program was introduced here two years ago by JDC's Israel branch as part of the organization's Poverty-to-Employment Initiative (Tevet in Hebrew), with the stated objective of developing services that aid the long-term jobless in overcoming social and educational barriers to workplace success. "The goal of the program is to not only move more people into the labor force, but to keep them there as well, and prevent them from falling back into the circle of distress," said Yossi Tamir, director of Tevet. "However, the JDC's work is not limited to employing the previously unemployable, but we are also responsible for delivering social services to Israel's most underprivileged and vulnerable citizens." The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was founded in 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I, as an umbrella group for several relief organizations and it opened a branch here in 1976. Over the last 30 years, JDC-Israel has been coordinating social initiatives to improve the lives of the country's most vulnerable. In the process, said Tamir, "it has become an almost inseparable part of Israeli society." The state, acknowledging the Joint's important contributions to the country, awarded the organization with this year's Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and contribution to society and state. Tamir points to three primary reasons why the Joint's projects, now numbering more than 50, have met with so much success. "Firstly, we are a very professional organization - everyone who works here brings a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge," he said, pointing to his own credentials - he has earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and an LL.B. from the Hebrew University in addition to having served as director-general of the National Insurance Institute. "Also key to our success is the fact that we are an apolitical organization, something which allows us to bring many different people and factions together to discuss and trade new ideas." He pointed out that before Strive and other social welfare efforts could get off the ground, dozens of government offices and non-profit organizations had to be brought together to help shape and give direction to the initiative. By maintaining a position of neutrality, the Joint has been able to successfully mesh various viewpoints and suggestions, thereby enabling it to develop its programs. "Lastly, we raise money, and to be successful, one mustn't show up with empty hands," Tamir said. Part of the mandate of JDC-Israel is that any project undertaken is carried out in conjunction with the government, meaning that it matches the funds the JDC has raised,mainly in North America. After an initiative is launched, the Joint nurtures its growth until it reaches what Tamir called "a critical mass of participants," at which juncture the JDC will phase out its presence and turn operations completely over to the government. THE GOVERNMENT is seen as a full partner by JDC-Israel, which hopes that through their cooperation, the political system will be moved to become a more cost-effective, efficient and streamlined body that will be better able to develop services to the country's most underprivileged citizens. Over the past 30 years, this model has succeeded in building social welfare programs for Ethiopian immigrants, the disabled, Arab and Beduin women, haredim and uneducated young adults. In 1980, approximately 40 percent of the country's net budget was allocated for defense, while only 30% was designated for social services. Today, noted Tamir, 25% of the budget is earmarked for defense, while social services receive 50%. This drastic change is due in part to the successful lobbying work done by the Joint. "Nobody is doing what we are doing - we are changing the system, the attitude and the approach of the country towards social services - and more importantly we are increasing the capacity of the country to take more advantage of its resources and work more efficiently," Tamir said. Among the JDC-Israel's most notable achievements are the Eshel and Ashalim initiatives, projects which lend aid to elderly and adolescent "at-risk" populations. The Joint's most recent initiative, Tevet, was introduced after the JDC convened a strategic planning conference with more than 40 representatives from government and non-government organizations on how to best combat the reality that far too many working-age citizens are unemployed and 30% of the labor force is earning only minimum wage. "If one looks at the numbers, they are shocking. We need to move these people out of the poverty cycle," said Tamir, who noted that approximately one-third of working age people, almost 1 million, can't or choose not to find work. According to Tamir, most of this number consists of young adults, 20-32, who have never received a proper education, in addition to Arab and Beduin women and haredim. Tevet, the result of that conference, targets what it calls the "previously unemployable" and molds them into worthy job candidates through its Strive program. After starting with a group of 30 in south Tel Aviv, the program now has seven groups who have finished the program and has recently opened a branch in Haifa, with others soon to follow in Jerusalem and Beersheba. There is also a waiting list of more than 400 who want to begin the program, which is not advertised publicly and is promoted only through word of mouth. "The statistics don't lie," Tamir said. "Our program is working and our graduates know that even once they finish the program, they will be always be a part of Strive." Strive employees have received high marks from their employers, which include some of the country's most well-known companies. Like all of the JDC's programs, Tevet seeks to not only assist as many people as possible in the short run, but to effect long-term change in the way the government approaches challenges faced by the country's weakest citizens. Despite all of JDC-Israel's success, there have been numerous setbacks over the last 30 years, as pilot programs have not taken root or the government has been slow to provide the necessary infrastructure to help get a project off the ground. The JDC-Israel however, has pushed past the challenges presented it so far and its programs change the lives of Israel's most vulnerable citizens, something that Tamir promised would continue. "This has been the mission of the JDC since its inception, and this will continue to be our mission," he said.