New lives for old in hi-tech

"Ideology brought me to Israel, but finding a good job is allowing me to stay here."

Jonas Pickholtz (photo credit: JONNI NIEMANN)
Jonas Pickholtz
(photo credit: JONNI NIEMANN)
If you are reading this article in an English-language Israeli newspaper, you probably immigrated or are close to people who did. Chances are, each of you had a somewhat challenging adjustment period and went through some difficult times settling in, learning Hebrew, adapting to the local manners and customs and – last but not least – finding a decent job.
Or any job at all.
If one thing is most likely to end the initial euphoria of making aliya and send frustrated new immigrants back to from where they came, it is the difficulty of cracking the Israeli job market. Perhaps every one of us who came here from the US, Canada, South Africa or Australia knows at least five people who, after a year or more spent seeking suitable employment, decided to “throw in the towel” and returned home. Stories here of Russian doctors who are now driving taxis, computer programmers now chronically unemployed and concert musicians playing violins on street corners are part of Israeli urban folklore.
But times are changing. New ways of keeping bright, young immigrants in Israel – along with their skills and talent – are constantly springing up. The Rashi Foundation is one example. More than 30 years ago, the independent, private philanthropic nonprofit was established to assist the underprivileged in Israel, particularly children and youth. In recent years, however, the foundation has broadened its focus to include other vulnerable sectors of society.
Thus in 2006, it created Gvahim. Using group workshops, one-on-one counseling and guidance from mentors from their fields, Gvahim helps highly skilled new immigrants find employment at their level of qualifications. Gvahim means “heights,” and the name was chosen because “we help immigrants reach new heights,” said Gali Shahar, now nearing the end of her three-year term as the organization’s CEO.
“I came from the hi-tech industry. I’ve been involved with a lot of things in that industry,” Shahar said, “everything from software engineering, project management, business development, sales and operations. I volunteered a lot during those years. From that, I decided to do something more meaningful. I moved more toward the social sector. And that’s how I got to Gvahim.”
Shahar’s epiphany came during an eight-year stint in Canada, where she was sent by her employer. “I met too many Israelis and immigrants... who left Israel for Canada. This is what made me realize that we need to make Israel a country that our skilled talent will want to stay in.”
Gvahim’s approach is centered on its career program. The requirements for admission to the program are residence in Israel, immigration within the last 10 years, at least one academic degree or professional license, knowledge of basic Hebrew, and a desire for a “quality job” in Israel. Shahar estimates that around 75% of applicants come to Gvahim by word of mouth.
“We have great recommendations from program graduates. And people bring their friends and relatives,” she said. The program also utilizes digital platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Gvahim’s own website and partner agencies. “We have various channels of reaching people, but mostly they know how to find us.”
Not everyone who finds them gets into the program, however. “Once they get to us, we interview to make sure we can help them. We don’t have programs for all of the professions on Earth. We focus on business and hi-tech. A lot of people come to us with skills they can’t use here, or requiring a degree of Hebrew proficiency they don’t have, or who simply want to do something different,” Shahar said. “So we have something that we call ‘repackaging.’ We look at your skills and experience, the needs of the job market, and we give people a new direction. It works. Sometimes we get people with professions who we can’t really help, like music and art. But we can and do help many others.”
Asked whether that help involves training or job placement, Shahar responded, “Essentially it’s both. We give them workshops that really explain the cultural differences here in Israel, how you need to present yourself, how you need to write a CV that’s appropriate for the Israeli job market, and so on. We provide them with the training, and then give them one-on-one consultation and mentoring, which is provided by professionals who are the best in their fields. Each one mentors an oleh [immigrant] or returning citizen and guides them in soft skills like negotiating. It’s like a big-brother relationship.”
Gvahim works with 650 employers and has placed clients in more than 1,000 companies and organizations, according to Shahar. “After someone gets into our program, he wants to come out of it with a quality position somewhere, and that’s what we provide.
The new immigrants are a true asset to our country and we need to make sure we help them integrate into Israel,” she said. “They are the new pioneers who will help us build the future here.”
One such pioneer is Erica Krieger, 33, who immigrated from Curitiba, Brazil, Jewish population: 5,000. With the assistance of Gvahim, a bachelor’s degree in international relations and an MBA in marketing, Krieger was hired as the client relationship coordinator for Latin America at Mobileye. The company was recently sold to Intel and makes a product called ADAS, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, which was designed to prevent car collisions.
“I had a really consolidated career in Brazil. Then I moved to Israel after I met my husband. Brazil was really going into a crisis, so I decided to move to Israel,” Krieger said. “I needed to understand the Israeli market. It’s different. For example, we don’t have so many start-ups in Brazil as we do here in Israel. We don’t have as many hi-tech companies in Brazil. I needed to understand exactly what they were looking for, how to negotiate, how to do interviews. Gvahim really directed me in these areas.”
Gvahim provided classroom sessions that helped her understand the Israeli market, work contracts, CV writing and translating to Hebrew. “And after that, they give you a mentor who has worked here for many years, and who will help you understand a bit more about how things work here.” As it happened, Krieger’s mentor was from Argentina and worked at Mobileye – an almost perfect fit.
“I’ve seen many people come here with advanced degrees, speaking two or more languages, having a difficult time here,” she said. “You have to fight for a career here. It’s not easy.”
David Piazza, 28, came to Israel from Rome with a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering, but no desire whatsoever to work in that field. He is now revenue manager at Sweet Inn, a luxury apartment-booking platform that facilitates short-term rentals in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Lisbon, Paris, Brussels, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Piazza is unequivocal in praising the role Gvahim played in getting him up and running. “The career program actually helped me find this job. I have to say I found it thanks to them. They organized the interview, they had many contacts with a lot of companies. The program helps you understand your potential. They help you with your CV and they let you meet people who are very helpful. The whole program was very helpful to me.”
One of the best examples of Gvahim’s “repackaging” must certainly be 28-year-old Jason Pickholtz. Pickholtz arrived from the US two years ago, with a degree in psychology and Jewish studies and a history of working part-time as the marketing and production manager for the Jewish band Zusha. He is now doing inside sales at Orcam. The hi-tech firm makes “a beautiful piece of technology that fits to a pair of glasses,” Pickholtz said excitedly. “It’s about the size and length of a person’s index finger – camera on one end and speaker on the other,” and converts certain visual information into an audible form and sends it to the user’s ear.
As an example “a vision-impaired person picking up The Jerusalem Post cannot read it on their own,” he explained. “With our device they can hold up a newspaper to their face and Orcam would read The Jerusalem Post to them. It can also recognize faces, scan bar codes, and you can talk to the device. It’s just the beginning.”
Pickholtz trained in a Gvahim group that boasted a 100% placement rate. “Gvahim really helped me understand the Israeli work force. Coming from a place in music, I didn’t really want to do that in Israel, but I didn’t really have a direction. They helped me focus on what I was hoping to do in the future and gave me a direction. I really learned how to present myself in a job interview. Once I found the opportunity of Orcam, I was really able to sell myself, to get the job and flourish,” he said.
“A lot of the people there are transitioning in life,” Pickholtz noted, then explained his view of Gvahim’s role in that transition. “So it started with a workshop in finding out where you want to go, and how you can take the skills that you have in one sector and apply them to another – to rebrand. And they talk about what to expect in an Israeli workplace in terms of different pay structures, benefits that Israeli companies offer, how to negotiate. Then further down the line, once they have given you an understanding of those things, they pair you with a representative. You then have one-on-one meetings to try to take it to the next level. They help you with your resumé, help hone it to specific areas rather than a generic one. They offer ideas of where you can direct your attention, where you can apply.”
Pickholtz recalled one or two memorable sessions in which he and his mentor role-played the process and drama of an Israeli job interview.
He concluded, “Ideology brought me to Israel, but finding a good job is allowing me to stay here. So I think programs like this are completely valuable and there should be more.”
Roughly 40% of Gvahim’s current career program participants immigrated from English-speaking countries, some 40% from Western Europe, 20% from Eastern Europe, and a few, Shahar said, “from everywhere else.” The program has thus far catered to participants from 60 countries.
For further information about Gvahim and the career program, visit