'Northern exposure' initiative connects small businesses with American Jews

Paulina Geibel-Kravtz, a Kiryat Haim English teacher, found herself unable to work during last summer's war in Lebanon. Developer of a unique method for teaching English to children, she was forced to cancel classes when it became too dangerous for her students to travel the streets. When hostilities ended, she learned that many of the teachers she had trained and employed had returned to their countries of origin to escape the war's hardships. Small businesses in the North like hers were badly affected by the Second Lebanon War. While the government has made attempts at compensating companies for their financial loses, micro-enterprises often fall off the radar. "[Government] compensation hasn't helped these micro-businesses because they're not part of the formal economy," said Yosepha Tabib-Calif, project coordinator for the Social and Economic Justice Initiative at Shatil ("seedling" in Hebrew), a branch of the New Israel Fund (NIF) dedicated to providing NIF grantees with assistance and training in nonprofit management. "There is no legal definition of a micro-business, which is necessary for the government to be able to help." "The war exposed for us the difficulties of the organizations that we work with," said Tabib-Calif. Shatil established a connection with six organizations working with small businesses in the North, offering consultation, training and guidance. After working with these groups for a few months, Shatil created the "Northern Exposure" initiative, which aims to bring artisans and small entrepreneurs in northern Israel into the public eye. The central focus of the project is a Web site, though which creators hope to "facilitate a personal connection" between those suffering economic consequences of the war and communities abroad (primarily Jewish groups in North America). "Most tourists travel up north and see the beauty - the green," said Tabib-Calif, "but a lot of the population is in bad shape. The situation was not good before, but it was the war that exposed it to Shatil." Northern Exposure is developing recommended tours for visitors who wish to see beyond the typical tourist routes. They include stops at restaurants, shops, galleries and guesthouses run by small entrepreneurs, enabling sightseers to take a unique look at Northern Israel and help stimulate the local economies at the same time. The consequences of the war not only hurt established businesses, but also sparked new ventures. Dorit Jordan Dotan, a graphic designer living in Haifa, worked from her apartment, which has large windows overlooking the northern section of the city. Describing the emotions she felt while sitting on her sofa and watching the rockets fall on her neighbors, Dotan explained how she coped through the summer. "I wanted to run away but I had to stay and pay my mortgage... I couldn't continue with my regular business but I wanted to break through to the world, do something joyful and colorful," she said. Additionally, she realized that living in such a small country made her production significantly more sensitive to the impact of the war on the market. "Normal business can suddenly come to a complete stop for a long time. I had to find a way of expanding my business beyond the 'village' I live in." Dotan branched out from the graphic design work she had done for 20 years and "returned to [her] first love... painting." She now creates and markets hand-drawn ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts) on the Web, mostly to customers outside of Israel. "If war comes to Israel again, I can work internationally from Haifa because of the Web site." Mona Abu Eli Assal, a jewelry designer in Nazareth, provided another example of how well the Internet can be utilized when the local economy takes a plunge. "Many of my pieces are bought by brides to wear at their weddings," Mona said while sitting in her new studio, surrounded by her work. "Weddings usually happen during the summer, but with the war, most of them were cancelled. Summer usually pays for my whole year. And also, with the war, I couldn't get to Tel Aviv for supplies." A description of Mona's work and a link to her Web site were posted on Shatil's Northern Exposure site. Her eyes gleamed as she related how one day a European man came into her gallery after seeing samples of her pieces on Shatil and "bought many, many things." But small successes do not overcome the larger task at hand for these entrepreneurs or for Shatil. "The war stopped, but the aftermath continues for up to three years," said Tabib-Calif. She emphasized that the concept behind Shatil, and the groups they work with, was not to sponsor individuals like Dotan and Mona, but to provide the knowledge and training they need to compete on their own in a global market. In addition to providing consultation, Shatil has an arm that lobbies the government to pay attention to the hardships that micro-businesses in Northern Israel are facing. Hurdles remain for small-scale entrepreneurs still struggling with the effects of the war. "It has been difficult to restore business," admits Geibel-Kravtz, "but I am not crying. I am looking forward to the future with optimism. I know that with my methods they can achieve results. I teach them never to think in the negative."