‘I became a Zionist [while living] in Canada,” says Gali Shahar-Efrat ironically.Born and raised in Israel, Shahar-Efrat is the executive director of Gvahim, an Israeli NGO that provides highly qualified new immigrants and returning Israelis with the tools they need to secure employment or develop their start-up businesses in Israel.In 2001, the height of the second intifada, Shahar-Efrat, who was a computer programmer for the world-renowned Israeli hi-tech software company Amdocs, decided she needed a break from the situation here, and jumped on an opportunity to continue programming for Amdocs in Montreal.
But on the day of her relocation abroad with her husband and infant daughter, tragedy struck. Approaching Ben-Gurion Airport on Highway 1, a driver with prior citations who was on probation struck the family’s car at a high speed with his SUV.The next thing Shahar-Efrat remembers is waking up at the hospital surrounded by doctors and a social worker telling her that her eight-month-old had been killed in the accident.The loss of her daughter “was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I was shocked. We had tickets to start a new life and instead I was planning a funeral for the most precious thing in my life.”Following the 30 days of mourning, the desire to escape the country was even more encompassing, and the couple picked up and carried out their plans to move to Canada.After four years in Montreal and another four in Toronto working for Amdocs, giving birth to two more daughters along the way, Shahar-Efrat began “asking questions about our values. Are we Jewish? Are we Israeli? I started looking around and seeing many types of people, including olim [immigrants] who left Israel and moved back to Canada. I asked myself if all the good people – the academics, the doctors, and the engineers – are escaping Israel, who is going to be left there?” At that point she understood that she needed to go home.“I realized that Israel was the best place to raise my kids, so I ‘grew up,’ and said that I would come back to Israel and do everything I could to create change and make Israel a place people choose to live in.”A WEEK after moving back to Israel to “start a fresh new life,” Shahar-Efrat contacted Or Yarok, an organization dedicated to promoting road safety, and asked to come on board as a volunteer. She started giving talks in schools and for soldiers on road safety, and founded an Or Yarok volunteer club at Amdocs to promote awareness as well. Shahar-Efrat was recognized for her efforts by the Transportation Ministry, and in 2012 was given the ministry’s “Israel National Road Safety Award” for her impact.Realizing that she felt more fulfilled in her volunteer work than in her professional career, she decided to make another change.“A friend at Amdocs told me about Gvahim. I was shocked that an organization like that is needed. I was surprised by the lack of support and professional fulfillment for new immigrants.”In 2014 Shahar-Efrat left Amdocs and not only joined Gvahim, but became the organization’s full-time executive director.“For me it’s closure. Seeing all the talented people who left Israel for Canada, I decided to do what I could to help people become fulfilled professionally and stay put here. I learned that our biggest asset is the network in the business community, which is something I wanted to leverage coming from this world to my new job.”Shahar-Efrat explains that Gvahim’s mission is “helping talented people find quality jobs, which helps our country save [hold on to] our biggest asset – human capital – in order to develop the future of Israel.” She adds, “We look at highly skilled immigrants as an asset, and we need to do everything we can to help them, because if we don’t, they will leave.”She says, “Immigrants played an integral role in the foundation of the country and their contribution to Israel’s growth is tremendous.” The only difference is that while back then they used “tools to work the land, today it’s laptops.”Gvahim offers three types of programs in its branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Beersheba, and Haifa, which in 2015, were utilized by more than 600 immigrants and returning Israelis. Gvahim is one of the Rashi Foundation’s eight subsidiaries.According to Shahar-Efrat, Gvahim’s “Career Program” features weekly workshops teaching new immigrants how to “speak Israeli.” This includes information on how to write a CV, how to approach a job interview, including dress standards, how to utilize the social media business platform LinkedIn, how to network, and other helpful tips.She says that these things constitute “barriers for new immigrants when they arrive.” Immigrants don’t have the connections that native-born Israelis have in terms of looking up old army buddies to help secure them a job they are seeking, she explains, so “just sending in a résumé doesn’t work.”Therefore Gvahim provides participants with one-on-one consultations with human resources professionals and secures a mentor to help who specializes in the field they are seeking to penetrate.She adds that Gvahim has connections with 650 companies in Israel who understand and “acknowledge the added value of immigrants.”Nine out of 10 immigrants who enter the Gvahim career program find a quality position within a year. “We don’t give up on anyone, to help them find specific positions they are looking for,” says Shahar- Efrat.One of Gvahim’s many success stories is Alicia Salama. Born in Spain but living in Montreal for the past 22 years, Salama arrived in Israel six months ago with a vast background in the world of fund-raising. However, even though highly skilled and fluent in five languages, she was unable to find a good job, which even led her to consider abandoning her field.“I sent dozens of CVs out and checked job boards, but didn’t have connections here and didn’t know where the good jobs were hiding,” she says.She heard about Gvahim through a friend and decided to enroll in an intensive one-month Career Program course. Through the course, Salama rewrote her CV, got help on using LinkedIn and was assigned a Gvahim HR specialist to help her navigate through Hebrew job sites.Utilizing the workshops and tips from mentors in the field, Salama found success. She was recently named the new Visitors Relations Manager of the American Friends of Magen David Adom.She says that Gvahim, “empowers you not to give up and not to compromise [on your professional goals]. They give you the tools to succeed.”THE SECOND Gvahim program is its “Entrepreneurship Program.” Gvahim operates start-up accelerators in Tel Aviv and Ashdod “helping people transform their ideas into businesses by connecting them to the ‘Start-up Nation’ ecosystem.”Mentors help incubator participants work on their business and marketing plans, advise them on how to pitch their ideas, and after six months give them the opportunity to present their ideas to potential investors.Jenny Drezin, who made aliya from New York three years ago, is the founder and CMO of the Tel Aviv-based mobile app company called Sidekix. The Sidekix app allows users to navigate their way on foot through more than 50 cities worldwide on routes based on their interests: art, shopping, culture, etc.Drezin says when she arrived in Israel, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do as an entrepreneur. But after coming up with an idea through a Gvahim accelerator known as a “Hive” she became immersed in the Israeli start-up ecosystem.One of the key people she met through the program became an investor in her idea. She was able to raise a million dollars in seed money to get her app off the ground.Drezin says that the Gvahim incubator laid the foundation for her new career path. She adds, “Israel is an amazing place to have a start-up since you have so much support and resources.”The third program Gvahim offers is the MASA-accredited “Professional Internship Program.” Student participants arriving in Israel are given internships at one of the companies Gvahim works with in order to gather exposure and experience in the world of Israeli start-ups.SHAHAR-EFRAT IS already thinking about Gvahim’s future. Her goal is to “widen support for highly skilled new immigrants.”She says that a large percentage of skilled French Jews today choose Canada or the US as their first destination to move instead of Israel, and “we need to attract them with a better absorption process.” The greatest barrier when it comes to a successful aliya is making a living. “If you can’t support your family, you won’t stay here,” she says.Her goal is to open more Gvahim centers to reach 4,000 to 6,000 immigrants each year. “We need to do what we can to keep this human capital in the country.”Gvahim is expanding to help other professionals with their careers outside the business sector, especially those who are having trouble obtaining licensing in their fields once they move to Israel.The organization has recently started to connect medical professionals looking for work to the heads of the Assuta Medical Center currently under construction in Ashdod. Gvahim works with Nefesh B’Nefesh to help immigrants in the Beersheba area with employment, and with the Jewish Agency to do the same for those in the Haifa area.While Gvahim takes up nearly all of her time, Shahar-Efrat still manages to volunteer with Or Yarok and give talks to groups on Fridays. She is currently focused on alerting young people to the potential dangers involved with riding electric bikes.“If I save even one person [from being hurt on the roads] in my Friday lectures then it’s worth my efforts.”Despite her personal tragedy, Shahar- Efrat exudes confidence in Israel’s potential for greatness.“We have a young country with a long way ahead of us. We must be optimistic, and we must do what we can to build and improve the country. If everyone takes a small role to give back to the community, we will have a great country for generations.”