Diamonds in the rough

Jewelry company Yvel is sharing its wealth with Ethiopian Israelis, training them as crafters

Yvel is located in Motza 52I (photo credit: Courtesy Yvel)
Yvel is located in Motza 52I
(photo credit: Courtesy Yvel)
Moshe Levy was an Argentinean entrepreneur whose wide-eyed Zionism led him to uproot his family from their native Buenos Aires and immigrate to Israel.
Having arrived in 1963 with the best of intentions, Levy was eager to enter a business venture so he would be better able to provide for his wife and two sons.
Levy had given nearly all his money to an Israeli sausage factory owner in Jerusalem in hopes of entering into a business partnership. But three months later the owner had disappeared, taking Levy’s investment money with him.
“He left my father, as we joke today, with a sausage in his hand,” says his son, Isaac Levy.
“Basically, after three months living in Israel, we found ourselves with no family, no money, without understanding the country or the language. It was a pretty tough start for a young family in a tough country.”
The bitterness of being cheated had lingered within the family for years, so much so that it drove Isaac Levy to vow retribution.
“As a child, every time we used to go down the hills of Jerusalem, my brother and I used to always ask my father, ‘Where is the sausage factory?’” Levy recalls. “And he would always point in that direction and utter really bad words about that guy and what a thief he was. He was really bitter about the whole situation. For years we grew up with that bitter feeling that the guy took away the land and that sausage factory from us. As a child, I always said to myself, ‘That piece of land belongs to my family, to my father.’” Forty-seven years later, Levy has made good on his pledge. The plot of land in Motza that was home to the sausage factory and later converted into a winery is today the home to Yvel, Levy’s multimillion-dollar jewelry empire, which he cofounded with his wife, Orna.
Yvel is an internationally known brand name whose products, particularly its uniquely designed and finely crafted pearls and gemstones, are sold in more than 650 stores across five continents. Its earrings and necklaces have been sported by the biggest names in show business, and the company caters to a wealthy clientele that includes members of the Saudi royal family. In addition, the Levys have been recognized for their craftsmanship, having received the jewelry industry’s most prestigious honor – the Town and Country Couture Design Award – three times in a row.
Yet the dizzying success and newfound wealth never blinded Levy to his humble origins. With the memories of those frustrations from his early years in the country all too fresh in his mind, Levy decided that he would use his advantageous position to help newcomers whose stay in Israel has been marred with indignities.
Not only does his company offer special preference to new immigrants – 90 percent of Yvel’s workforce is comprised of olim from places like the US, the former Soviet Union, Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia – but it also offers Ethiopian immigrants a path to a career in jewel crafting.
“The Ethiopian community always touched his heart,” says Orna Levy, who is herself a fourthgeneration jeweler from the world-famous Moussaieff jewelry dynasty. “I think he has a very soft spot for new immigrants who didn’t succeed.
As the years went by and as our company grew and as we made more money, he always said, ‘Whenever we have the opportunity to do so, I want to do something for the Ethiopian community.’ Then he decided that he wanted to establish a jewelry crafting school and to build it in our new facility.”
The school, which is named after Andrea Bronfman, the late wife of billionaire philanthropist Charles Bronfman, “gives [Ethiopian immigrants] a chance to acquire professional skills in line with their abilities, providing them with an opportunity to join the Israeli workforce, earn a living, overcome poverty and become part of Israeli society,” says Levy.
The first-of-its-kind school offers one-year training programs, which are subsidized by contributions from private donors solicited by the Levys, to immigrants who were selected from absorption centers. The first group of 21 immigrants that make up the school’s inaugural graduating class is in the midst of finishing up its course work, which includes lessons in crafting, sketching and drawing.
The school also offers the olim Hebrew lessons.
Upon completing the course, the graduates receive a certificate from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry as licensed jewelry crafters. Afterward, they have the option of continuing at Yvel as full-fledged employees or seeking work elsewhere.
“They didn’t come here with a background in crafting, nor did they have any knowledge of jewelry manufacturing,” says Levy. “They are so filled with motivation to learn more, that they never miss an assignment or a task, and they are never late. There are stories of people who have experienced great difficulties in their day-to-day lives.
These are not people who have had it easy, and they have had a very hard aliya. But they are not willing to give up. They will do everything to come here, and it’s just amazing,” she marvels.
Wubalem Ambila is a 31-year-old single mother of two. A resident of Talpiot who made aliya seven years ago, Ambila is now about to earn a certificate in jewelry crafting. She says she could not imagine how her life would have turned out without enrolling at Yvel’s academy.
“It was difficult [making aliya],” she says. “It was hard [dealing with] a new language and finding work, but it’s better now than what it was. I started out working in cleaning, which I did for four years. Now I have a good opportunity. I’m learning the profession, and I get a grant, too. I like the work, and I get great satisfaction out of it. Also, we are treated like family here. [The people here] don’t look at us the way they did in other places and other jobs. They embrace us, and they encourage us. This is good.”
The school comprises just one section of the sprawling 1,390-square-meter complex with a courtyard deck that lies adjacent to a 160-year-old Jerusalem-stone structure that had previously housed the Efrat Winery. Since Yvel bought the property, it preserved and refurbished the site, which now has a small movie theater, a wine cellar that offers samplings of the finest vineyards in the Jerusalem hills, a visitors’ and information center and an exhibition and display hall that features some of the company’s most illustrious and expensive handiwork.
“Making money is only the tool to achieve what really makes you happy in life,” says Isaac Levy.
“You want to be able to do what you would like.
This is my opportunity to treat people the way I want to be treated, the way I was not treated as a kid. I am using the tools, which is money, to be able to say, ‘This is the way to do it.’” Levy says his motivation for building the school was purely philanthropic. His empathy for the suffering of the Ethiopian community stirs up anger at the way they are mistreated by native Israelis.
“We all come to the world to create a better world; that’s the way that I look at it,” he says.
“For me, it’s my tikkun olam. The Ethiopians are the most tolerant, the most sensitive and the most mistreated community in Israel, which drives me nuts. When I hear about the discrimination in Petah Tikva, where they don’t let [Ethiopian] children into public schools, I could kill someone. I don’t understand how a country that was built on the ashes of six million Jews is discriminating against its own people. It’s beyond my comprehension,” he says.
“So when I decided that we were going to open a school, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘We’re going to reach out to the Ethiopians. It’s reaching out to the weakest, to the ones that need the most help. People have been talking about arvut hadadit [the principle of mutual concern for one another] and tzedek hevrati [social justice, a slogan often uttered during the recent tent protest]. Well, we’ve been doing it for the last 25 years. This is how you try to bridge the gaps because otherwise, we are really going to go down the drain.”