Serving up the skills for life

For wayward teenagers in Beersheba’s Dalet neighborhood, working at Cafe Ringelblum – a ‘social project’ – pays off in more ways than one.

cafe ringelbaum founders_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cafe ringelbaum founders_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In its glory days, the old building at Rehov Ringelblum 86 in Beersheba was a shoemaker’s shop, but when that closed, the building stood empty and abandoned for some 20 years. Not that graffiti-strewn derelict buildings were uncommon in Shchuna Dalet, Beersheba’s most distressed neighborhood. In Dalet, buildings and lives alike seem to veer off into non-productivity, unless someone intervenes.
Someone intervened at Ringelblum 86. And after two years of rehab and renovation, the building debuted as Cafe Ringelblum and almost instantly attracted a loyal cadre of regulars.
With its comfortable wood-and-wicker seating outdoors and its cozy inside seating area, people from all over the city – students, pensioners, young couple and city officials – claimed Cafe Ringelblum as their own. Some come to relax, sipping the excellent coffee. Others enjoy the reasonable prices for healthy kosher lunches and dinners.
Since the cafe is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., it’s a convenient watering hole for almost everyone.
What would not be apparent – unless someone tells you – is that Cafe Ringelblum is much more than just a good place to eat. It’s actually a functioning “social project,” a business created to help reclaim the lives of wayward teenagers in the neighborhood, lives that were at much at risk of being lost and abandoned as was the old building itself.
The metamorphosis came about due to the efforts of a Nahal unit, participants in an army program that allows soldiers to combine army service with social action projects.
“We’re members of the Kama Community, a small garin of 34 members,” says Noam Horowitz, one of the founders of Cafe Ringelblum. “We served in the army together, then chose Beersheba as the place we wanted to work in education and other projects.
“We’ve been working with local youth here in Dalet since 2004. The cafe is a business we created to serve as a vehicle to train young kids to work, to learn a trade and escape the life of unemployment and poverty that traps too many Dalet residents. By giving them the training they need to find a good job, we’re helping them help themselves to a better life. That’s the purpose of the cafe.”
AS A group, Kama Community appears to present an interesting combination of youthful idealism and solid business acumen.
Take the name “Kama.” What does it mean?
“Nothing,” the 31-year-old Horowitz laughs. “It doesn’t stand for anything. We needed to come up with a name really quickly, and nothing came to mind. Then someone said, “How about ‘Kama’?’ That was it.”
If the choice of name sounds haphazard, the running of the cafe is anything but.
“Fifteen kids are in training here at any given time,” Horowitz notes. “They’re recommended by social workers and range in age from 16 to 18. Each works 90 to 120 hours a month, plus attending a weekly session with a social worker. They have to abide by the rules – if they don’t, they don’t get shifts. And if they don’t get shifts, they don’t get paid, which is a lesson in itself.
“They earn minimum wage from the day they begin, even though we spend their first two to four months teaching them how to work.”
So they start by learning how to wash dishes or separate an egg?
“No, not at all,” Horowitz laughs again. “We start with things much more basic than that. We start by teaching them to show up for work – on time – and to actually finish their shift. They need to learn that they’re required to work the whole shift, and not just walk off if they feel like it.
“For the first two months, they’re not really working; they’re learning how to work. They’re also learning the connection between working and getting paid. Some struggle with that. A few have quit, but then, after a couple of weeks, they’ve come back. That’s really good. It shows that they’re thinking and evaluating their options.”
The teenage trainees all come from the Dalet neighborhood.
“They’re what the social workers call ‘at-risk’ kids, but we’re very careful about what words we use. The first thing to recognize about them is how strong they are. They may come from weak families, but to go through what they have, and be able to do what we see them do, they’ve proven to be incredibly resourceful.
“They’ve had the strength to decide not to just hang out on the streets, but to buck the trend and do something different with their lives.”
Horowitz has his own theory about why Dalet seems to have more than its share of problem kids.
“There’s been a lot of money poured into this neighborhood, that’s true,” he admits. “But most of it came from the top down, shekels just handed over. The problem is that most of those shekels ended up back in the center of the country. They didn’t create prosperity by circulating locally.
“What we’re doing is putting shekels to work locally, teaching the kids a trade. The shekels they earn stay here – that benefits not just the kids themselves, but the neighborhood and the city, too. I have to add that the whole city hall has been incredibly supportive of our efforts. They’ve helped us enormously.”
So once the trainees have passed their four-month training period, what happens next?
“They start learning other things, like how to prepare food, cook and serve,” Horowitz says. “We’ve got a great chef, Kim Nave. He was with Rafael Restaurant in Tel Aviv, came to Beersheba, started to volunteer, then we were lucky to sign him on as chef.
“He teaches them everything – he’s very knowledgeable and precise, great with the kids. We offer a dairy menu – homemade pizzas, gnocchi, several varieties of pasta, salads of all kinds, fresh fish, sandwiches and a lot of homemade desserts. They get experience preparing all kinds of foods.”
Can they stay and work at Cafe Ringelblum as long as they want?
“No,” Horowitz says. “We’re offering job training, not permanent employment. When they get to be 18, they either go to work in the food service industry, or they go into the army. The cafe has been open for only two years, but already we’ve had success stories. One of our graduates finished the army, now he’s going back to school. That’s what we’re aiming at, for all of them.”
Realizing that Cafe Ringelblum operates as a “social project” may be one surprising factor, but another is that unlike many similar projects around the country, it is not a charity or a non-profit organization. It competes with regular businesses and is designed to make money for its investors.
“Our business partner is Dualis Social Venture Fund,” Horowitz notes. “At first, we’d thought of running the cafe as a non-profit, but when we looked at the pluses and minuses, this business model made more sense.”
Allen Barkat, former CEO of Apax Partners, a leading private equity investment group, is chairman of the board of Tor Hamidbar, Cafe Ringelblum’s parent company. Having made aliya from Toronto some 40 years ago, Barkat trained as an engineer at the Technion, then spent many years in hi-tech.
“About 20 years ago, I decided to focus on social projects,” Barkat says. “I was chairman of the Ness Fund, making business loans in the Negev, and served as mentor for a number of businesses. Through all of that, I came to the conclusion that there was a real need to encourage social entrepreneurs to create profitable social businesses.
“There’s a big benefit to structuring a social business as a for-profit venture,” Barkat, who lives in Ra’anana, says. “If you’re a non-profit, every year you have to go back to your philanthropists to ask for more money, funding for the next year. That takes a lot of time and resources. But in a for-profit business, after you’ve invested the first time and reach profitability, you don’t need to go back to the well, year after year, to beg for more. You’re earning it yourself.
“Dualis was created as a venture fund for social businesses,” Barkat explains. “We invest, then we work with the entrepreneur to build a social business, one that will earn 50 percent of what a similar business would earn. We operate with a double bottom line – we have a social bottom line, and a business profit bottom line. It’s a balance between the two worlds.”
IS CAFE Ringelblum making a profit?
“Almost,” says Horowitz. “We’re almost there. We had to make a couple of adjustments. At first we tried to operate with only four professionals, but that didn’t work. Now we have half professionals and half kids. You have to have people around who know how to run a business.
“Then too, remember that our trainees spend their first two to four months learning how to work, while they’re still being paid. That’s expensive – not to mention the high cost of food right now. But we’re doing fine. We’re on schedule.”
For Horowitz, the success of Cafe Ringelblum represents his kind of Zionism.
“I grew up in Hod Hasharon,” he notes. “We’re five brothers. My twin brother just finished a stint as an emissary in Manchester, England, and is here now, too, as a part of Kama Community.
“Everyone probably has his own definition of what Zionism means – but for me, it means working to build a better society.
“My wife and I live just a stone’s throw from the cafe, and our two kids are growing up in Dalet. But you know what? I don’t say that anymore. Now I say they’re growing up in Beersheba.
“Dalet isn’t what it used to be. It’s changed, and I like to think that what we’re doing here plays a small part.
“Every time I see one of our trainees move ahead and find success somewhere, it makes me think. I’ve been working with some of these kids since they were in seventh grade. There were some days when all I seemed to do was say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’ – or ‘Kol hakavod, that was good!’
“But at the end, when you see them go out into the army or land a good job, you know that everything you did was worth it.”
Cafe Ringelblum, Rehov Ringelblum 86, Beersheba, (08) 649- 1001, is kosher (Badatz).