To the American ear, Rifka Lebowitz’s slight accent hints of her aliya with her family at age 12 from the tiny Jewish community of Glasgow, Scotland. Fluent in Hebrew and living with her husband and children just outside Beit Shemesh, Lebowitz devotes her professional life to her long-held dream of “helping people with their money.”
Her family in Glasgow was so Zionist, and she came to Israel so often, that she was too young on her first trip to Israel to remember it. One vivid childhood memory of Israel involved joining a cousin at a summer camp in Netanya where they drank shoko bsakit (chocolate milk in a plastic bag) and ate lahmaniot (bread rolls) on the beach. Although active in Bnei Akiva while her family still lived in Glasgow, it was clear that the community, whose Jewish education ended after sixth grade, was dying. Israel was always the obvious destination.
Fast forward six years, and Lebowitz was given the unusual task of managing automated donations and foreign currency transactions during her National Service at Yad Sarah, Israel’s medical equipment lending organization.
Originally planning to study accounting, Lebowitz got a degree in business and finance from Bar-Ilan University as well as certification as a portfolio manager. She worked in a boutique investment management firm and then, with two small children, accepted a job at a bank 10 minutes from home.
“I had no intention of working at a bank,” Lebowitz recalled. But when, despite being fluent in Hebrew, she and her husband had a bank transaction that went bad, she realized that banks could have offered them more service.
“I really enjoyed working in the investment firm, but I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to help people with money. I was also volunteering at Lema’an Achai,” a Beit Shemesh-based non-profit that teaches people to become financially self-sufficient.
“I saw that the wealthy people had just as much frustration as those without much money or that they weren’t always managing their money well. The whole time, in the investment firm and in the bank, every single day, I saw there was a need to help people. I saw olim make mistake after mistake. I saw people run through their money, setting up a lifestyle they couldn’t afford in Israel.”
She was so passionate about helping people manage their money better that, in 2009, she took a scary step and left the bank, at which she had unionized lifetime job security, to start a private consulting practice. She began slowly, in the days before Facebook, getting referrals from friends, advertising on local community lists and in Yahoo groups.
She’s a fan of the work of Prof. Dan Ariely, who writes about “how we are irrational with money. I took a course on the psychology of money – why we spend, what we do with it. This knowledge contributed to my ability to help people.”
Her goal has always been to “help families make smarter financial decisions. I’m very passionate about this!” Since 2009, her career in financial education has grown far beyond private consulting. Lebowitz estimates that her work has touched many thousands of people, the majority of whom are English-speaking olim or prospective olim.
Lebowitz said that the biggest mistakes olim make with money comes from “a simple lack of awareness, which stems from a genuine lack of time. It’s overwhelming to make aliya and there are so many things to learn. They aren’t aware of what’s going on with income. People haven’t noticed what they should be paying attention to.”
In order to help olim who might not hire her as a private consultant, she started the Living Financially Smarter in Israel Facebook group in 2010. She started by posting useful information and the group grew exponentially. Today, there are more than 18,000 members and the group boasts a very active exchange of information.
Lebowitz spends about 10 hours a week managing the group and brought two other administrators on board: Danny Newman answers questions about the insurance industry and Binyamin Radomsky handles accounting questions. Lebowitz sees these as complimentary professions and everyone benefits from their participation. She’s received hundreds of private messages from group members, detailing how advice they received in the group helped.
Rebekah Saltzman made aliya in 2014 and lives in Haifa. An active group member, Saltzman said, “I learn so much about how not only the financial system works in Israel, but how to deal with all sorts of issues like warranties, investments, and savings. I love how Rifka has included other experts to help her navigate areas she is not an expert in.”
Eliyahu Kanush lives in Bat Ayin and made aliya in 2004. He uses the group “for gaining and sharing real information about understanding how financial processes work in Israel. I’ve found the process of being an oleh frustrating at times. With the help of the LFSII group, I’ve been able to ask questions and hear people’s real experiences and strategies, which has translated in me being able to be wiser and less wasteful. Culturally, I’ve also been surprised to hear that one can and should negotiate with banks. I never would have thought of that.”
For a while, the Facebook group had a reputation for being an unwelcoming environment for newbies. Today, the administrators remove people who are condescending to those asking basic questions. “We want to encourage learning, so we kick people out who are not contributing and scaring people away. Today, we screen every single person before they join. We check to see that they are living in Israel or that they are likely to be making aliya.”
The Living Financially Smarter in Israel group has spawned three related groups – LFSII Recommendations, where people can ask others for recommendations, and LFSII Entrepreneur and LFSII Investments, for those with more specific questions.
The latest product in Lebowitz’s tool kit is a brand-new book called Smarter Israeli Banking. Written for English speakers coming to Israel who don’t understand the Israeli banking system, the book covers topics such as bank transfers, children’s accounts, the Post Office Bank, foreign currency exchanges, getting a loan in Israel, how Israeli credit cards work and much more. “I even included a chapter of funny banking stories,” Lebowitz said.
The book will be available online, at launch events scheduled for Beit Shemesh, Gush Etzion and Jerusalem and, eventually, in local book stores.
Asked about the future of banking in Israel, Lebowitz opined, “Banking technology isn’t cutting edge but it’s getting there. We’ve seen dramatic improvement in the last two years. At the end of the day, it’s in the banks’ interest to let people do things online. I think it will be really cutting edge in a few years. I think the banks here will be super modern and banking apps will be very friendly. But because of international money laundering rules, banks are very strict and that will get worse, not better."
Lebowitz squeezes all this and the online courses she’s preparing for olim and for couples getting married into the morning hours. With four children ranging from age five to 16, she noted that she “really makes every effort to be available for my kids when they get home at 3:15 p.m. I’ve cut down evening meetings and commitments. I don’t want to be working full time, all the time. I enjoy an excellent work-life balance. I love it. I’m happy.”