Be-Atzmi: Employing individuals, building community

“The question is not anymore if we should go out and work. You can work. Now the question is, ‘How?’”

A collage of Be-Atzmi alumni in their places of employment (photo credit: Courtesy)
A collage of Be-Atzmi alumni in their places of employment
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Who are Israel’s social leaders? According to Zvika Goldberg, CEO of the nonprofit Be-Atzmi organization, they are his employment coaches, counselors and workers who help disadvantaged populations move toward employment that’s suited to their skills and aspirations.
“The headline is ‘employment,’” said Goldberg. “But when an individual finds work, it impacts all aspects of his or her life, and strengthens community and society.”
Goldberg came to Be-Atzmi nine years ago, after a successful career in media.
During his years as a writer and TV personality, Goldberg focused on social matters until he realized, “I wanted to be a partner in what was happening.”
Be-Atzmi is certainly at the forefront when it comes to closing Israel’s economic and social gaps, offering a variety of programs tailored to meet the changing needs of its diverse clientele, which includes Jews – secular, traditional, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – and Arabs.
The organization has long-term employment programs in about 140 locations, benefiting some 9,000 men and women each year. Programs help participants examine their abilities, desires and inclinations and the employment barriers they face. The programs boost their self-confidence and self-efficacy and help participants plan a career path that is consistent with their needs and preferences.
According to recent organizational data, 70% of adults who Be-Atzmi help integrate into the workforce continue in their careers and achieve economic independence. Some 80% of the graduates who successfully complete their program (namely, they found a job or upgraded their terms of employment), report that they are satisfied at their workplace. And some 91% of the participants reported an improvement in their capacity to act to achieve success.
Participants are not required to pay for the programs, which are funded through philanthropy and corporate partnerships and by the public sector, mainly through the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services.
NAFTALI FLINTENSTEIN, who is haredi (ultra-Orthodox), runs Be-Atzmi’s Mifne program, which has dramatically helped less-resilient ultra-Orthodox parents – mostly between the ages of 24 and 45 – obtain stable and fair employment.
Flintenstein said he has seen a big change among haredim since he started working in the field a decade ago.
“The question is not anymore if we should go out and work,” said Flintenstein. “You can work. Now the question is, ‘How?’” Today, only around 50% of ultra-Orthodox men work, according to a report published in 2017 by the Israel Democracy Institute. Haredi women are better integrated into the workforce, with employment levels close to 70% in 2016, above the OECD average of 60%, , according to data from the Bank of Israel.
However, Flintenstein said one must be cautious with those numbers.
“Employment levels among haredi women are high on the one hand, but on the other hand they work for less hours in low-paying jobs,” he said, noting that Mifne means “turning point.”
Flintenstein’s team focuses on helping fathers find employment while extending support to the mothers who typically already have a job and require backing to continue working.
As a member of ultra-Orthodox society, Flintenstein is careful never to make suggestions or recommend anything to a participant that would go against his values or the mandates put forth by community rabbis and leaders.
“Sometimes I feel like I am an emissary on a mission,” he said. “My work is not only to find these people jobs, but to pick them up from some of the lowest places, to bring them out of poverty and other difficult situations.”
Flintenstein said when haredi men start working their lives become much better on all fronts. Nonetheless, he also said prejudices have heavily impact on his ability to place participants.
“When a person wants to get work and the employer sees him in his black and white, he might immediately turn him down,” Flintenstein told The Jerusalem Post. “He’ll say, ‘He is haredi and I don’t know about him.’ He could be a great worker, but negative stereotypes will stop him from getting the job.”
EDEN ADGOICHO expressed similar sentiments.
She told the Post that most people in Israel have some sort of connection (protexia in Hebrew) to help them find a job. Ethiopian immigrants tend to be employed in few positions of power and therefore can provide less opportunities for their community.
“We live in a society that isn’t as diverse as it should be, which views the ‘other’ with skepticism,” Adgoicho said. “When people see us, the first thing they notice is our ‘otherness.’ You can call it racism. A functional society should be able to accept the other no matter what. We are trying to take the otherness and turn it into a positive.”
Adgoicho manages Be-Atzmi’s Shaham program, which enables children from the Ethiopian and other poverty-stricken communities chart a path to success, education and future employment. It helps children improve their academic and social functioning, acquire life skills, and believe in themselves and their future possibilities.
Currently, Shaham is active in 12 cities across Israel.
“The goal is to help the child show some marked improvement by the end of the year-long program,” Adgoicho said. “If the challenge is academic, then we hope his grades improve. If it is social, then we hope the student is more plugged into his or her social environment.”
She said many of the children do not have a parental figure who can serve as a professional role model. As such, the children meet community professionals throughout the year.
“That is how they develop aspirations and the belief that they, too, can have a successful future,” Adgoicho said.
NARIMAN SULEMAN works with the mothers. She runs the Arab track of the Eshet Chayil program, which is intended for mothers from traditional societies or those who are undergoing a cultural transition, such as women from immigrant communities. Most of the participants have no prior employment experience and are not highly educated. The program equips them with the necessary tools, helps them bridge gaps in their language skills and computer literacy, and offers guidance on how to lead balanced lives as working mothers. Eshet Chayil includes approximately three years of mentoring.
Though founded in 1995, Eshet Chayil only expanded its focus to include Arab-Israeli women in 2007, said Suleman. Today, the program operates in 55 Arab towns across the country, reaching some 3,000 people a year. She said the success rate is high, in that as many as 70% report that they can maintain the work which the program helped them find.
“When an Arab woman enters the workforce, she discovers her potential and her strengths and becomes more a part of Israeli society,” said Suleman.
She said that for the individual, working facilitates financial independence, self-expression, meaning, contribution and a sense of belonging.
Moreover, participants make a positive impact on all circles surrounding them – their relationships within the family, the personal example they set, or the hope they give to their children and community.
“When they see one woman do it, they believe they can do it, too,” Suleman said. “What we find is that if we give them a little push, then the person will do it on their own – that if you give these people a chance, the sky isn’t even the limit.”
However, Suleman said, Arabs experience challenges that are similar to those described by Flintenstein and Adgoicho. She thinks Be-Atzmi’s secret is its ability to narrow gaps in employment, while narrowing social gaps in general.
How do the leaders of Be-Atzmi summarize the impact of their work? Flintenstein said when people “live in their own world and in their own city and never meet each other, there are gaps because of a lack of understanding of the other. When we meet in the workplace, these gaps get smaller.
“No one is trying to change anyone else,” he said. “It is just about beginning to understand what is really going on.”
Suleman added that diversity in the workplace is not just about allowing a person to work, but accepting them for who they are and encouraging them to work with you, yet maintain their own culture and values.
“They need to know about me and I need to know about them,” said Suleman. “This will help ensure each person can contribute his or her maximum to society.”
She said the diverse staff at Be-Atzmi manages to work together and learn from each other.
“At Be-Atzmi we break down all the stigmas and demonstrate the impact of a healthy society. This is our strength, and this is the dream for the State of Israel,” she said.
Goldberg took this one step further.
He said that on a recent visit to the United States to meet with Jewish communal leaders, he saw that the American Jewish community was dealing with similar issues.
“Unemployment impacts everything: the family, how kids see their parents, the level of education children will receive, standing in the community.
When you meet someone, one of the first questions you ask them is, ‘What do you do?’” Goldberg continued, “We want to deepen collaboration with the Jewish Federations on the one hand to learn from their work and benefit Israeli society, and on the other, to share our best practices and knowledge with the Jewish community abroad. We think we can take the work we do here and translate it to fit the needs of American society.”
This article was written in cooperation with Be-Atzmi.