February 17, 2009

Briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO and Executive Vice President

A theme that runs through JDC’s global work is a commitment to not only address the immediate needs of a particular community or population—but also to empower and prepare them to meet those needs on their own.

One of the communities that is beginning to show signs of growing economic independence are the Haredim. One reference to this Hebrew word can be found in the book of Isaiah 66:5, where Isaiah refers to God-fearing Jews as “those who tremble (haredim) at His word.” Commentators remark that it is “an eagerness to fulfill God’s will” rather than “fear” that inspires these Orthodox Jews to devote themselves to learning Torah and doing mitzvot, while living in enclosed communities and carefully controlling their interactions with the secular world. This seclusion, however, has come at a price.

In Israel, for example, over 50 percent of the Haredi community live below the poverty line and lack the needed credentials to work. And as the Israeli government has transitioned from giving welfare cash benefits to a “welfare to work” approach, the government’s employment services are not yet equipped to address the unique religious and cultural barriers of especially vulnerable populations like the Haredi community. Enter JDC…

As a leader in providing creative employment solutions for the Haredi population since the early 1990s, JDC partnered with the Israeli government in 2005 to launch the TEVET Employment Initiative—under the professional leadership of Yossi Tamir—to prepare not only Haredim but also immigrants, young adults, people with disabilities, and Israel’s minorities for gainful employment.

Following a year of planning, on January 19-21 of this year JDC convened the First International Conference on Haredi Employment in Jerusalem.

Thirteen professionals representing a variety of Haredi Jewish community-based organizations from Montreal, London, New York, and Chicago joined more than 175 of their Israeli counterparts—who partner with JDC to lead the field of Haredi employment programs—for three days of relevant and thought-provoking sessions, site visits, and presentations.

Sam Amiel, JDC’s Director of Global Employment Initiatives, shares that the objective of the conference was to establish a network of organizations and professionals who are involved in the field of Haredi workforce development around the world. We are hopeful that this meeting will be the first in a series of seminars designed to offer the professionals:
  1. an understanding of the complexities of such a field; and the sensitivity required in working with people transitioning from the world of Torah study, which is not financially sustainable, into the preparation process of finding a dignified job and entering the workforce;
  2. professional enrichment tools and ideas;
  3. a peer network for sharing and learning best practices from around the world; and
  4. an international forum for cooperative and interregional projects and collaboration.
The Conference provided JDC-Israel and the TEVET Employment Initiative with an excellent opportunity to showcase our cutting-edge programs in this growing field.

Highlights included a panel discussion on “Haredi Employment and Local Municipalities” with the participation of the Mayor of Modi’in Ilit, the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, the Director of the Welfare Department in Ashdod, and a representative from Agudas Community Services in London; and a session focusing on “Employment, Community, and the Media.” The delegates also visited high-tech training programs in B’nai Brak and in Modi’in Ilit and a Haredi employment center and hydrotherapy clinic in Ashdod.

It seems that this meeting of the minds on Haredi employment issues made a big impact on the participants. A New York professional remarked: “The Conference was an outstanding success not only because we saw impressive programs and accomplishments. We saw commitment, seriousness, respect, dynamism, business, and professionalism in the partners at each venue. Yasher Koach!”

The delegates left Israel empowered and enthusiastic about continuing to connect with one another in order to share best practices, and they look to JDC and TEVET as a tremendous professional resource.

Today, approximately 30,000 Israelis are being impacted by TEVET programs—and Irv and I are very pleased that Haredim are an important part of the mix. This Conference is yet another example of JDC’s capability to lead the global Jewish community with professional excellence, and it reflects our unique position to serve as a bridge between communities on critical issues in the Jewish world today. It reinforces what we all express through JDC’s mission: that strengthening one Jewish community strengthens the entire global Jewish family.

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