One advocacy group's look at the problem
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Eti Sharabi walked through the glass doors and marveled at the shining hardwood floors and the walls splashed with green and orange, making this space feel more like a sleek advertising or architectural firm than an office to help the unemployed.
She found herself in the headquarters of STRIVE, after not working outside the home since her first child was born 15 years ago.
"I lost faith in myself and thought I would never find it again," said Sharabi, 38, now a mother of four. "Here they have given me so much strength."
Sharabi is part of the expanding Israeli underclass -- a populace that includes the unemployed, the underemployed and the destitute. Many are casualties of what some consider draconian economic policies.
STRIVE, an intensive work-readiness program, is modeled after an initiative of the same name that began more than 20 years ago in New York's Harlem in an effort to help women on welfare overcome their severe difficulties in finding and keeping meaningful jobs.
The program's core message: Participants are important as individuals and therefore are worthy not just of make-work employment but of fulfilling careers.
That message of personal empowerment and tough love is underscored, its organizers explain, by the professional and pleasant look and feel of the STRIVE offices, as well as the intensive personal guidance that the organization provides its clients for more than two years after they enroll.
Participants are counseled in everything from how to pay off personal debts and find creative childcare solutions, to discovering and pursuing an ambitious career path that suits their interests and abilities.
STRIVE is one of at least two programs operating in Israel that are patterned after American-originated efforts to boost employment among the economically struggling and longtime unemployed; it is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government.
Another such American transplant is called Mehalev, Hebrew for "from the heart," based on the state of Wisconsin's welfare-to-work plan that was unveiled in the mid-1990s after the U.S. Congress revamped welfare regulations.
One STRIVE participant is Tsivka Ben-Porat, 36, who spent a decade working in hotel kitchens as a cook -- he had been unemployed for several months before finding STRIVE. With the help of its counselors and coaches, Ben-Porat is now working at a media company editing video, a steppingstone in his new chosen career: communications.
The program, he said, "is like being given a key to life, professionally and personally."
Another STRIVE participant is Hanan Jaffaly, 32, an Arab Israeli single mother of two who had been in and out of what she described as dead-end customer service jobs for years. She supports her children on her own, with no assistance from her family.
Through STRIVE, Jaffaly is hoping to realize her goal of becoming a social worker and finally creating a stable, middle-class life for her family.
Mehalev was designed as a two-year pilot program in four Israeli cities. Launched in 2005, it was aimed initially at getting at least half of the country's 150,000 welfare recipients off the public rolls and back to work. Participants are required to report to employment placement centers for 30 hours a week or lose their welfare income, which averages about $380 per month for an individual.
Safi Sasson, 40, now has the first job he's ever held, thanks to the program. He had spent the majority of his adult life involved in petty crime and spent a total of eight years in prison, off and on, for offenses that included selling drugs and theft.
Sasson never imagined he could be a salaried worker, but for the past three months he has held down a job as a construction worker. He's doing so well, his boss is planning on giving him a raise.
"I was apprehensive about working; I had never done it before," he said. "I've learned a lot, most of all that I am capable of working. In the past I thought no one would ever hire me because of my criminal past.
"I wake up in the morning and I have somewhere to go. I'm feeling great, and it's all because of the work."
Is Mehalev Working?
The program, however, has met with mixed results. It has been widely denounced in the Israeli media and by social welfare advocates, who maintain that Mehalev has backfired. Rather than increase employment, detractors charge, the program has swelled the ranks of Israelis who receive neither paychecks nor public assistance.
A recent report by the National Insurance Institute of Israel found that the program saved Israel $1.43 million in welfare payments since it began, but that relatively few of its participants had found work, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported.
The savings in welfare payments apparently stemmed from people who had dropped out of the program and had their payments cut off.
More than 80 of the Knesset's 120 members signed on to proposed legislation recently that called for a major overhaul of the program. The bill calls for, among other things, canceling the stipulation that all unemployed people -- such as single mothers or those with part-time work -- participate full time in the program or lose their welfare benefits.
The bill also would provide alternative arrangements for the disabled, those nearing retirement age, people who speak little or no Hebrew, and others who activists say are hurt by the program in its present form.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved the establishment of a government committee that will work to make major changes in the program to address some of these same issues.
According to Dorit Novack, until recently the administrator of Mehalev, in the program's first year 11,000 job placements were found for participants. About double that number initially reported to the centers.
Not all the participants stayed in those jobs, however. The figure of 11,000 job placements includes those who have been placed in several jobs successively, Novack noted. But those figures, she said, do constitute progress.
"I am not saying the project has not made mistakes," Novack said. "But the main point of this program is trying to help people change their future. If they are now working a minimum-wage job, that is double what they were making on welfare. I would prefer to see every person work as long as they are able physically."
One of the main differences between the Wisconsin Works program in the United States and the Israeli version is the demographic profile of the participants. In the United States, the focus is predominately on young black single mothers. But in Israel, the clients are men and women, often older than 40, many of them immigrants or Arabs. Some have physical or mental disabilities or limited Hebrew-language skills.
All told, many participants were funneled into the program by the National Insurance Institute without an adequate assessment of "who might be a good fit," according to Sari Revkin, executive director of Yedid, a Jerusalem-based social welfare organization.
"The idea [is] not to get people to change their motivation and skills," Revkin said. "It's to get them into a job quickly. With the population of new immigrants and Arabs this is very, very problematic."
One of the four program centers in Israel is located in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, where some participants are women older than 50 who have never held jobs and have rarely traveled beyond their home villages. Now they are expected to find employment that may carry cultural baggage, in the form of their husbands' or families' disapproval over them working at outside jobs, critics say.
Meanwhile, many workplaces in Arab locales pay below minimum wage. And those Arabs who seek work in predominately Jewish areas, such as west Jerusalem, sometimes encounter discrimination and are refused employment.
However, Roy Newey, group board director for A4E, the British company running the pilot Mehalev program in Jerusalem, said he has seen some success in placing Arab women in jobs. He cites 15 women who found work on a mushroom farm near Jerusalem for about $830 a month, the Israeli minimum wage.
"They have self-esteem, finances, purpose in their lives," Newey said. "It's a real success story."
Of the 8,000 participants who have come through the Jerusalem Mehalev, 3,000 have found and kept jobs since they joined the program in the past year and a half.
Role Playing for Success
At the STRIVE office in Tel Aviv -- others are planned for Haifa and Jerusalem -- a class in how to undergo a group interview is taking place.
In keeping with the STRIVE emphasis on nurturing long-term careers rather than landing stopgap jobs, participants are urged to dress for success. As a result, the Tel Aviv role players are wearing proper business attire -- dark pants, skirts and button-down shirts.
In preparation for the group interview, a common hiring exercise used by Israeli firms, half the class is given a problem to solve collectively. The other half observes and provides feedback on how their classmates performed. For example, they evaluate who displayed leadership qualities, who was a good team player, who knew how to set priorities and who failed to participate sufficiently.
"The enthusiasm is catching and they start believing in themselves, and we see people with very limited desires jump to much wider horizons," said Amir Natan, 33, a former high-tech executive who directs STRIVE in Israel.
Nearly 90 percent of STRIVE participants have found jobs.
One is Sharabi, who said she plans to start work as an office clerk, with hopes of eventually becoming an accountant.
"My oldest son said he has such fun watching me do homework and seeing me interested in something," she said.
Sharabi then politely excuses herself from talking about the program to continue participating in it. The assignment: A role-playing workshop aimed at familiarizing clients with the ins and outs of office jobs.
There is still a lot to learn, she says with a smile.
STRIVE Israel: http://www.striveisrael.org/
STRIVE New York: http://www.strivenewyork.org/