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March 8, 2007

Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/tough_neighborhoods_hard_times_feed_cycle_of_poverty_20070309


One advocacy group's look at the problem
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Lis an unemployed 32-year-old single mother, eight months pregnant with her third child and seems to owe money to everyone -- friends, the government and grocers at the local outdoor produce market, where she has bought hundreds of shekels worth of food on credit.

"It's a really hard existence," said L, who is divorced and asked to be identified only by her first initial. "The kids want things that I simply cannot provide. This winter, I could not afford new shoes for the children."

But she added, offering a thin smile: "Luckily my daughter and I now wear the same size, so at least we can share."

Her family recently cut off contact with L after she accused her father of sexually abusing her 10-year-old daughter. He is serving time in jail for the crime.

On a recent afternoon, her neighbor, Yaffa Ezra, 38, joined her for a visit. She was married at 16, divorced at 18. Until recently, she lived across the street with her two grown sons. The older one has a long police record; the younger one has picked a straighter path but has yet to find a steady job.

Ezra and L are part of the fabric of hard times and cohesiveness that make up Shechunat Hatikvah in south Tel Aviv, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, where about half of the families live in poverty.

The neighborhood represents one of the toughest tests for poverty fighters -- a place where generation after generation is entangled in a cycle of poverty. As recent immigrants move in, they also struggle to find their way out of unemployment or low-paying jobs.

Shechunat Hatikvah faces similar problems as the deeply impoverished communities in more outlying parts of the country, the heavily immigrant development towns. In the southern development town of Kiryat Malachi, for example, multiple soup kitchens have opened but no new industry and jobs.

Anti-poverty activists and residents say the situation of many of these towns is the result of decades of government neglect and poor planning -- places seen as dumping grounds where immigrants were settled in demographically strategic locations but far from job opportunities.

Shechunat Hatikvah is located in an area that once was lush with orange groves. In their place now stand dilapidated low-rise apartment buildings and narrow alleyways. Laundry is hung from outdoor balconies, paint often peels off living room walls and families save money by not putting on the heat, even during cold winter nights.

The neighborhood is mostly a mix of descendants of the original Iraqi, Iranian and Yemenite families that first settled here in the early 1950s, as well as recent immigrants from the Caucasus Mountains and Uzbekistan. The new immigrants comprise about 40 percent of Shechunat Hatikvah.

It's also home to others drawn by the cheap rents, including foreign workers from the Philippines and Africa. Rounding out the eclectic mix are about 40 Palestinian families who were settled here by the government after they became informers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Teenagers who dropped out or were kicked out of the army congregate on the corners of the neighborhood's main shopping street, Rehov Etzel, where they eat lamb kebabs or plan where they will meet for a party later the same night.

A store that sells lottery tickets bustles with men filling in numbers on stacks of tickets, hoping the right combination will change their luck. A foreign worker from Africa, fresh from the outdoor market, pushes home bags of fruit and vegetables in a baby stroller. Nearby, retired men play backgammon while grilling meat for dinner on a portable barbecue.

Amid the bustle, an elderly man and woman collect empty bottles and push them in carts up the street, hoping to collect a few cents for each one.

Taking in the evening scene is Ezra's younger son, Ben, 20. Since his mother rented out their home to help make ends meet, he sleeps at the apartments of friends but wonders if he will find a place of his own. He has been arrested several times, mostly for fights, but he says all of that is in the past.

Ben Ezra, who has cropped dark hair, three tattoos and wears two hoop earrings, calls himself "The King of the Neighborhood." Indeed, he seems to know almost everyone, waving a personal greeting to almost everyone he passes.

He now volunteers at a local program for at-risk youth called, Better Together, where he tries to act as a role model, steering others in the neighborhood away from despair and in some cases a life of crime. He is still shaken from the experience of recently helping talk three teens out of killing themselves in the space of a few weeks.

Sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Better Together operates in several of the most socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods in Israel. It tries to help youth-oriented organizations -- schools, welfare offices and community centers -- better coordinate their work and pool their resources more effectively.

Better Together, which advocates an expansive and holistic approach to rehabilitating the Israeli underclass, focuses on children from the very beginning of their lives as members of both a family and a community.

More than half of the children here between ages 3 and 6 need help with motor skills, language and emotional problems. If they aren't treated early, they will start first grade two years behind developmentally, said Noya Baram, national director of Better Together, which is part of JDC's Ashalim project that designs services for at-risk children and their families. Funding is provided in part by UJA-Federation of Greater New York.

"These are like kids racing for a bus they will never catch," Baram said.

Better Together also emphasizes strong parental involvement in family matters. Organizers have found that when parents are marginalized, young people begin to treat them as irrelevant, which leads to even more serious social problems.

The program has helped counteract that trend by sparking a revolution in parental involvement and family bonding, according to Varda Horesh, director of the local welfare office.

Ben Ezra, who hasn't had the benefit of an intact family, walked through the open-air produce market where more and more people in recent years have been buying on credit. He stopped to talk to Avner Chavaton, 56, who sells candy from a stall and has been hit especially hard by tough times. Chavaton's apartment was repossessed by the bank, and he recently had the water in his rented apartment cut off because he could not pay his utility bills.

"In the past two or three years, I have barely had enough to eat," he said, rubbing his hand over his white beard.

Ezra listened. When he walked away, he spoke again of his plans to improve his own life, specifically by getting into a course that will train him to work in the community, hopefully with children and other at-risk youth.

However, social worker Yisrael Sela, his mentor, was concerned. Ezra had not yet been accepted into the course and, in the meantime, has expressed no interest in finding a job. Sela feared for his young friend's future.

"If he does not find a path soon," he said grimly, "he will turn into a threat."

Before N, an ultra-Orthodox woman, landed her job, she and her family of five lived on the $475 a month her husband made studying Torah full time at a yeshiva, plus about another $100 from government child allowances.

Her relatives helped when they could, but the family's monthly income still left it well beneath the poverty level in Israel.

Now N, who like other women interviewed for this story asked that her real name not be used, is earning about $1,200 a month doing paralegal work at a company that exclusively employs religious women like her. She shudders when she recalls the lean, dark days of unemployment and impoverishment.

"It is a scary feeling that you don't have with what to buy in the store," said N, 29. "You need to shop for food and clothes, and you don't have the money."

That feeling has become familiar to more and more Israelis who constitute a growing underclass. In a robust economy that has produced an abundance of millionaires, they are the ones who've been left behind.

Among those hardest hit by poverty in the Jewish state are ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Charedim, and Arabs -- two groups that despite their obvious differences have much in common socioeconomically.

Every weekday, N and hundreds of other women in similar circumstances seek a route out of poverty by trooping to a four-story, stone-faced building along the main road in Modi'in Ilit, a Charedi settlement located about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It is the only office building in the community of 35,000, and it houses Citybook Services Ltd., an outsourcing company that has provided many Charedi women like N and their families a new lease on life. In the process, some say, the first faint rumblings of a revolution are being felt in the Charedi community: Now there are workplaces in Israel that are catering to fit their needs.

Charedi women have traditionally supported their families economically when they could, but such new work settings are groundbreaking in that they are specifically designed for them. The work is in their community, so they are not more than a few minutes from home if they need to tend to their children, and they work almost exclusively with other Charedi women.

Because most are mothers with large families, the hours are structured to suit them. The workday at Citybook, for example, ends at 2:30 p.m.

It also offers options. Most Charedi women had worked in education, but through these new offices, they can be part of the professional, secular international world without compromising their religious precepts. Here they have pension plans and work in an organized, professional environment with bonuses and other financial incentives to achieve and build careers that will increase their earning power. Most of the companies include intensive training, bringing the women to a level on a par with colleagues in the secular world.

Among others involved in Charedi employment initiatives are the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade, which have partnered in a job-training project in six Israeli cities. Yossi Tamir, who is spearheading JDC's new partnership with the government for increased independence through employment, said programs include placing Charedim in high-tech companies that train and hire them as computer programmers.

Another program in Jerusalem trains bus drivers to work routes in Charedi neighborhoods. Also, there are private initiatives from employment agencies and colleges to employ Charedim.

Becoming the Breadwinner

On a sunny winter morning, men cloaked in black scurry by the office building that houses Citybook and two other companies staffed almost exclusively by Charedi women. The men are bound for classes at local kollels or yeshivas for married men. Most will spend their days studying Torah and most receive a modest stipend from the government and their seminaries.

However, it is the women who belong to the settlement's only real workforce. According to the laws of Jewish modesty, their hair is tucked under wigs or neatly tied scarves when in the presence of men or in public, and they wear long-sleeve shirts and skirts that almost skim the floor.

On the fourth floor, they work as paralegals in Citybook's office. On the second and third floors, they work as computer programmers. On the first floor, they scan in data for a digital archiving company.

The computer firm, Matrix/Talpiot, hires women who have studied computers in high school programs and also provides additional software training. The graphic company does a brief training of its employees on how to scan and store images.

For about 80 percent of these women, mostly mothers in their 20s and 30s with large families, it is the first time they have held jobs following years of raising families while living in deep poverty. In most cases, they are the only significant breadwinners in their families, meaning they can enjoy a newfound sense of empowerment, a feeling of confidence in themselves and a fresh sense of control over their lives.

"When I started working, I asked myself how I was living until now," said T, 32, who has six children, a husband who studies full time at a kollel and sizable debts to pay off. "All of a sudden, I could breathe easier."

Until she found a job doing paralegal work through Citybook, the family's main source of income -- like it is for most Charedi families -- was the stipend for her husband's Torah study and child allowances from the state.

She and her family live two flights down from the street entrance of a large apartment block. Baby strollers cramming the lobby testify to the average family size among the Charedim -- seven children per couple. Some strollers even hang on the walls to save space.

T welcomes a guest into her Spartan apartment with freshly scrubbed tiled floors and walls lined with bookcases of religious texts. Framed photos of rabbis mixed with some family portraits are the main decoration.

Two years ago, her family moved from their tiny two-bedroom apartment, where five of her six children had shared one room, to this more spacious three-bedroom place.

"It was crowded for living, and we were able to move up a step," she said, largely due to the salary she earned in Citybook's title insurance department, verifying ownership of New York properties.

On a neighboring street, large families live in smaller apartments. Space is tight. In one apartment, piles of laundry await folding on one edge of a worn couch, just a few steps from a dining room table that takes up half of a living room that measures less than 100 square feet.

In the bedroom designated for four children, beds are pushed together. A crib is tucked in a corner, leaving a narrow passage to enter and exit.

"At night, the beds come out from anywhere or everywhere, and people make do because that's what they have to do," said T, her honey-colored wig skimming the shoulders of her black sweater. "But they are happy. This is the life they chose."

Due to their lifestyle, the Charedim account for much of the poverty in Israel. About 20 percent of those living in poverty in Israel are Charedim, even though they comprise only about 8 percent of the population. Between 40 percent to 50 percent of Charedim live below the poverty line, compared to 17 percent of Jewish families living in Israel as a whole.

Meanwhile, 54 percent of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line.

Among the Bedouin in the Negev, poverty rates are the highest of all -- 66 percent of the community live below the poverty line, according to research conducted by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in conjunction with the Van Leer Institute.

The Plight of Israeli Arabs

The Charedim and Arabs are patriarchal communities that feature large families and deeply conservative cultures. Recent social spending cuts by the government have been especially debilitating for the two groups, because welfare benefits and monthly child allowances were reduced.

Concentrated efforts to bring work to Israeli Arabs, nearly 20 percent of the total population, are under way, but there is no equivalent of companies cultivating work specifically for them as there is for Charedi women, said Michal Belikoff, coordinator of research at Sikkuy, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on civic equality for Israel's Arab citizens.

Most programs in which Israeli Arabs participate are initiated by the Ministry of Trade and Labor as part of wider programs to get those who are considered weaker socioeconomic groups into the workforce. This includes work-preparedness courses and job placement. Private nongovernment organizations are also involved. For example, they train Arab women as entrepreneurs.

In contrast to Charedi men, though, Arab men commonly work -- often in low-paying jobs such as construction, where benefits are scarce and stability is rare. The women are expected to stay at home and care for the children, and therefore they enter the workforce in lower numbers than Jewish women. Arab women are also likelier to drop out of high school than their Jewish peers, limiting their career potential.

Worse yet, finding work can be more difficult for Arabs who tend to live far from the country's economic heart, the center of the country. Even those who live near employment centers sometimes face discrimination by non-Arab potential employers.

Some maintain that Israeli Arabs have been shortchanged through the inequitable distribution of public assistance funding. As a result, private groups have stepped in to try to meet the enormous material needs of Israeli Arabs.

Salwa Kanan, for example, established a volunteer group of women to distribute food in her hometown, the Arab village of Tamra in northern Israel. Kanan talked about a recent visit to Tamra, where a widow with five children opened her refrigerator to reveal its meager contents -- a few pieces of dried-out pita bread.

"People are suffering more and more," Kanan said. "The payments they once received have been reduced, and there is less money to pay for things like food and electricity."

The Islamic Movement, the conservative Muslim political and social arm of Israel's Arabs, also has acted to fill the void, according to Yaser Awad, a statistician who was formerly the head of research for Israel's National Insurance Institute. He said the movement is paying for education for toddlers, providing tutoring for other students, opening afternoon clubs for youths and distributing food parcels.

Making Strides

In the Charedi world, signs of a gradual revolt against a life of self-imposed poverty can be seen, according to Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University who studies that community.

"It is beginning to happen, but it's not an overnight process, especially because overall, Israel as a welfare state for the ultra-Orthodox still works," he said, referring to Charedi political clout in the Knesset that translates into government allowances for married men engaged in full-time Torah study. "But you see in the margins there are people who seek to live differently."

Those margins may continue to grow, albeit slowly and incrementally, according to Eli Kazhadan, an outsourcing consultant and former chief of staff of the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

"The more you see the person next door to you earning more money, you will start asking why," he said. "It's an evolution, not a revolution, because it's a very closed society."

Those who are especially talented and ambitious men are finding their way out of the yeshiva world through secular education and jobs. "But they cannot leave it all at once," Friedman said, "so they leave it slowly."

However, in Charedi families it is fairly common for the woman to work, even part-time, in order for her husband to continue his studies. In Charedi society, Torah study is seen as the ultimate occupation for a man.

Citybook was the first outsourcing company to locate in Modi'in Ilit and the first of its kind nationwide. Joe Rosenbaum, an American Charedi businessman, founded the company here three years ago as a satellite office to an insurance and property services company based in Lakewood, N.J. Six other companies employing Charedi women have since followed to Modi'in Ilit.

Rosenbaum started Citybook here because he thought it made good business sense, not from a sense of charity. In Modi'in Ilit, he and other businesses decided they would be able to tap into a pool of educated and motivated potential employees willing to earn relatively low wages in exchange for working close to home and in a religiously sensitive environment.

Also, the government has provided an added incentive in the form of a subsidy of up to $240 a month per worker, which can account for as much as one-quarter of a full salary.

"I never understood it, and it always bothered me seeing so many people within the Orthodox community having such difficulty making ends meet," Rosenbaum said. "I wondered why they could not have the same opportunities to earn a living with respect like Jews in Israel and Orthodox Jews in America."

Rosenbaum said he hopes his company will serve as a model for many others.

Little Opposition

Charedi leaders have offered relatively little opposition to women working. Rosenbaum said it is in their best interests to encourage the women to support their husbands in Torah study, and as long as the work is done in a religiously sensitive framework, most Charedi leaders have been accepting.

The recent rabbinic ruling prohibiting Charedi women from getting bachelor's degrees in education because their instructors might be secular and teach them "heresy" was not taken as a threat to the trend of increasing numbers of working Charedi women outside of the education system, community members said.

Libby Affen, chief operating officer for Matrix-Talpiot and a Charedi woman who helps lead Temach, a volunteer organization that encourages Charedi women to join the workforce, said she had not seen any effect of the ruling in her business or other any others that employ Charedi women.

At Citybook, the women make about $1,400 a month, about one-and-a-half times above the minimum wage in Israel and just a fraction of what they would be paid for the same work in the United States.

The women are known for their good work ethic -- no personal calls on company time, no Internet surfing. Before they arrive home in midafternoon, their children have been tended to by older siblings, baby sitters or their husbands on lunch break from kollel.

Perhaps they could have taken better-paying jobs in major cities, but the long commute would make it difficult to juggle child care. Also, the absence of a unisex, deeply traditional religious setting would be culturally unacceptable.

"You come in, feel it is a respectable place and that you are respected," T said. "I never worked in an office with men, and I cannot imagine doing so."

Whatever the attraction, the Modi'in Ilit model seems to work, said Yakov Guterman, the mayor of the settlement. He points out that seven companies, mostly in the high-tech sector, are employing a total of 700 people, mostly women. More arrivals are anticipated.

Just downstairs from Citybook, at Matrix-Talpiot, the software development company, about 250 Charedi women are employed. Most had studied basic computing at their religious high schools. The introduction of such courses is a recognition that women in this community will increasingly have to work outside the home for their families to survive economically.

On the first floor, Chaim Arbel, manager of the digital archiving company that employs about 100 women, is thumbing through a stack of files submitted by applicants for another 60 jobs. His supply of job seekers far exceeds the number of openings.

"Here there is no problem of applicants," Arbel said with a satisfied grin.

Citybook Services Ltd.: http://www.citybookservices.com/

Matrix/Talpiot: http://www.talpiot-it.com

Menachem Friedman: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/so/mfriedman.html

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