I am always in favor of the underdog, says Levy. I support those who have no luck, those whom society gave up on, because I was once one of them and if I succeeded, anyone can.
As a child whose family moved to Israel from Argentina for Zionist reasons, his childhood was tainted by an ugly incident: his fathers business partner ran away will all their savings, leaving the family destitute and shaken, and without the sausage factory that was supposed to have been their source of livelihood in their new country.
Fast-forward by almost 50 years. By then Isaac Levys international jewelry business was very successful (see box), and he insisted on relocating his factory to the exact same piece of land where his fathers ill-fated sausage factory once stood. For Levy, the 2010 opening of the new Yvel complex in Motza was a way of coming full circle for him and his family.
However, that wasnt enough. Levy never forgot what his family had to endure as new immigrants, and vowed to soften the landing for other olim. Over 90% of the 107 people employed at Yvel are immigrants, hailing from 23 different countries. Deciding to focus his efforts on assisting the Ethiopian community, Levy founded a program specifically designed for this group.
Trouble adapting to Israel
The Megemeria School of Jewelry and Art is located on the premises of the stunning Yvel factory and visitors center in Motza, at the entrance to Jerusalem. It is operated by the non-profit organization Yedid – The Association for Community Empowerment, and is funded by Isaac and Orna Levy, with additional financial support from friends and foundations around the world. The 21 students at Megemeria are all new immigrants from Ethiopia who, on average, arrived in Israel around ten years ago.
Sadly, Jews who made aliya from Ethiopia encountered massive challenges upon arriving in the promised land. Most have had trouble adapting to life in Israel, and they have frequently been relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. Most Israelis simply accept the fact that Ethiopian-Israelis tend to work in the most menial jobs, and that even those who were born in Israel have not been integrated into mainstream society.
But Isaac Levy is not like most Israelis, choosing instead to actively reach out to this community and offer hope. By founding the Megemeria School together with his wife Orna, Isaac has taken it upon himself to train immigrants from Ethiopia to become professional jewelry craftsmen, thereby assuring them a respectable career and a ticket to a better life.
Megemeria means Genesis in Amharic, and the name could not be more suitable. Indeed, the school offers a fresh beginning to the lucky students who were accepted to the program. The Megemeria School opened its doors in September, 2010 and the first class of 21 students was chosen out of approximately 300 applicants. The Levys were eager to give an opportunity to those who had fire in their eyes and would otherwise fall between the cracks of society. Of those who were accepted, 13 were women – including five single mothers – and eight were men.
Teaching more than a trade
The studies at Megemeria are intensive – five days a week, approximately seven hours a day – but rather than paying for their education, each student receives a NIS 4,000 monthly stipend. Indeed, Levys vision is far broader than merely teaching a trade; he wants to strengthen them in every possible way.
For that reason, the School did not just go straight to the business of teaching how to make jewelry. Many of the students didnt know much Hebrew, and so a translator was brought in and Hebrew classes became an important part of the initial curriculum.
It soon became apparent that the students needed basic instruction in other fields as well. They were asked to pour 2/3 cups of water, but they didnt know what 2/3 meant. So we decided to give them Math classes, recalls Levy. Time management was another field in which they needed reinforcement, and so workshops were included to teach about using a calendar and other basic concepts that were not part of their culture in Ethiopia.
The program also includes weekly excursions to destinations all over the country, thereby encouraging the students to familiarize themselves with their new homeland. Although these trips have nothing to do with jewelry, they illustrate the Levys commitment to helping new immigrants adapt to Israel and become equal members of society.
In the Schools first year, Meir, Megemerias beloved and devoted teacher, suspected that some of the students may have undiagnosed vision problems. Levy brought in an optometrist and, sure enough, seven students needed glasses! Of course, the Levys took care of that as well. This holistic, caring approach towards each and every student is what makes Megemeria so special.
In addition to the teaching staff, led by Meir, a full-time social worker is also on hand to help the students cope with a variety of issues. We dont give up on anyone, insists Levy, adding that, We made sure that all the students graduated. We didnt let anyone drop out.
A unique collection
Not only did the Levys take it upon themselves to educate and train 21 Ethiopian immigrants in each class, they also promised to help them find work upon graduation. Since there are very few job opportunities in the field of jewelry design and production, especially in the Jerusalem area, the majority of graduates from the first class was hired by Yvel.
At the same time, Levy decided to set up a parallel jewelry business, specifically dedicated to producing and selling pieces designed by Megemeria graduates. This unique jewelry collection features pendants, earrings, bracelets and rings made of 24K gold-plated brass, and their design is inspired by the Ethiopians personal and collective experience. Many of the pieces incorporate inscriptions of such words as love, peace and friendship in Amharic.
The Megemeria Collection is run as a separate business that benefits from synergy with Yvel but is operated as an independent company. All profits from the sale of the jewelry from this special collection are reinvested into Megemeria and help pay for the cost of running the school. The Megemeria Collection is run entirely by graduates of the first Megemeria class, including its director, Genet Adma. When the second class will graduate, they too will have an opportunity to work for the Megemeria Collection.
The Collection is sold at the Yvel Design Center and at other Yvel points of sale worldwide, as well as being marketed independently at museum gift shops and other venues both in Israel and abroad.
A new partnership looks to the future
Isaac Levy has seemingly fulfilled his dream – he is the president of a successful international company that hires new immigrants from all over the world, and he is also a philanthropic entrepreneur who provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to members of the Ethiopian community. But thanks to a chance encounter with mega-industrialist Stef Wertheimer, Levy has found an ideological soul mate with whom he plans to further develop his vision.
Wertheimer – a true Zionist in the best sense of the word, and someone who has devoted his life to improving Israeli society, mainly by supporting educational initiatives – was captivated by what he saw, and offered to become a partner in Megemeria. In October 2013, the Levys and Stef Wertheimer signed a partnership agreement whereby each party holds a 50% share in Megemeria.
In addition to providing a financial anchor for the school in Motza, the new partnership plans to duplicate the Megemeria model in other locations in Israel. Already, a second jewelry school is slated to open in Nazareths Industrial Park in September 2014. However, rather than serving Ethiopian immigrants, the Nazareth project will be open to Arabs and Jews from the Galilee who will benefit from the same type of education as do their counterparts in Motza.
Levy emphasizes that the new arrangement with Wertheimer is a purely philanthropic partnership, and the shareholders cannot take funds out of the company. All revenues must be reinvested into the project for the sole benefit of the schools and factories.
This is the first time ever that Stef has a 50% share in a company. Usually he has majority shares, and this is a very strong statement, Levy points out. For us, it is a stamp of approval and a chance to increase our exposure. Eventually, we may even copy the concept to other fields, such as the textile and food industries. Why not?
Tsgereda, a smiling and shy young woman in her 30s, arrived in Israel 12 years ago from Ethiopia. She is divorced and the mother of a 6-year old girl. During her first 11 years in Israel she cleaned houses for a living. Back in Ethiopia, she had a basic education but always appreciated art. Tsgereda heard about the Megemeria School of Jewelry and Art through the Welfare Ministry, and is very happy to have been accepted. She is now ten months into her studies and enjoys every moment.
Meir is a wonderful teacher, she says. Not everyone is at the same level and he explains over and over until we understand. Although the school day ends at 3:30 pm, Meir often stays a whole extra hour with students who need help. She also has warm words for Isaac and Orna Levy. The Levys motivate us and help us with everything. They even help us deal with all the bureaucracy, so that we dont have to waste time instead of studying, she says with a smile.
Clearly, she is delighted to have discovered the world of jewelry making and proudly shows off the intricate brass pendants she recently completed. With the help of God, I will work in this field after graduating, she concludes – again with a big smile.
Award-winning pearl jewelry
In 1986, Orna and Isaac Levy had a dream, supported by their combined passion for the natural beauty of the pearl. I enjoy designing with pearls because they represent one of natures most beautiful creations together with being so very fashionable. Pearls are also ultra-feminine, worn exclusively by women, says Isaac Levy.
From an initial investment of $2,000 and an invaluable devotion to the beauty of Mother Natures most organic treasure, Yvel grew from a two-person team to a 100-employee design center in Jerusalem, reaching new heights in pearl design.
Every piece of Yvel jewelry is hand-crafted by artisans in the Yvel Design Center. The seven Yvel jewelry collections feature the highest quality pearls and precious gemstones, most notably organic baroque pearls and asymmetrical stones. Among Yvels many international design awards are the Town and Country Couture Design Awards and the Centurion Design Awards, as well as an impressive six Best in Pearl Design awards over the years.
For more information about Yvel, go to www.yvel.com.