A visit to the Yvel Design Center, just outside of Jerusalem, offers a glimpse not only into the specialized world of jewelry-manufacturing, but also into Israels diverse immigrant population. Of the 100 employees who work in the 50,000-square-foot facility, more than 90% are Jewish immigrants. Over 20 different countries are represented in the Yvel Family, which is made up of gifted artisans and ambitious professionals from very diverse cultures and countries, including Russia, Syria, Iraq and the United States.
This is by no means an accident. From Yvels inception, Isaac and Orna Levy have made it a priority to employ mostly immigrants. While Orna is native to Israel, Isaac made Aliyah from Argentina nearly 50 years ago. He keenly understands the adversity faced by so many in the attempt to adapt to a new culture. His own familys story provides the perfect illustration. Upon arriving in their new homeland, Isaacs father invested in a sausage factory, but only months later his business partner vanished, taking the Levy familys life savings with him.
Years later, as Yvel became a successful company, Isaac and Orna decided to re-write history. In a Hollywood-style twist of fate, the Yvel Design Center is situated on the very land that once housed Isaacs fathers failed sausage factory! The ever industrious senior Levy, now in his mid-80s, comes to work regularly, and proudly surveys the progress of his sons international triumph.
Memories of his fathers struggles as a new immigrant inspired Isaac as he and Orna started their own company. Not content to solely benefit their own family, they set their sights on creating a better life for other new Israeli immigrants. One particular segment of the immigrant population – the Ethiopian Jewish community – became the focus of Yvels new corporate social responsibility program. In 2010, Isaac and Orna established the Megemeria School of Jewelry as a business within a business, dedicated solely to the most vulnerable immigrant population in Israel – the Ethiopian Jews.
More than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, facing significant language, cultural and literacy barriers as they move from an impoverished agrarian society to a modern, industrial one. Despite making significant strides in employment, education and integration over the past several decades, Ethiopian-Israelis still confront serious socioeconomic challenges, including much higher poverty and unemployment rates than the general Israeli population.
It is this inequity that the Levys sought to help combat with the founding of the Megemeria School of Jewelry. The hope, says Orna, is to help them transform from being new immigrants to being proud and contributing citizens of Israel. In fact, the word Megemeria means genesis in Amharic.
The goal of self-sustainability
Megemerias first class of 21 students, composed of men and women ranging in age from 20 to 55, graduated in 2012; the second class began shortly after. Students are taught all of the crafts of the jewelry trade – from design and tool-handling to goldsmithing, gem setting and pearl stringing. They also have lessons in Hebrew and life skills to help them better adapt to Israeli society. Training is free and students are provided a monthly stipend equivalent to the minimum wage, with a large share of the funding coming directly from Isaac and Orna. Additional backing has been provided by a handful of friends, says Orna, along with Jewish organizations such as JDC, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and World ORT. The Israeli government, notes Orna, has also recognized this important project and given some financial support.
Upon graduating from the program, students are placed in jobs in the Israeli jewelry industry. Half of the graduates work at Yvel and many others have chosen to stay on with the Megemeria business enterprise, says Orna. Thus, Megemeria has its first staff of 11 full-time employees, who help train and mentor the next class. This small company within the larger one, Orna says, is definitely designed as a for-profit business. The objective is to ultimately create a financially self-sustaining venture in the long run.
Megemerias self-sustainability largely depends on the success of its jewelry collection, a line of Amharic-inscribed brass and gold-plated pieces designed and created by the graduating students and sold through Yvels retailers.
Self-confidence and pride
The competition for admittance to Megemeria is intense; there were close to 300 applicants for both the first and second classes, and there is still only room for 21. One female student shares her story: Raised in Western Ethiopia, she was married at 13 and had two children when she and her husband made Aliyah to Israel. Her assimilation was extremely difficult at first. She could only find work cleaning, but all the while she was seeking a trade she could pursue throughout her life. After graduating from the Megemeria program, she continues, I succeeded in acquiring a profession. This place gives me self-confidence and pride.
Although recent Megemeria graduates, who are initially paid the same minimum wage they received while studying, are still struggling financially, the skills theyve learned give them the opportunity to grow their income and break the cycle of unemployment and poverty. Graduates employed by Yvel and Megemeria receive wage increases according to their progress.
As well as having great hopes for the Megemeria students, Orna is enthusiastic about the tiny companys future prospects. We need to start small and grow to what we believe Megemeria will eventually be: an international social business that will employ hundreds of people and be a great model of a socially responsible business that other companies can follow, predicts Orna.
A new partner
In July 2013, highly respected industrialist and Israel Prize winner Stef Wertheimer came to visit the Megemeria project and fell in love with the concept. A few months later, Mr. Wertheimer joined Orna and Isaac Levy as a full partner in the Megemeria project. This joined force enabled the opening of a second Megemeria project in Nazareth, and in the next few months the Nazareth Megemeria School will open its doors to Christians, Muslims and Jews from northern Israel. The school and Megemeria factory will be located in the new Industrial Park built by Mr. Wertheimer and launched just recently. The next step will be to duplicate the concept in the Negev and to devote the southern Megemeria school and factory to disadvantaged Bedouins and Jews in that region.
For more information about Yvel, go to www.yvel.com.