In the Haredi Enclave of Bnei Brak, JDC Pioneers New Approach for Disabilities Inclusion

BNEI BRAK, Israel — The word “disability” often lives in the shadows in Israel’s 10th-largest city, home to approximately 178,000 largely ultra-Orthodox residents who live a 20-minute drive from central Tel Aviv.

Ramp-Up is a place where we don’t say no. You won’t fall through the cracks here.

Until the introduction of JDC’s Ramp-Up initiative to get young Israelis with disabilities into the workforce two and a half years ago, you might have heard whispered conversations about “physical difficulties” or “workplace challenges” – nothing more than that, though.

But Riki Steiner, 41, Ramp-Up’s women’s employment coordinator in Bnei Brak, knows it’s important to change the conversation.

For her, the statistic that 1 in 5 Israelis has a disability is more than an abstract notion; it’s three-dimensional, in the form of her 15-year-old son, who has special needs and learning disabilities.

“I know he can’t stay in the yeshiva forever. Ramp-Up has helped me to have hope for his future, that he’ll work when he’s 18 or 19,” she said. “Ramp-Up is a place where we don’t say no. You won’t fall through the cracks here.”

Ramp-Up offers participants one-on-one counseling and mentoring, and an individualized work plan for integrating into the workforce, finding jobs, and developing their careers. Across Israel, more than 560 people utilize Ramp-Up’s services in 13 locations, with 73 percent of those who’ve found jobs retaining them for a year or more.

Still in a pilot phase, the program plans to expand, following JDC’s work model in Israel: developing innovative solutions to social challenges, piloting them and adapting them for different needs, and finally, scaling up for national impact.

Ramp-Up, founded by JDC’s Tevet employment initiative and the Ruderman Family Foundation, differs from other Tevet programs in two key ways.

First, the disabilities employment program is always housed in some larger community institution, like a more universal employment center or a Center for Young Adults (also a JDC innovation), to diminish any possible stigma for participants whose disability may not be immediately visible.

Just as important is Ramp-Up’s commitment to working with participants for the long haul, recognizing that entering the workforce as an Israeli with disabilities presents challenges that are not always easily solved.

“Some other Tevet programs, it’s two meetings with the counselor and then you go to work,” said Tal Rokach, 38, JDC’s Ramp-Up coordinator for central and southern Israel. “People who use Ramp-Up can’t do it that quickly. They need a process that’s slower, and even after they get a job, we provide continual supervision. The guidance doesn’t stop.”

Across Israel, Ramp-Up also employs three employment coordinators who themselves have disabilities — in Ramla-Lod, Tiberias, and Jerusalem. Dvir Mauda, 26, has cerebral palsy and has been disabled since birth. He said he’s able to speak from personal experience when counseling participants in Ramla and Lod, especially those who are afraid that they’ll lose government benefits if they secure a job.

Some participants come to Ramp-Up and want a job immediately, he said, but it’s a process to find the right match between employee and employer.

“I have a lot of people tell me they want a job right now, and I tell them I know how that feels,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to come every week and practice your skills. It’s a deep, long process of getting to know yourself.”

Steiner said she begins her meetings with participants with a long intake interview, ostensibly designed to get basic information about their employment history.

But it quickly morphs into something bigger than that.

“It’s technical information, but it becomes quite emotional,” she said. “It makes them think about how they see themselves.”

Each participant also receives guidance on how to frame their disability to employers — what they have to say, what they can keep more hidden. Then it’s on to workshops on computer skills and resume writing, and mock telephone and in-person interviews.

“It’s a job to look for a job,” Rokach said, laughing.

Rokach also works with employers to convince them of the value of hiring people with disabilities.

It might not be easy, you’ll almost definitely have to more patient, and you may have to make adjustments, but “it’s worth it,” she tells employers.

“We’re talking about diversity. It might be a long journey, but we’re here with you,” she tells them. “These employees are more likely to stay with you for a long time. You have the chance to do something very special here, and very important.”

Mauda said his work at Ramp-Up is a way to give back to the many family members, friends, and mentors who helped him during his own struggle to find employment.

“People helped me, believed in me, encouraged me. And now I can provide them with a path to the future,” he said.

“My friends and family always told me I can, not that I can’t. They said, ‘It might be difficult, but you can,’ and that makes all the difference.”

Steiner and Yossi Fruchter*, 29, Ramp-Up’s men’s employment coordinator in Bnei Brak, each manage a caseload of about 40-50.

Fruchter said each participant is different, but working with Israelis with these challenges has changed his attitude toward disability.

He remembered a young man who had recently realized he had learning disabilities but found himself incapable of saying the word — instead using the Haredi euphemism of “challenges.” Fruchter gently explained the process to him, and the participant went home to think it over, soon signing up for a Ramp-Up employment workshop.

“It wasn’t until I arrived at Ramp-Up that I could see a future,” the young man told him when he returned.

And for Fruchter, that’s when he realized that Ramp-Up “can save lives.”

“At first, people with disabilities were either invisible to me, or I saw it in black and white,” he said. “Now I realize I don’t have to look at them just through the filter of their disability. Every person is a world unto himself.”

*This individual’s name has been changed