Charting a New Course Forward with Israel’s Poorest Families

October 8, 2020

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After a difficult few years in which she got divorced and struggled to make ends meet for herself and her seven children, Ayelet Cohen thought her luck had changed.

She had found a new passion — reflexology — and had opened her own small business in southern Israel.

Then, two months after launching her second act, the coronavirus pandemic began. When the Israeli government instituted a nationwide lockdown, Cohen found herself unable to work and ineligible for government assistance.

“I realized I’d slipped through the cracks. My business was too new, and I wasn’t considered self-employed by the Israeli government,” said Cohen, 51. “There were so many bills, and my credit card was declined because I had no income.”

Luckily, Cohen knew she wasn’t alone — she was already connected with Families First, the JDC program that works with 13,000 Israeli families in 113 cities to map their paths out of poverty.

“I felt like someone actually saw me and my needs,” she said. “I can’t overstate how important it is to have somebody who listens, who cares about your life and who helps you see things differently and navigate difficult situations with hope and a smile. Now I feel like I have fertile soil to plant seeds that will survive.”

“I CAN’T OVERSTATE HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO HAVE SOMEBODY WHO LISTENS, WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR LIFE AND WHO HELPS YOU SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY AND NAVIGATE DIFFICULT SITUATIONS.”

Operating since 2015 in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services and the Rashi Foundation, Families First offers a comprehensive approach to help families out of poverty over a two-year period, focusing on six main areas: cultivating employment skills; utilizing applicable government benefits; household budgeting; accessing community resources; providing for basic essentials; and offering parenting support.

Poverty is multifaceted, so a holistic strategy and an authentic personal relationship between staff and beneficiaries is key, said program manager Ziva Sagiv.

“Prior to Families First, you’d go to a local welfare department and meet with one social worker to talk about your problems and another one to make a tangible action plan,” she said. “We believe it should be integrated, combining the concrete and the emotional. That’s why we offer an interpersonal bond alongside a flexible budget. Our role is to stand by our families and help them fight poverty.”

Before the pandemic, social workers and family mentors would often visit families in their homes, building relationships based on trust and authenticity that minimize the imbalance between staff and beneficiaries. Though Sagiv was worried that that aspect of the program would suffer in the COVID-19 era, she and her staff have found that the connection between staff and clients is stronger than ever.

“The creativity of our staff amazed us, and I was surprised by how quickly they embraced new technology. Even our Haredi employees were on Zoom and WhatsApp,” Sagiv said. “They found creative ways to provide concrete assistance like food and computers, offer up-to-date information about government assistance, and engineer a variety of family activities. Our families have told us how grateful they are to know they’re not alone in this scary situation, that they have someone to talk to and an address for their questions.”

“LIFE IS STILL DIFFICULT FOR US, BUT IT’S GETTING BETTER. NOW I HAVE A SENSE OF STABILITY AND A JOB DOING SOMETHING I LOVE.”


That’s also been the experience of Rawan, a 33-year-old widow with three children in a small, rural Bedouin town in Israel’s Negev.

Before the pandemic, she turned to Families First, working with her social worker to develop her skills and chart a course forward, eventually starting her own fruit tray business.

“It was small, but I started to move ahead and change my situation,” Rawan said.
“Then came the coronavirus and everything stopped, leaving me again with no income and no way to make a living. It was very demoralizing.”

With the guidance of her Families First mentor, she pursued a new career and now works at a daycare center.

“Life is still difficult for us, but it’s getting better,” Rawan said. “Now I have a sense of stability and a job doing something I love. I’m really glad JDC and my Families First team were such strong partners in this process.”

Sagiv loves hearing stories like that.

“It’s not just Ayelet and Rawan. We have thousands of stories of people ready to change their situation and find their strength,” she said. “When there’s a real connection between the families and our staff, a change begins. When people feel like their struggles and their dreams are seen, they don’t feel alone.”

Helping families out of poverty is just one of the many ways JDC “tries to close opportunity gaps,” Sagiv said — not just during the pandemic, but every day across different age groups and touching each sector of the Israeli population.

“The families we work with are amazing,” she said. “Poverty can happen to anyone, and our task is to go hand in hand with them to remove barriers, expand opportunities, and help them fulfill their goals and dreams.”

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