Given Second Chance, Israeli Immigrant Turns Her Life Around

January 10, 2012


When Avigail, 44, looks back at the bleak days of her early twenties a shadow seems to come over her. She can hardly believe how far she’s come today.

Originally from a village in the Caucasus mountains, Avigail, her seven siblings, and their parents immigrated to Israel in 1978. They were extremely poor and married off each of the children as quickly as they could in hopes of giving them a better life.

By 17 Avigail was living with her husband and his parents, serving under her mother-in- law, as is traditional in Kavkazi families (originating from the Caucasus region). “I was just a kid,’ Avigail says. “I did not know myself at all but I was expected to serve my mother-in-law’s large family and keep everyone pleased. I felt completely invisible.”

At 18 she had her first son, and within a couple of years she had two more boys. But family life grew strained and her husband’s infidelity added to the tensions and hurt. When he suggested bringing a second wife into the home and Avigail refused, he opted for a divorce and threw her and the children out of the house. She tried to return to her own parents, but her mother would not take her back, the disgrace too great for the conservative family.

At 23, Avigail was homeless, with no skills and no experience with which to fend for herself and her three sons, all below the age of 10. She had not even finished 10 years of schooling.

Avigail turned to prostitution, enduring experiences that gave her deep insight into the difficulties at-risk young women and girls face on the streets. Found by the welfare department of Akko, Avigail was sent to JDC’s Eshet Chayil program for immigrant and disadvantaged women in need of support and employment training.

Eshet Chayil, or “Woman of Valor”, helps Kavkazi, Buchari, Ethiopian, and other disadvantaged women enter Israel’s workforce. Initially, these women face language barriers, are unfamiliar with the Israeli job market, and lack the appropriate skills, education, and experience they need to find gainful employment. Through the program, they acquire not only these critical tools but also the self-confidence they need to succeed. In fact, Eshel Chayil has proven so effective that the Ministry of Welfare has adopted the model and replicated it in 30 locations across Israel.

The program gave Avigail the opportunity study social dynamics—a field that combines ideas from economics, social psychology, sociology, and other disciplines—and helped her get her first job as an aid in schools serving autistic children. “Slowly I tried to lift myself up,” said Abigail. “I saw the chance to study as an opportunity to save myself. Going to classes a few times each week where there would be others waiting for me helped me to survive.”

Today Avigail has set her sights on a career in assisting teenage girls in poverty and at-risk and she is on her way to completing a university degree. “I have found that if you just have the willpower, people will help you advance in life. Who would have thought I could go out and earn a college degree at the age of 44? But I am doing it!”

Avigail is equally proud that all three of her sons are working, and have distinguished themselves in their army service. “It is the role modeling that you do for your children—what you do with your life—that speaks to them the most.”

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories