With New Approach, Helping Israel’s Most Vulnerable Exit Poverty

October 2, 2017


A single mother to four children, Pnina T. knew she was in a rough spot—financially, emotionally, and spiritually.

“I was in a very bad mental state. I had fallen into a rut, and I couldn’t escape it,” she said. “Life was bitter for me and my children, and I was ashamed to ask for help.”

Then someone referred her to Families First, JDC’s innovative poverty intervention program for Israeli families at risk.

The initiative, operated together with Israel’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services and the Rashi Foundation, pairs struggling parents with social workers and mentors who can help them chart a path forward with dignity—toward financial literacy and a more hopeful future for their families.

Some 450 social workers and mentors work with 3,000 families and 9,300 children through welfare bureaus in 94 Israeli municipalities. Families meet with their social worker and mentor on a regular basis, working together to create achievable goals and balanced budgets.

“They gave me a chance to turn my life
around and change it in ways I could
never have dreamed of.”

“These are good people,” Ruti said of the team. “They gave me a chance to turn my life around and change it in ways I could never have dreamed of.”

Working with her mentor, Ruti developed a personal finance regimen, budgeting her income and expenses and beginning to make regular monthly payments on a large loan she had taken out that had held her back for years.

She also enrolled in a nine-month evening course, an educational leap that has led to a stable job in special education.

Beyond Pnina’s own progress, she is full of gratitude
for the new lease on life Families First afforded her and her children.

“My success and the success of other families is your success,” she said. “I will thank you all of my life.”

Eyal Kahalani, head of the Welfare and Social Services Department in Ramle, said the Families First initiative succeeds in its main goal—getting families off welfare rolls in Israel—because support professionals like him tailor their approach to each family, matching resources and tools to specific needs.

“The system used to be that we’d give and they’d take, giving them a handout,” he said. “Now, we see the family as the leaders of the process. We’re their partners in helping them get what they need.”

The program bolsters families beyond assisting them with their finances. Other help can include educational support—like coursework, GED classes, and more; employment or small-business counseling; accessing benefits and government allowances; enrichment and tutoring for children; clothing and furniture donations; school supplies; baby equipment; and more.

Heeba R., a married mother of six and an Israeli Arab, works as an educational aide, a job she got with help from Families First.

For her, the program changed everything: She and her husband paid off debts, learned new trades, and opened a
small business.

“It’s a different world for us now. I have hope, and I can dream about things,” she said. “Before, it was hard for me to see any light in my life. We were stuck, but they pulled us out of that cycle.”

Sheri L., a single mother of three and cosmetician-in-training, has been participating in Families First for about two years.

Though she’d received welfare services before, she said she’s struck by the care and attention her mentor and social worker bring to the work, even providing their personal cell phone numbers to clients for around-the-clock advice and assistance.

Some 1,900 families have been evaluated at six-month intervals, tracking that shows the holistic Families First model has the potential to improve families’ financial situations in a short period of time. Pnina, Heeba, and Sheri are among the nearly half of the participating families who have lessened the severity of their poverty or moved out of poverty entirely.

“When I started the process, I had a lot of bills and a lot less self-esteem—but now I’m in a better place. I’m happy and I’m economically independent,” Sheri said. “This is a dream for us single mothers. We used to be the ones no one cared about, but now we can take care of ourselves. I never thought it would happen.”

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