Helping Israeli Families Fight Poverty, Even in a Pandemic

Helping Israeli Families Fight Poverty, Even in a Pandemic

Ziva Sagiv (center) works with two Israeli Arab women. Families First tackles Israeli poverty, working with 13,000 families in 113 cities across whole spectrum of Israeli society.

Ziva Sagiv (center) works with two Israeli Arab women. Families First tackles Israeli poverty, working with 13,000 families in 113 cities across whole spectrum of Israeli society. photo: Tamir Elterman

By: Ziva Sagiv - Program Manager, Families First

What I’ve found after years in this line of work is that people in poverty hate living in poverty and will do everything they can to change their situation. Our role at JDC is to stand by the families we work with and help them fight poverty.

A partnership between JDC, the Rashi Foundation, and Israel’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services, Families First represents the first time the Israeli government developed a national program to address poverty. Working with 13,000 families in 113 cities, we work with the whole spectrum of Israeli society — Arabs, Jews, Haredi, Bedouins … everyone. 

Our aim is holistic: to make significant changes in the conditions of families living in poverty and exclusion. Each family gets three main components — a social worker and a family mentor who work with them, sitting together to hear their story, their grief, and their pain; a flexible budget that helps them achieve their goals; and an intervention plan.

What’s special about Families First is that we recognize that the most significant thing we can give our families is an authentic relationship with the staff based on trust. We try to change what’s historically been an imbalanced relationship between professionals and families in need.

The program is based on a new concept of poverty-aware social work developed by Dr. Michal Krumer-Nevo, a Ben-Gurion University professor who considers poverty a violation of human rights and a multidimensional phenomenon that affects individuals across many areas of life.

Ziva (right) sits with two Arab Israeli women, helping them fill out forms.
Israel’s economy is characterized by many industries that haven’t yet reopened, and these jobs are often filled by members of more vulnerable populations. Photo: Tamir Elterman

It’s not only money — it’s also a lack of opportunities and symbolic capital. That’s why we focus on six main areas:

  • cultivating employment skills
  • utilizing applicable government benefits
  • household budgeting
  • accessing community resources
  • providing for basic essentials
  • offering parenting support

We’re open to whatever the families tell us they need, and our job is to help them achieve their goals, whatever they may be. Since we operate on the assumption that poverty is socially constructed, we also work to bring about systemic change, like making government rights more accessible and widely understood and promoting relevant policy changes.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic changed our work a lot. It was a surprise to both our staff and our families, and what I remember most from the beginning is the uncertainty. We have 600 professionals who work with us across Israel, and they were worried about their finances and the stability of their lives. The crisis turned all of our big talk — that we care for our families, that we’re all in this together — into everyday action. Our families would call our staff to check in on us, just like we were calling to ask after them. We knew we’d figure it out together.

In the beginning, our families’ needs were in three areas: basic needs like food and housing assistance, utilizing state benefits and allowances, and issues relating to family situations. 

Some of our families didn’t know the government benefits they were owed, and we worked with them to understand what they were entitled to and how to get it. Since WiFi was often overloaded and unstable during the day, we worked with them at night while their children were asleep. We helped them figure out their rights while they were furloughed and fill out all of the relevant forms.

Some other families faced personal challenges related to being confined together in a small home in uncomfortable conditions. In these cases, our social workers and mentors were very creative, giving the kids games and establishing things like sports tournaments and cooking competitions through WhatsApp and Facebook groups. 

The coronavirus crisis also exacerbated systemic challenges. Israel’s economy is characterized by many industries that haven’t yet reopened, and these jobs are often filled by members of more vulnerable populations. In addition, the credit crunch makes it difficult for families to obtain loans at reasonable interest rates, causing them to turn to illegal sources of credits. Many debt settlements are collapsing, as families are unable to continue meeting them in the absence of steady income.

What’s special about Families First is that we recognize that the most significant thing we can give our families is an authentic relationship with the staff based on trust.

In the midst of all this, the most important thing for us was to preserve the relationship between our staff and our families. Normally much of the work was happening at home visits, but with our professionals stuck at home, too, the work transferred to Zoom and WhatsApp and phone calls. We were worried our families would feel they didn’t have time for us, but we were wrong. Our families not only wanted the relationship but sought it out, and our staff made themselves very available to keep the connection. I’m so proud of all of them.

The unique challenge for our families is that they are in the beginning stages of change. When the pandemic struck, many of them had just started new jobs or new businesses. They weren’t fully stable yet, and the coronavirus was a real setback. Even in difficult times, we have to bring people opportunities and then from there, they can grow and change their lives. Poverty can happen to anyone, and our task is to work with our families step by step to bring back opportunities. We don’t just help our families find work; we give the people we work with a new perspective on the road ahead.

I remember the story of one woman, who had started to learn holistic medicine and began working in that field. She felt good for the first time in a long time, and her children were happier, too, seeing their mother go to work. Hers is a profession that involves touch, though, and with the pandemic, she couldn’t go back to work. She told me that going back on government welfare subsidies again felt “like going back to prison,” but that thanks to her Families First team, she doesn’t feel hopeless. She knows she has the tools she needs to plan her next chapter.

That’s just one story, and we have thousands of others.  To meet our families is to meet strong people who really want to change their situation. When there’s a real connection between people, change can begin. When people feel like their struggles and their dreams are seen, they don’t feel alone.

I’m proud of my program, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

A JDC-Israel employee, Ziva Sagiv is the program manager for Families First.

delivery-person