Shira is JCCA Boarding Pass Associate working to bring JCC communities to Israel and Israel to JCC communities. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.
Israel has always been for me the first place I remember feeling that I belong. The language was the one I heard growing up, the religion was my religion. I (finally!) had some extended family—cousins—with whom to celebrate milestones and holidays. All of these were pieces of identity missing in my years spent in America.
In looking back at my 20-year journey in Israel, I see the many choices I have made as an immigrant in order to feel a stronger bond to the place I have made home, where today I raise my own family, and cope with both the universal dilemmas of parenting and the particular issues of Israel and Jewish identity.
So where does that bring me? All in all, I know I have had it good. —I am Jewish, and therefore belong to the majority society and culture around me, something I did not have in the United States. I have proudly served in the IDF, the social entry card to all things Israeli. I am lucky enough to be a healthy, able-bodied woman in a liberal society with healthy children. I have had it great.
Inclusion, as it were, has never been more than an afterthought for me—something I should think about in the name of pluralism and just being a decent human being. But truthfully, inclusion, as we understand it today, has not affected me personally. As someone who cares deeply about Israel, though, I do not have the privilege of just being occasionally reminded of the good spirit behind inclusion. Instead, I must be aware of the endless opportunities where inclusion can be practiced on a daily basis, both on the communal and national level as a way of bettering the society we have built. In Israel there are many fronts where inclusion is both practiced in a myriad of creative ways, and also fields where there is still work to be done.
Israel’s Arabs in Tech—The Story of Tsofen
While Israel has justifiably earned itself the informal but prestigious title of “Start-Up Nation”, the enormous success of Israel’s high-tech sector has overwhelmingly passed over the nation’s Arab minority, which comprises 20 percent of Israel’s total population and only 3 percent of the high-tech sector.
In order to bridge this staggering gap, a Jewish-Arab advocacy group was established in 2008 called Tsofen—Hebrew for decoding. Based in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-Israeli city, Tsofen aspires to address two major obstacles that impede more Arab participation in tech:
- An inability of Arab graduates to secure jobs in the high-tech sector of Jewish Israel
- The complete lack of high-tech companies in or near Arab cities
Some of the challenges Arab students face are subjective impediments, such as improving English skills and resume writing and interviewing skills, and Tsofen addresses these. The agency also provides enrichment in other areas, such as strengthening software development skills, and offering a mentorship program that connects graduates with Arab engineers already in high-tech.
By and large, the high-tech industry is less known in Israel’s Arab sector. It is actually not on the radar of the best and brightest Arab graduates, who tend to pursue studies in medicine, pharmacology, or law, all professions which can be practiced in proximity to their hometowns, whereas most tech companies in Israel are located in the greater Tel Aviv area.
Since Tsofen began its work in 2008, 12 high-tech companies have opened in Nazareth, including branches of high-tech mammoths Amdocs and One1. Other local Israeli companies, along with the Israeli government, are seeing the importance of cultivating Arab entrepreneurism and together come closer to actualizing Tsofen’s goal of a shared society with Arab participation in tech being a major lever.- Yallah!
A Sense of Purpose: Inclusion Through Work
In a 10-minute walk from my home in southern Jerusalem, I pass the Harutzim Bistro. I’ve walked by this café innumerable times, but have only recently patronized it and experienced the magic of this modest eatery in the heart of Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial zone.
Founded in 2014, the Harutzim bistro was born out of the organization SHEKEL–Community Services for People with Special Needs’ vision to include people with disabilities within the wider community, as a contributing part of the Israeli workforce. The café employs a dozen employees with cognitive disabilities who participate in cooking, waiting tables, and the general upkeep of the restaurant.
On a routine Tuesday morning I sat at the café with one of their workers, 28-year-old Tom, who has spent the last six months working in the café, in what he dubs an “upgrade” from his previous work at a local hospital café bussing and cleaning tables. Tom is a charming young man, and professed music lover, with Elton John among his favorites. He came to Harutzim Bistro with the encouragement of his mom, who wanted him to master some more skills. While he admits there were some initial acclimation struggles to working in a new environment— “getting used to new people, the rules of the restaurant, and losing his staff uniform shirt often”— he was able to overcome these struggles and become an integral part of the team.
Tom speaks of his managers with awe and warmth, noting how welcoming and helpful they have been. He is now taking orders from customers, and here, as well, he has faced challenges to overcome: “Holding a pen and paper and writing down orders, I have a lot of spelling mistakes, and then I had to get used to typing orders into the computer. If I need help then [shift manager] helps me.” Tom speaks of making friends at Harutzim as his greatest accomplishment there, joking around with them as we chat.
Given its unremarkable façade, Harutzim Bistro houses a true pearl that exemplifies attitudes of acceptance, tolerance, patience and mutual learning on the part of both the cognitively impaired staff and the managers.
These two enterprises are but a taste of the amazing initiatives in Israel helping to promote inclusion for a variety of populations. We hope they continue to inspire.