Making a Difference in Israel

December 10, 2019 | Israel, UK

By Robin Ashleigh, UJIA Head of Impact Evaluation, as he reflects on his week visiting our projects in Israel.

Last week I spent some time with colleagues and partners in Israel, thinking about the impact UJIA makes, and what this means for the Israeli people and society.

First, I met with the UJIA team to discuss the rationale for our work in Israel. We asked ourselves some big questions. Why do we exist? What are Israel’s most pressing social issues and how can we help?  We talked about the situation in Israel’s periphery and the forecasts for the country’s demographic future, and I understood that the Israeli society depends on its many varied and diverse communities developing their skills, entering work and contributing to the economy.

With this understanding of the problems we wish to solve, and of our desired outcomes and impact, I set off on an intensive two-day tour to visit some of our projects. We had discussed Israel’s problems at length, but now it was time to see UJIA’s many solutions.

We visited Tel Hai College, Western Galilee College and the Zefat Academic College. UJIA’s investment in these institutions has led to systemic change in the area, with students able to access high quality education in the Galil. Through our scholarship programmes, many young people from the local area are the first in their families to access higher education, and some of Israel’s most celebrated companies have started opening branches nearby to create graduate schemes and links to employment for students.

At the Carmiel Children’s village, UJIA have built family units for children facing some of the most difficult circumstances. With their welfare needs suitably met, these children go on to thrive in their new homes and schools, as we saw when one adoptive parent proudly told us of the accomplishments of the 12 children in his family unit.

We saw some truly inspirational community provision and empowerment at the Dror Educators’ Kibbutz, where members of the community in Akko are supported to run events and activities catering for the town’s various faiths and ethnicities, whilst developing their own unique, shared culture.

We heard from the Director of Merchavim, who told us how UJIA’s support has enabled them to train Arab teachers and place them in Jewish schools. This initiative has helped Arab teachers to gain qualifications and improve their salaries and economic status. It has also led to a positive change in the attitudes of Jewish students towards Arabs, as evidenced in a research study undertaken last year.

At Ampersand in Bnei Brak, we saw a remarkable shared working space and heard how this project has helped Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) to gain skills in hi-tech and find culturally appropriate employment, without compromising their religious beliefs. Similarly, at Lotus in Usifya, we saw religious Druze women working in hi-tech in an environment tailored to their religious and cultural needs. Thanks to the Lotus initiative, these women are able to stay in their local community, while also sitting at the top table of Israel’s hi-tech sector.

Unistream in Julis was arguably the most inspiring project we visited. In this modest community centre, a group of Druze teenagers eagerly showcased their business ideas. These extraordinary young people have been supported to run their own start-up companies, receiving mentoring from some of Israel’s most successful entrepreneurs. The ethos of Unistream is that young people have the power to change the world through successful businesses, which address the social and environmental issues in Israel and the wider world.

All of these projects can be termed as ‘Win-Win’. After breaking down the barriers to participation, the individuals involved enjoy the benefits and go on to achieve profound life-changing outcomes. At the same time, the whole Israeli society benefits from their contribution to the economy and from a more tolerant, shared society.

What really struck me about these incredible initiatives, was that they reflect the Israel we love to talk about in the diaspora. As we often say with great pride, Israel’s greatest resource is its people. Israel is young and vibrant and able to pivot and adapt. And Israel should be a light unto the nations, seeking to change the world for the better. All of this was evident in the projects I visited and, in every case, the extraordinary people we met knew that the generosity of the British Jewish community had supported them in their success. Now that’s what I call connection!