Behind the Ethiopian Immigrant Riots in Israel, a Story of Hope

Amidst the recent violent protests in Israel by Ethiopian immigrants to the Jewish State who are protesting against inequality, poverty, and police brutality, it is easy to read and watch the media reports and come to the conclusion that the situation is black and white. Like most areas of life, there are a lot of shades of grey in between–but these more subdued intermediate shades usually do not get the attention they merit.

Several months ago, I was hired as a freelancer to write English content for an Israeli jewelry company, Yvel. By the looks of the dazzling jewelry on display in the Yvel Design Center located just outside of Jerusalem–many of the pieces carrying price tags well above six figures–I figured that this particular company was no different than any other high end jewelry brand.

How wrong I was. I was invited on a tour of Yvel’s facility and the first thing that struck me was the rich diversity of its workers. Employees of every skin tone, speaking Hebrew with all sorts of accents, were hard at work. I soon learned that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Yvel’s founder, Isaac Levy, immigrated to Israel as a young child from Argentina. Struggling to adjust to a new life full of challenges, Levy told himself that if he were ever to become successful, he was going to do his best to help immigrants.

Fast forward several decades. The company that Isaac and his wife, Orna, founded in 1986 with a $2,000 investment flowered into an internationally renowned brand–the jewelry being sold to and worn by celebrities, royalty, and discerning customers on five continents. But Isaac never forgot his roots. He decided that not only was he going to make an effort to employ immigrants–hence, the incredible diversity at Yvel where over 90% of the company’s 100 plus employees are immigrants–but he was going to help Israel’s most struggling immigrant community, the Ethiopian immigrants.

In 2010, Isaac and Orna founded a jewelry design school called Megemeria (meaning “genesis” or “new beginning” in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia) adjacent to the Yvel Design Center to teach Ethiopian immigrants the art and craft of jewelry design and manufacturing, with the ultimate goal of empowering them to become economically independent, productive, and proud citizens of Israel. Each year over 20 students study at the school for free and receive a monthly stipend above minimum wage to help support themselves and their families. Moreover, the Levys purposely seek out those Ethiopians who have “fallen through the cracks”–older individuals who have less of a chance of finding work, those with ambition and talent who were unable to finish high school for various reasons, and so forth.

These students not only learn the ins and outs of the jewelry industry from experts, but they also take classes where they learn important skills like Hebrew and math that help them in their daily lives. Finally, when the students graduate, they are assisted in finding employment in the industry–although many of them end up staying on and working at Yvel. Even more remarkable is that the Levys had the idea to turn Megemeria into a social business in which many of the graduating students work for Megemeria, designing jewelry that is sold, and the profits are then reinvested into the school and business.

The success of Megemeria has attracted the backing of many notable organizations and individuals including YEDID, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Francisco, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and respected Israeli industrialist and billionaire, Stef Wertheimer. The project has already been replicated in northern Israel for other minority groups, while plans are in the works for a third school in southern Israel.

The fact that Megemeria and people like the Levys exist does not mean that Israel is doing enough for its Ethiopian citizens. Let me repeat–there is much room for improvement, and Israel has to do more. But, just because not enough has been done does not mean that we should discard the right steps that have been taken. As we strive to do more, let’s remember that this other low-profile side of the story exists, and let’s build on it.

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