Isaac and Orna Levy, the husband and wife team behind Yvel, have crossed the globe many times over in search of the “next big thing” in pearls and precious gem stones. Yet one of the key aspects of their business is rooted very close to home and very deep in each of their hearts.
An immigrant workforce
A visit to the Yvel Design Center, just outside of Jerusalem, provides a glimpse not only into the specialized world of jewelry-manufacturing, but also into the diverse immigrant population of Israel. Of the 100 employees that work in the 50,000-square-foot facility, more than 90% are Jewish immigrants. More than 20 different countries are represented in the “Yvel Family” which is made up of gifted artisans and ambitious professionals from very diverse cultures and countries such Russia, Syria, Iraq and the United States.
This is by no means an accident. From Yvel’s inception, Isaac and Orna have made it a point to employ mostly immigrants. While Orna is native to Israel, Isaac immigrated to the country (or made “Aliyah”) from Argentina nearly 50 years ago. He keenly understands the adversity faced by so many in the attempt to adapt to a new culture. His own family’s story provides the perfect illustration. Upon arrival to their new homeland, Isaac’s father – an Argentinian entrepreneur – invested in a sausage factory. But only months later, his business partner vanished, taking the money and the Levy family’s life-long savings with him. Memories of his father’s struggles as a new citizen in a strange land inspired Isaac as he and Orna made plans to begin their own company. Years later, as Yvel brought success to the Levy name, Isaac and Orna decided to re-write history. In a Hollywood style twist of fate, the Yvel Design Center now sits on the very land that once housed Isaac’s father’s failed sausage factory. The ever industrious senior Levy, now in his mid-80s, comes to work regularly and proudly surveys the progress of his son’s international triumph.
Not content to solely benefit his own family, Isaac next set his sights on creating a better life for other new Israeli immigrants. One particular segment of the immigrant population – the Ethiopian Jewish community – became the focus of Yvel’s new corporate social responsibility program. In 2010, Isaac and Orna established the Megemeria School of Jewelry as a “business within a business,” dedicated solely to the most vulnerable immigrant population in Israel – the Ethiopian Jews.
Supporting the Ethiopian community
Ethiopian Jews have been officially making Aliyah since the mid-1970s, and now more than 120,000 call Israel their home. But facing massive language, cultural and literacy barriers as they move from an impoverished agrarian society to a modern, industrial one, this population’s adaptation has proven particularly difficult. Despite making significant strides in employment, education and integration over the past several decades, Ethiopian-Israelis still live with serious socioeconomic challenges, including much higher poverty and unemployment rates than the general Israeli population.
It is this inequity that Isaac and Orna hope to help combat with the founding of the Megemeria School of Jewelry. “The hope”, Orna says, is “to help them transform from being new immigrants to being proud and contributing citizens of Israel.” In fact, the word Megemeria literally translates as “genesis” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic.
Megemeria’s first class of 21 students, composed of men and women ranging in age from 20 to 55, graduated in 2012; the second class began shortly after. Students are taught all of the crafts of the jewelry trade – from design and tool-handling to goldsmithing, gem setting and pearl stringing. They are also offered instruction in Hebrewand everyday-life skills to help them better adapt to Israeli culture. Training is free and students are provided a monthly stipend equivalent to the minimum wage for Israel, with many of the funds coming directly from Isaac and Orna. Additional backing has been provided by “a handful of friends,” says Orna, along with Jewish organizations such as The Joint, the San Francisco Jewish Federation and World Ort. The Israeli government, notes Orna, “has also recognized this important project and given some financial support.”
Upon graduation from the program, students are job-placed in the Israeli jewelry industry. “Half of the graduates are working within the Yvel factory and many others have chosen to stay on with the Megemeria business enterprise,” says Orna. Thus, Megemeria has its first staff of 11 full-time employees, who help train and mentor the next class. This small company within the larger one, Orna says, is “definitely designed as a for-profit business. The objective is to ultimately create a financially self-sustaining venture in the long run.”
A major milestone on its path to self-sustainability will be the success of the Megemeria jewelry collection, a line of Amharic-inscribed brass and gold-plated pieces designed and created by the graduating students and sold through Yvel’s retailers.
The competition for admittance to Megemeria is intense; there have been close to 300 applicants for both the first and second classes, and there is still only room for 21.
One female student shares her story: Raised in Western Ethiopia, she was married at 13 and had two children when she and her husband made Aliyah to Israel. Her assimilation was extremely difficult at first. She could only find work as a cleaning lady, but all the while, she was “seeking a trade I could pursue throughout my life.” After graduating the Megemeria program, she continues, “I succeeded in acquiring a profession. This place gives me self-confidence and pride.”
There are some “fairy tale” stories coming out of the Ethiopian community in Israel. For example, in February Yityish Aynaw was crowned the first-ever Ethiopian born Miss Israel. She even met and dined with President Obama when he took his first presidential tour of the country in the spring of 2013. The story of Megemeria and its students, however, is no fairy tale. It’s fair to imagine that the recent graduates, who are initially being paid the same minimum wage salary they received while studying, are still struggling financially. But, Orna says, the skills they’ve learned give them the opportunity to grow their income and break the cycle of lower education, higher unemployment and poverty still plaguing the population. While at Yvel and Megemeria, the graduates will, she says, “get wage increases according to their progress.”
As well as having great hopes for the Megemeria students, Orna is enthusiastic about the tiny company’s future prospects. She says, “We need to start small and grow to what we believe Megemeria will eventually be: an international social business that will employ hundreds of people and be a great model of a socially responsible business that other companies can follow.”