By Alex Weisler
As high-profile women around the world step into the spotlight for International Women’s Day, it’s critically important to remember those women at the grassroots who are changing individual lives and the course of the societies they live in.
Tali Eliyaou is one of those women, and today she is shaping the lives of young Israeli women, and others, at risk.
She draws from her own history as an Ethiopian Israel woman, and new immigrant to Israel, to make it happen.
As a teenager, Eliyaou lived in one of Israel’s youth villages – boarding schools originally set up to house orphaned young Holocaust survivors that now educate Ethiopian-Israelis like herself and other immigrants, as well as young Israelis from difficult homes and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Back then, there wasn’t much institutional support for youth village alumni, more than 90 percent of whom come from poor families. Young people who had spent their adolescent years in a 24/7 supportive environment faced many challenges post-graduation. Often they were returning home to communities they were no longer connected to and were unsure how to navigate Israel’s array of supportive social services to achieve their dreams.
That’s all changing now, thanks to “You Have an Address,” a groundbreaking partnership between the Israeli Ministry of Education and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s initiative for Israeli children, youth, and young adults at risk called Ashalim.
“You Have an Address” – launched as a pilot program in 2016 and scaled up to operate nationally in 2017 – aims to build a support system for youth village alumni aged 18 to 26; it operates today in 43 youth villages, reaching approximately 3,000 young adults at risk.
Professionals like Eliyaou, who works at the WIZO Nachalat Yehuda youth village in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon LeZion, mentor young adults, first teaching them it’s permissible to dream of a better future and then encouraging and working with them to develop the concrete action plans that will take them there. They address a range of needs – from army service and employment to housing and continuing education.
“Today there isn’t a single graduate who falls through the cracks,” she said. “All of us look out for them, each and every one of them. There’s a solution for every individual.”
Eliyaou works hard to devise a personal approach for each student she works with, taking into account their challenges but also their unique passions and talents – half the work, she says, involves bolstering self-confidence.
“We start with: What needs to be done to fulfill your dream? What are you lacking? What are the obstacles? What are the possibilities? What services can you access?” she said. “Many times they don’t believe in themselves and their own capabilities because during their time in the youth village, they were given almost everything.”
One of Eliyaou’s mentees is 25-year-old Ethel Feigman, who dreams of a career as a singer and perhaps even as the founder of a specialized educational institution for talented young musicians and artists.
“The work with Tali has helped me a great deal, helped me to really understand my own strength and research how I can achieve my goals,” she said. “It gives you a lot of strength to know there’s a professional who’s always there for you, so you don’t feel like you’ve finished high school, finished army service, and are now lost and totally alone. The support helps a lot.”
With Eliyaou’s guidance, Feigman set manageable short- and long-term goals for herself and was connected with working professionals in her chosen field, tapping into “reinforcement, tools, and possibilities I wasn’t aware of at all.”
Feigman said Eliyaou excels at her job because she “truly listens,” adding that there’s great power in having a strong woman as her role model.
“When I think of my dreams, then Tali is the address,” she said. “I can always go to her, and she’ll always receive me with a smile.”
The program has hundreds of individual success stories like Feigman’s, but it’s also having a wider effect on Israeli society as a whole. And that impact will only grow larger when the Ministry of Education and officially takes responsibility for the program in 2021.
“Israel in general is concerned with teaching our young people to become better citizens and contribute to and care about our country,” Eliyaou said. “That’s what we do, and that’s really what they turn into.”
For Eliyaou, Feigman, and countless other young Israeli women forging a path to success and a brighter future, every day is a day to empower one another, their communities, and all those seeking a better tomorrow.