Olim Facing Tough Job Market in Israel Turn to Gvahim for Help

During a multi-day intensive course, a group of highly-qualified Olim with a financial background were trained at and by Bank Discount. The goal was to provide them with the tools to contribute their global financial expertise in Israel. Photo coutesy Michael Alvarez-Pereyre / Gvahim.

by Abigail Pickus

When Naomi Smigel said goodbye to her life in New York to settle in Israel, she left a plum job she’d had for ten years at Time Warner.

But she assumed with her expertise, she’d land something in her field relatively quickly.

“While I didn’t think it would be easy, I also didn’t think it would be as hard or take as long as it did because there is so much high-tech here and I was coming from doing software projects,” said the 36-year-old married mother of three.

Smigel is not alone.

Many olim come to Israel with advanced degrees and impressive career achievements under their belts only to face the daunting – and sometimes bootless – task of trying to gain meaningful employment that if they’re lucky, will be comparable to what they did back in their home country.

Smigel did end up landing a comparable position as a project manager at a software company after a five month search and she credits an organization called Gvahim for helping lead her there. Since 2006, Gvahim has worked with highly skilled olim to help them understand the Israeli market, re-package themselves and find meaningful employment.

“Here we saw this amazing aliyah with great potential,” said Mickael Bensadoun, Gvahim’s Executive Director, who launched the nonprofit with the Rashi Foundation and the Israeli businessman Yair Shamir. “This began with the French olim who were coming with the best degrees you can have in France and in Europe. It was a new phenomenon where they would leave great opportunities abroad to come to Israel to make a change and to be part of the country.”

“We thought that after they made this courageous decision to leave their country, everything should be done so they stay in Israel,” Bensadoun continued.

In six years, Gvahim has helped 500 people from over 20 countries – and will have helped an additional 200 by the end of 2012. Their online community, who have access to job listings, networking events and career development tips, is 6,000 strong of which 10% are potential olim living outside of Israel.

Gvahim’s Career Development Program (CDP) is an intensive, seven-month program, which includes seminars on everything from tailoring a CV for the Israeli market and how to interview to what kind of salaries to expect. After being paired with an Israeli mentor, a prestigious group of volunteers who are already established in their fields, Gvahim then guides members through the placement phase, which often includes networking on their behalf.

“We work with them until they find the right position,” said Bensadoun, who estimates the average job search takes between one to six months.

Over 75% of Gvahim CDP alumni from 2011 and the beginning of 2012 have found positions befitting their academic and professional level within nine months of beginning the program, according to Bensadoun.

This year the organization has added two new programs to its roster, TheHive by Gvahim for olim who want to create their own start-up and another that partners with Masa Israel to outreach to university graduates who are interested in a professional internship in Israel.

A big part of acclimating to a job search in a new country is grasping the cultural nuances.

“They taught us in Gvahim ways we can respond during the interviewing process and one of the things that stuck with me is to tell the interviewer what your biggest failure is,” said Smigel. “This is very Israeli to get to the bottom line. That is when I realized that everything is the opposite of how we do things in America where you build up to the punchline, while in Israel you start with the punchline and the rest you fill in.”

In addition to having to master a new language, what many olim quickly discover is that they are dealing with not only a new game, but a new set of rules.

“There are some real cultural differences and misunderstandings and we help them understand the Israeli mentality and cultural code. As educated and bright as they are, they must discover a new market with new rules and new players. Sometimes even the names of the positions are different,” said Bensadoun.

One cultural norm olim discover pretty quickly is that Israel runs on “protexia,” a slang word for “who you know.”

“Even more than any market in the world, a lot is based on contacts from childhood or from the army and olim are coming here without any social network,” said Bensadoun.

Beyond just job skills, Gvahim prides itself on the way it fosters community. With that in mind, each CDP group is kept deliberately small, of no more than 35 participants.

“The empathy you get from the other olim is really something unique,” said David Hyman, 31, who made aliyah from Melbourne and who participated in Gvahim soon after. “Here you are with other people who have made aliyah who have gone through similar struggles. It’s something to be able to bounce your experiences and feelings off of others who have done it before and it allows you to be patient and confident that everyone gets knocked around and for everyone it is a tough process. It helps you continue as you take that ride.”

With a background in banking and finance, after a year-long search Hyman landed what he calls a “great job” at Bank Hapoalim in Tel Aviv where he works with a small team of Israelis at the bank’s proprietary investment desk.

Part of the expectation with Gvahim is that alumni who have benefited from the organization give back to new olim who are struggling like they once were.

“I am on the alumni committee and I am also in contact with new olim coming into Israel to give them little bit of support,” said Hyman.

He has already familiarized Bank Hapoalim’s Chairman with Gvahim who now turns to the organization for potential new employees.

“Every month I get an email from a new oleh who has experience in banking and finance asking what do I do? My first recommendation is always to send them to Gvahim,” said Hyman.

Since it’s pilot year in which it helped 80 people, Gvahim has grown in scope to help 200 people a year, but Bensadoun estimates that there are at least 2,000 highly educated olim who need help per year.

“Our challenge is how to get there,” said Bensadoun. “We are looking for new philanthropy partners, we are building partnerships with the Israeli Government’s Ministry of Absorption and we are developing a strategy be more self-generated in terms of our income.”

Gvahim is supported by the Rashi Foundation, Mr. Sam Pinto, The Adelis Foundation, JNF-UK, the MATANEL Foundation, the Natan Foundation, the Mor Family, AMI, Golan Telecom, DSPG, Pompeyane, the Gertzman Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit & the Joint Distribution Committee, the Levi Lassen Foundation and the Gvahim Alumni Fund.