Tsofen: A SF Federation Grantee Harnesses Technology for a Shared Israeli Society
by Merav Barr Grindlinger
Start-up Nation. It’s become a household term in our community, thanks to authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer, whose book examines the phenomenon of a tiny country, burdened with political conflict and bereft of natural resources, that has an outsize impact on the global economy through the hi-tech market. Israel has earned its title and now, with a strong record of success, is poised to expand its economic and technological know-how to all of its citizens, with a special focus on Arab-Israelis.
Investing in disadvantaged populations is now at the heart of the government’s economic agenda. According to Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett’s, in a recent New York Times op-ed, “My goal is to get ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women into the workforce, to free them from the clutches of poverty… It’s true that Israel has a growing economy and impressive high-tech innovation. But it is time to recognize the mistakes that have led to the creation of two different economies and to take decisive action.”
While we can clearly see an increase in the numbers of Arab engineers in Israeli hi-tech in the past five years, the overall numbers are largely unimpressive, with a growth from 300 to 1,500 in a market of 85,000. According to a recent study on employment and Arab women by Tel Aviv University and the Bank of Israel, this year the Israeli economy will lose at least $460 million because it has not invested sufficiently in supporting female employment in the Arab sector.
Welcoming Tsofen to the SF Federation
Samar Nassar, an Arab woman from Tira, is not among the unemployed. Years of hard work and support from Tsofen have landed her a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Haifa University, and a promising position as a computer engineer in the heart of the “Silicon Wadi.”
Leading the charge for change for Samar and hundreds like her, Tsofen (“code” in Hebrew) – a new grantee of the San Francisco-based Federation – is promoting the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into its hi-tech industry, through employment and the creation of hi-tech centers in Arab towns throughout Israel. Founded by Jewish and Arab hi-tech executives and professionals in 2008, Tsofen’s ultimate goal is to engender a shared Israeli society, using technology as its vehicle.
According to Tsofen co-founder Sami Saadi, “Economic development can offer the solution to the political problems. How do people bring about real change? When you empower them and when you give them an outlook for the future. Technology is that outlook.”
You don’t need to be a professor of economics to see the simple supply and demand equation. Israel’s booming hi-tech industry is in dire need of more workers. And only 20% of Arabs with an exact sciences degree work in their profession; most become low-salaried teachers. That’s why Tsofen is harnessing Israel’s flourishing hi-tech market to advance the notion that shared economies lead to shared societies.
Tsofen actively pursues Arab-Israelis currently enrolled in exact sciences programs throughout Israel. But with Arab-Israelis traditionally looking to medicine, pharmacology and teaching as professions worth pursuing, Tsofen recognizes that the benefit of technology as a valued profession needs to be better marketed to the Arab, Druze and Circassian populations.
Tsofen is creatively working to advance this awareness in the Triangle region of northern Israel, and is exposing high school students to the opportunities that hi-tech can offer. Last month’s “High School Hackathon” in Umm al-Fahem, the first of its kind in the Triangle region, is just one way Tsofen actively reaches out to increase awareness not only of the tech industry, but also of Tsofen’s services that can actively lead to employment.
The Hackathon attracted more than 150 students, over half of whom were female, reflecting a gradual attitude change in Israeli Arab towns where the woman’s role is expanding beyond child-rearing to include the pursuit of an education and career.
“I can say that things have changed,” Samar explains. “We’ve gotten to the place where it’s not enough for the man to be the only breadwinner. I think I am representative of the new way of thinking in Tira.”
Training and Job placement
Tsofen trains graduates of computer science, engineering and advanced technology programs, offering highly-subsidized programming courses to participants who undergo a rigorous selection process. Samar was recruited by Tsofen and joined a course midway, and recalls hardship that she only overcame with the organization’s overwhelming support: “The Tsofen team did everything in its power to keep me in the program, motivating me to work harder and even find a job just before I completed the course. In any field, if you are backed by people who are supportive, you can go wherever you desire.”
Equally critical in Tsofen’s curriculum is empowerment training and preparation for the work environment in hi-tech.
Bringing it Home
Working closely with industry giants like Amdocs, Intel, Google, Verifone, Galil Software, Babcome Software and others, there is no denying Tsofen’s success thus far in integrating Arabs into the country’s hi-tech industry. More than 85% of course participants are successfully employed in their areas of expertise.
But to get the real traction that Tsofen is looking for, the organization understands that it is not enough to bring Arabs to established hi-tech centers in Tel Aviv or Herzliya. In order to engage a significant part of the Arab sector, industrial centers need to be launched that are highly accessible to the Arab-Israeli population.
That’s why Tsofen has resolved to assist hi-tech companies in opening satellite branches in the Galilee and Triangle regions, and to work with local authorities and government agents to effectively create mini-technology hubs in and around Arab towns. According to Paz Hirschmann, Tsofen’s Director of Resource Development and Government Relations, “The importance of bringing hi-tech to Arab cities is twofold – not only does is create an engine of growth for the whole city as we have seen in cities like Yokneam, but it also increases dramatically the inclusion of Arabs, especially women, in the hi-tech workforce.”
The recently opened industrial park in Nazareth, home to Israel’s largest Arab community, is a case-in-point. Previously only catering to tourists seeking to visit the city’s renowned Christian sites, the new industrial park now attracts more than five hundred hi-tech workers from Nazareth and neighboring towns, 30% of whom are women. This successful initiative is providing new technology positions, while sparking ancillary markets like restaurants, gas stations and creating a space where Arabs and Jews work side-by-side.
“We do not intersect at school, not in the military and barely university,” Hirschmann explains. “The workplace is where things begin to change.”
The Federation’s support of Tsofen is helping to change the economic landscape of Israel for a more just, shared society. While massive investment is still needed to continue creating new hubs of technology that are accessible to Israel’s Arab residents, the trend is clear. A shared economy is perhaps the most rational and viable path to a shared society.
This can only be achieved if real hope is instilled in the hearts of Israel’s citizens. Looking forward, Samar is hopeful about what the future holds for her and her community:
We need to concentrate on what we share and less on our differences. When we cooperate as team members at work, the idea of a shared society has a better chance to blossom.
I feel very proud to be part of Tsofen. It gives me a feeling of security that there is someone looking out for our best interest… that we are not alone.
Merav Barr Grindlinger is a Marketing Associate of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.