Where Jewelry and Charity Meet
by Judy Lash Balint
What’s the highest level of charity according to Jewish tradition? It’s giving someone in need a job or training for a career so they can become self-supporting, says the Rambam, the revered 13th-century Jewish philosopher.
Isaac and Orna Levy, owners of an award-winning Israeli jewelry company, have taken the concept to a new level.
In a tastefully renovated 160-year-old stone building in Motza, a few miles west of Jerusalem just off the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway, the Levys are running an innovative school that is teaching the jewelry trade to an eager group of motivated Ethiopian immigrants—alongside the Levy’s thriving Yvel family business that has been creating exquisite, high-end jewelry designs featuring pearls, gold and gemstones since 1986.
With 650 retail outlets around the world, the Yvel name is associated with the world’s most beautiful gems—a dizzying array of pearls and sapphires set off with diamonds in fresh, modern designs. Yvel publicity photos feature celebrities like Rihanna, tennis star Marina Sharapova and actress Scarlett Johansson wearing Yvel designs at well-publicized society events.
Few Yvel customers are aware that Yvel (Levy spelled backwards) is based in Israel, and fewer still have any idea that ninety percent of Yvel’s employees in the custom-designed facility just outside Jerusalem are Jewish immigrants, or that a significant number of them pause to pray in the early afternoon.
But it’s the Megemeria training program that’s the most unique feature of the Levy empire. Taken from the Amharic word for Genesis, the school that trains the budding jewelry makers provides a new beginning for some 21 Ethiopian immigrants at a time, chosen for their artistic sense and propensity for precision work.
Many of the students came to the program with limited Hebrew and poor math skills, but through the Yedid Association for Social Empowerment that has been working on behalf of Ethiopian immigrants and other disadvantaged Israelis for decades, they develop the skills, work habits and motivation to succeed. “The Levys found us,” emphasizes Yedid executive director Sari Rivkin as she explains that Orna Levy was a kindergarten friend of Yedid’s deputy director. When the Levys decided they wanted to help immigrants help themselves, Orna approached her old friend at Yedid and the innovative social responsibility program was hatched.
The first group of Megemeria students recently graduated, and their Ethiopian-inspired Genesis jewelry line is now for sale in the elegant Yvel showroom alongside the regular Yvel pearl and sapphire collections as well as at retail outlets and on-line.
The Genesis line features stunning pendants, earrings, bracelets and rings made of brass and plated with 24K gold at prices ranging from $50 to $200 per piece. Each of the designs incorporates a hidden or mystery message inscribed in Amharic, the native tongue of the Ethiopian student designers. Personalized messages such as initials or single words like “forever”, “love” and “friendship” appear in Amharic lettering on ID style bracelets, pendants on leather cords and rings.
“We are very proud of our first year graduates,” says Yvel owner, Isaac Levy. “These Ethiopian immigrants are now employed in full time jobs, and with the launch of this new collection, they are supporting the Israeli jewelry industry abroad. We aim to find some excellent partners in this Mitzvah (good deed) as sales of this new collection will help us to continue this life-changing work and repair the world a little more effectively every year.”
All profits from the sale of the jewelry collection are channeled back into the business to help fund the school, pay salaries and recruit more staff.
Some of the graduates that will receive professional diplomas from the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, will continue to work in Megemeria, while others will take their place alongside former Megemeria graduates, new and veteran immigrants in Yvel. All will find employment on graduation, promises Levy.
Before they were accepted to Megemeria, several of the students were working as house cleaners and security guards. In a Catch-22 situation, few training programs were willing to take on people with little formal education.
For people like graduate Sanayit Bayana the chance to learn a promising trade with the assurance of a job has been a life-changing experience. “Isaac & Orna Levy try and tell us that we are equal in society, only now I can feel it. We will now have a profession and can work and progress like everyone else. Our children will see this and be very happy for us.”
And the motivation for the Rambam-inspired charity project? Isaac Levy knows what it is to make one’s way in a strange environment. As an immigrant who made aliya as a child from Argentina with his family, Isaac watched his father struggle and get beaten down by the bureaucracy and unscrupulous business partners as he tried to support his family.
As a self-described committed Zionist, that’s an experience Isaac vows he will try and prevent for as many Ethiopian immigrants as he can train and launch into a better life.