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Immigrants Helping Immigrants

December 5, 2012

by: Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor

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Although the learning curve for all immigrants is tough, it has been much more so for Ethiopians. Israel offers many programs, special classes, and social assistance for them, but the goal of seeing the Ethiopians fully enmeshed in Israeli society, in many ways, has not been achieved. Recently, one of the most promising initiatives for helping them not only survive but thrive has produced headlines—and interestingly enough, the help is coming from other immigrants!


 It is the Megemeria School of Jewelry and Art, located just west of Jerusalem as part of the Yvel Design Center. “Megemeria” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic means “Genesis” or “beginnings,” an appropriate name for a vocational school that gives students a new beginning. Here students have a chance to overcome poverty, become a part of Israeli society, acquire skills in line with their abilities, join the Israeli workforce, and earn a living in a meaningful profession.

Compassionate Founders

Isaac and Orna Levy

Isaac and Orna Levy have a heart for new immigrants because Isaac was an immigrant. He immigrated to Israel from Argentina in 1963 when he was only five years old. Isaac remembers his father’s bitter experience of struggling to build a business, only to have everything stolen. Isaac vowed that should he ever have the chance to make a difference for new immigrants, he would happily do so.


Orna is a fourth-generation jeweler; it was her mother who taught Isaac the art of jewelry design. Together, Isaac and Orna founded Yvel (Levy in reverse) in 1986. Today, they are a—maybe “the”— leading fashion pearl designer worldwide, winning awards in jewelry design even ahead of Japan’s Mikimoto. Their factory hires immigrants from over 20 different countries, making up 90% of its 100+ workforce.



In 2010, they founded Megemeria especially for Ethiopians, for whom Isaac has a soft spot in his heart because of their extra hardships. An article in a jewelers’ e-newsletter, “The Centurion,” states that “what he did was follow the ancient proverb that says if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”


Yvel is the only jewelry manufacturer in the world that has developed a jewelry academy, and Megemeria is the first corporate social responsibility program of its kind in Israel. ”My way of repairing the world [tikkun olam] is to give others what I didn’t have as a child and to help repair the weakest links in Israeli society—our immigrants and, in particular, Ethiopian immigrants,” Isaac writes in his corporate bio.

Approved and Praised


The one-year course in jewelry-making is approved by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Students are matched with mentors who are already working in Yvel to coach them through their studies. They also receive supplementary classes in order to give them the tools to become socially-involved citizens: Hebrew, Israeli history and society, and Family Budget Management Training. These classes not only help them integrate into Israeli life but also positively influence their families and the Ethiopian community as a whole. The “Centurion” reported that “because all students have families and many are single parents…they are paid a monthly stipend to replace the income they would have had working as cleaning staff or security guards…A social worker helps with any personal, family, or social problems.”

Photo Credit: Isaac and Orna Levy


At the end of the course, students take the Ministry certification exam. The program guarantees a job either at the Yvel factory or Megemeria, but they are equipped to get a job at any other jewelry business as well.


This unique social-business model has most recently drawn the attention of Israeli industrialist and entrepreneur Stef Wertheimer, who visited Megemeria in September. Wertheimer, whose family immigrated to Israel in 1937 to escape Nazi Germany, founded ISCAR in 1952. Today, it is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of carbide industrial-cutting tools.


A press release stated that Wertheimer was very moved to see the Ethiopian students designing and creating their own line of Ethiopian-inspired jewelry. He was particularly interested in their personal stories—how they were selected from hundreds of applicants for the 21-student course, where they live, how this opportunity has changed their lives, etc. Wertheimer, known for his keen sense of social responsibility, was so impressed with the initiative that he is planning to investigate ways of incorporating it into his own activities to promote employment in the north of the country.



The Megemeria collection, inspired by the immigrants’ personal and collective journey to Israel, features pendants, earrings, bracelets, and rings made of 24K gold-plated brass. All profits generated by sales are put into a separate company run by the students and graduates of the program.


In an interview with “Centurion,” Sanayit Bayana, one of the first graduates, said, “Isaac and 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.” Another graduate, Fantanesh Gavre Madhen, said, “It is like a family here. It is difficult, but if there is a desire, there are people here to help, really good people. I now feel like my place in Israel is not just in cleaning [services]; I am equal.”

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