ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Women-led initiative opens doors for southern evacuees needing more than just a job

To cope with war trauma, 710 West tailors employment opportunities for residents of distressed Gaza border region, harnessing remote work options for those seeking return to normalcy

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Field workers of female-run initiative 710 West are in Eilat to help displaced men and women find employment. (Courtesy)
Field workers of female-run initiative 710 West are in Eilat to help displaced men and women find employment. (Courtesy)

On October 7, Chen Weitzman was visiting her family in Sderot to celebrate Simhat Torah, marking the end of the Jewish holiday season and preparing to start a new job after spending maternity leave at home in nearby Netivot with her new twin daughters.

But the Hamas massacre that day not only turned Weitzman into an evacuee but also put an end to her employment plans. Displaced for the first months of the war to Netanya, she found it impossible to commute to Beersheba for onboarding and the job went to someone else instead.

Weitzman is one of around 200,000 Israelis who were displaced from their homes in the aftermath of the October 7 onslaught and subsequent Hamas war and hostilities along the Gaza and Lebanon borders in the south and north.

Many of the war evacuees have struggled with motivation and loss of confidence to keep working, while they are stuck in a hotel room or an apartment far away from home.

In trying to find a path back to normalcy, Weitzman and many others have turned to an initiative designed to help evacuees find tailored employment and occupation during this challenging period.

“With all the trauma of the war, the people we have lost, the fear about the hostages, in all of this — not having a routine, not having employment or regular income is very difficult,” said Weitzman, who was still unable to find work after returning home to the southern town of Netivot in late November.

“To start working, even if only remotely, helps mentally to get back to some form of routine with all that is happening,” she said.

When Weitzman and her family were awoken by a rocket siren on that black Shabbat in early October, they thought little of it. Only after hearing gunshots and peeking out the window to see terrorists did they understand that something more sinister was taking place, she recounted.

“We heard people knocking on the door but came to the conclusion that they must be the terrorists that we saw from the window,” Weitzman said. The family stayed as quiet as possible and eventually whoever was at the door left. “Luckily we were saved as they probably thought that no one was home.”

When they were finally able to leave the safe room two days later, Weitzman, 28, with her husband, three young children, siblings, parents, and grandparents joined the mass exodus from southern Israel, as towns, kibbutzim and small communities were cleared out. They eventually wound up finding a place to stay at an apartment in Netanya, a beachside city north of Tel Aviv.

“We arrived from Sderot with barely anything but got a lot of help and donations of clothing, games for the children, and food,” Weitzman said.

Chen Weitzman from Netivot at the graduation ceremony of her bachelors degree in human resources. (Courtesy)

With the planned job in Beersheba out, Weitzman continued to look for work, but had little luck. The lack of daycare options for her young children while in limbo made the task harder still.

Now, back in Netivot, “we still hear the bombings and booms in Gaza but we have a safe room and there are hardly sirens and the children have slowly learned to live with the background noise,” said Weitzman, who grew up in Ashkelon, a southern coastal city that has been battered by rocket attacks from Gaza for nearly two decades.

Part of getting back to routine was to search for a job. Weitzman has a degree in human resources management, but the “employment situation is difficult in Netivot, there aren’t many openings,” she lamented.

The scene of a rocket impact in the southern city of Netivot, following a barrage fired from the Gaza Strip, January 16, 2024. (Fire and Rescue Services)

For Weitzman and others like her, an initiative known as 710 West promises help. The project was jointly created by the Merage Foundation Israel, social business entrepreneur Hana Rado, the Eshkol Regional Council, which abuts the Gaza border, and the Tamar Regional Council near the Dead Sea, where many of those displaced ended up. Organizers hope to aid in the rehabilitation of thousands of displaced individuals in the western Negev who either are struggling in their current jobs or lost work in the aftermath of the October 7 onslaught.

The initiative was established in response to a request from the management of Kibbutz Sa’ad, which was looking for assistance in finding employment for its residents as part of a rehabilitation process of the community. Unlike many surrounding kibbutzim, Sa’ad was largely unharmed during the attack and many of its residents were quick to return, though not everyone had jobs to go back to.

At the end of November, the Knesset passed a law to provide job security to war evacuees and the family members of hostages. For the war period, the law prohibits firing employees who were unable to do their job because they were evacuated from a community near the Gaza or Lebanese borders, or if they are a family member of someone missing or held hostage in Gaza.

Social business entrepreneur Hana Rado (right) and Nicole Hod-Stroh, CEO of the Merage Foundation Israel. (Courtesy)

However, 710 West’s effort was born out of the idea that displaced Israelis need more than job protection. Many are looking for employment solutions that are tailored to their needs as they still cope with trauma, while being uprooted from their homes and sometimes are also dealing with the loss of their loved ones.

Some 1,200 people were killed during the Hamas onslaught in southern Israel on October 7, and another 253 people were kidnapped, with more than half still being held hostage in Gaza. Over 200 soldiers have also been killed since Israel began fighting in the Strip to uproot and destroy the Hamas terror group.

The team of women leading 710 West, including human resources and welfare experts, offer personal and professional support to motivate and encourage evacuees of the western Negev to seek employment, as well as help them find the right fit of employers and types of work that they can do even though many have not returned home.

“I believe that employment is a fundamental and critical component in strengthening an individual’s confidence and stability, especially among people who have experienced trauma and lost the ability to be self-sufficient,” said Rado. “Our focus is on facilitating remote work opportunities so that someone who was evacuated from a southern community to Eilat because of the war can get a job at a startup in Tel Aviv and can continue working there even after returning back home.”

To get the initiative up and running, 710 West built a digital platform where jobseekers and employers can sign up. As part of the project, field operators were sent out, including one woman to Eilat — where many of the displaced are concentrated — one to the Dead Sea, and one to Tel Aviv, to talk to evacuees in the hotels they were staying in to build trust and understand their needs, sign them up on the system, and help them successfully get hired.

“Their needs are so basic at this point because some lost everything and it could be that they need a babysitter for two hours so they can jump on an interview call or that the room in the hotel they were evacuated to doesn’t have internet, and we find them solutions for that too,” said Nicole Hod-Stroh, CEO of the Merage Foundation, a family-run philanthropic fund that has been involved in developing the Negev for many years. “In other cases, tailored support we provide could entail trying to find them training.”

When Weitzman came across 710 West through a WhatsApp group for jobseekers, she said she took her chances as she was already back home in Netivot.

710 West holds roundtable meeting with representatives of the Eshkol regional council. (Courtesy)

“I didn’t think that they would have something for me, but I tried anyway, and good that I did, because in the end, I got lucky,” she said. “I found a position in my field at a small startup located in the center in Modiin, and despite having little work experience, I sent in my CV.”

For her first interview, the CEO of the startup, who was on reserve duty in the south, met Weitzman in an Aroma coffee place in Netivot, where she was told that she could work from home, aside from one day a week in the office in Modiin, about an hour and 15 minutes away by car.

After the second interview with the startup via Zoom, Weitzman was hired as a human resources manager.

“It is thanks to 710 that I found this job, because if I had been looking only in the Netivot area I wouldn’t have found this position and I wouldn’t have thought about options to look for a job with a company that is located in the center and that I could work for from home,” Weitzman said. “This job allows me to grow into the position I am aiming for faster as it is a small startup and they need me for their planned hiring, and after they add workers, I will be the human resources manager for the new employees.”

The initiative’s name is a reference to the date of the attack and the western Negev, near the Gaza border, whose residents and former residents it is focused on.

It has two volunteers to help with getting employers to join the effort to be able to offer a broad range of jobs, from basic jobs such as sales positions in stores to tech jobs in multinational corporations.

For now, 710 West has forged partnerships with Check Point Software, which opened the door to positions for 15 people, and they are providing training, said Rado. Lahav 433, the Israel Police’s criminal investigation division, is another workplace that committed to hiring workers, she added.

Other employers working with 710 West include insurance companies Migdal and Menorah, and tech companies like Ness Technologies, as well as the MaccabiDent dental clinic chain.

Check Point’s Tel Aviv headquarters, reconfigured and designed to promote sustainability, featured in ‘Solar Guerrilla,’ a Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit, open through December 15, 2019 (Courtesy Check Point)

“They are our cooperation partners, which means that they understand that the hiring process is not a normal one, it involves assistance such as training, and meeting other needs that evacuees have,” said Rado. “We managed to find work for evacuees who are juniors as well as for workers with more experience in the labor market.”

Over recent weeks, about 650 evacuees have signed up on 710 West’s website, about 120 of their CVs have been sent out to employers to start the hiring process, and 25 have succeeded in getting work. For the effort, 710 West has raised about $500,000 in funds and seeks to raise the same amount in the coming weeks.

Rado said she has set herself a target to have 710 residents of the western Negev in employment by October 7, 2024.

Both Rado and Merage’s Hod-Stroh have high hopes and aspirations that the model they are creating for evacuees, which promotes tailored, flexible work arrangements with a focus on remote work, will be turned into a national initiative that the government could support and finance.

Israel’s government has long sought ways to move jobs and people out of the crowded center of the country surrounding Tel Aviv and into peripheral areas which are often underdeveloped.

“Remote work is a perfect model for the Negev that could promote economic and demographic growth allowing people and families to stay in the periphery or move to kibbutzim, to Ofakim, Arad and Dimona and still have jobs in Tel Aviv,” said Hod-Stroh. “Once there is a critical mass of locals working outside the big cities, that could attract more companies to move to the periphery.”

“If we use this crisis, both for the Negev and the Galil, then you could create an economy that allows for Israel to grow also in the periphery,” she added.

Rado noted that there is a long way to go; many employers are still reluctant to adopt remote work models that would allow employees to work in far-flung desert towns like Yeruham rather than the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv.

“Now during the war, many employers are opening doors and hearts,” said Rado. “The more we can persuade employers and prove that is it possible to do the work remotely, this will save the country.”

“It will help close social gaps between the periphery and the center, between the south and north, and change the country so that everyone will have employment, not just people living in the center of the country,” she added.

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