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Pearls Of Knowledge

Isaac and Orna Levy, founders of Yvel, started a school to teach jewelry-making skills to Ethiopian immigrants.

By Amber Michelle


                   Students working at the Andrea Bronfman School of Jewelry and Art. Photos by Giora Pinhasi.

Childhood experiences can have a deep and profound impact on our lives, influencing our perspective as adults. It was just that type of childhood experience that led Isaac Levy and his wife Orna, founders of the Israel-based jewelry design and manufacturing firm Yvel, to create the Andrea Bronfman School of Jewelry and Art.           

In 1963, when Isaac was a young child, his family immigrated to Israel from Argentina. Shortly after their arrival, the family found that the Promised Land was not quite what they had expected. His father, Moshe Levy, gave his savings to the owner of a sausage factory as part of a deal to co-own the plant. The owner proceeded to disappear with the money, leaving the family struggling to survive. Growing up, Isaac saw how the anger and hurt over this misplaced trust remained with his father for the rest of his life — his father had harsh words every time the family passed the building that housed the sausage factory. And Isaac vowed that if he ever had the chance, he would do something to help others who were new to the country.

Fast-forward to present day and Isaac has made good on that vow in the very sausage factory that once seemingly was the undoing of his family. In an unexpected way, it also held the future for Isaac. Over the years, the sausage factory, located on a road leading to Jerusalem, had been converted into a winery that later went up for sale. Isaac purchased the space, converting it into offices and a design and manufacturing center for Yvel, which was founded in 1986 and specializes in upscale, unique pearl jewelry.

CLOSING THE CIRCLE
Keeping true to his word, Isaac founded the Andrea Bronfman School of Jewelry and Art in 2011. It is named after the Levys’ friend and philanthropist Andrea Bronfman, as a way to honor her for having mentored them on how to reach out to others. The Levys partnered with the Israel-based nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) Be-Atzmi, which in Hebrew means “On My Own,” to assist with the school. Founded in 1995, Be-Atzmi is dedicated to promoting employment among underprivileged men and women throughout Israel.

“The school is not only a philanthropic achievement or a personal circle that I’m closing in my life,” says Isaac.“It is also a banner for social awareness and social justice that Orna and I are raising high, in the hopes that other companies in Israel and around the world might copy. This will be the only thing that we will allow other companies to copy from us.”

The school specifically trains immigrants from Ethiopia, a group that is discriminated against and that has had an especially difficult time assimilating into Israeli culture. “Isaac and Orna Levy tell us that we are equal in society. Only now can I feel it,” says Sanayit Bayana, a student at the school. “We will now have a profession and can work and progress like everyone else.” Adds fellow student Nitzanett Andarege, “This personally gives me closure. I, in fact, prove, not only to myself, but to the place that raised me, that it is possible to do things differently.”

There are 21 students at the school and each student is given a monthly $1,200 stipend so that they can focus on the training, which lasts for one year. The total cost for a year of study for each student is $16,400. The school is funded by private donations from sources personally solicited by Isaac and his wife.

The school has a permanent staff to ensure that the students benefit from a number of areas in their education. There is a professional director, goldsmithing and diamond-setting teachers, as well as Hebrew and Israeli history and heritage teachers. There is also a social worker on staff who provides counseling on self-image and how it relates to being an equal and involved citizen. The social worker is available to students and their families at any time during their year of training. Included in the curriculum are workshops on parenting and relationships. Additionally, students are taken on tour through Israel to give them a chance to learn about the country and bond with the culture.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE
“It has been over a year now since we opened the school,” says Isaac. “The first 21 students are now officially being recognized as jewelers. We have managed to help them rise above their otherwise unfortunate destiny and that vicious circle that most poor people cannot escape from.” Citing the Mishnah, the Rabbinic interpretation and codification of Jewish laws that had been passed down through the centuries, Isaac says, “It is written that saving one soul is equivalent to saving the whole world. We were blessed to save 21 souls in the first year. Every time I walk through the school and/or see some of the students who now work in the factory, my eyesight becomes blurred.”

At the end of the program, students receive a certificate from Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that licenses them as jewelry crafters. All graduates of the program have the option of staying with Yvel, or being placed in a job in some aspect of the jewelry industry. Most recently, to raise funds for the school, the graduating students are creating and distributing the Genesis collection of brass jewelry plated in 24-karat gold. 

“It is like a family here,” concludes student Fantanesh Gavre Madhen, who worked in cleaning services prior to attending the school. “It is difficult, but if there is desire, there are people here to help. I now feel like my place is in Israel. I am equal to others.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - April 2012. To subscribe click here.

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