Excited to be chosen for the EDI GSL Experience in Israel

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Food, Friends, and Fun Stuff


If an expert says it can't be done, get another expert.
 --David Ben-Gurion, first Israeli Prime Minister

When I interviewed for this internship, I thought my previous abroad experience would serve me well. But there’s nothing like your first week in Israel! Experiencing Shabbat in historic Jerusalem, taking in the the open-air marketplace or suq as it's called, and imbibing the panoply of perspectives on everything from religion to politics....

The passion and paradoxes of life in modern-day Israel are apparent in everything from the culture to the couture around you. With a population of less than 8 million, 40 times smaller than the United States, Israel nevertheless boasts an economy larger than all its immediate neighbors combined and ranks right behind the US in venture capital funds and number of start-up companies. The spirit behind Ben-Gurion's statement above is the one that has brought this astounding level of progress to a country founded less than a lifetime ago: an optimism unique to a young country pervades the atmosphere, the surety that challenges can be solved -- just like the Negev Desert was made to bloom. 

The varied spectrum of religious belief is reflected in the attire seen while walking down a typical street: from the all-dark ensembles and uncut sideburns of Hasidic men to the burqas sported by Arab women to the skintight jeans and tank tops worn by teenagers.
The Cardo, Jerusalem
But its not just the people who do things in extremes: the land seems quite willing to accommodate to the varied whims of a tourist – in a country the size of New Jersey, you can find everything from the snow-capped peaks of Mount Hermon in the north to the arid Negev in the south. The beauty of the landscape is truly breathtaking –  you could take a 360 degree panoramic shot almost anywhere and capture an image worthy of National Geographic. It is not uncommon to get the sense that you are walking through a history book if you imagine the plethora of armies and empires built on the very streets you are walking. While conversing with a Norwegian friend here who has visited the country a grand total of 19 times, I was told that when a new building is being built, construction often has to pause to allow for archaeological excavation of the artifacts found when creating the foundation. 

Several friends welcomed us to Israel during our first week here. Judge Stephen Adler, recently retired President of Israel's National Labor Court and facilitator of our internship, along with his wife Ruth had Danny and me over for Shabbat dinner. My first time celebrating the meal was definitely a memorable experience, in the historic Old City of Jerusalem amidst the sounds of songs and prayers rising heavenward. The evening was also a miniature Cornell reunion of sorts as we met one of Judge Adler's classmates and chatted about how the school has transformed over the years, while our stellar hockey team maintains its reputation.

Jerusalem Festival of Light
We also hung out with Rivka Sillam, Coordinator for Cornell Abroad in Israel. She took us to the most delightful little restaurant, the Ticho House, tucked away in a garden away from the hustle and bustle of the town center it's located in. Later we explored the Old City, from the Muslim to the Armenian to the Christian Quarters,  all bathed in lights and crammed with locals as well as tourists for the annual Jerusalem Festival of Light.

In terms of work, we hit the ground running with interviews the first week right off the bat. It was both inspiring and informative to hear from people attacking the challenge of employing persons with disabilities from multiple angles: from businessmen like Haim Ariel, owner of a large Israeli holding company and passionate advocate of creating workplaces for persons with disabilities by opening social enterprises, to Dr. Gil Vintz, founder of a successful call center staffed exclusively by persons with disabilities, to Shelly Nordheim, head of the department in the Ministry of Welfare dealing with moving individuals up the employment continuum from sheltered to supported to free market employment so they can both earn more and better utilize their skills and talents. As we explore the differing perspectives, it has been intriguing to note the similar ideas woven through our conversations regarding the challenges of solving the low employment rate of persons with disabilities, the need for government, non-profits, and businesses to collaborate, and the solutions being implemented throughout Israel.

We are only scratching the surface, though, so to find out more you'll have to join us for our next report from Jerusalem - Shalom and thanks for sharing in our journey!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shalom from Jerusalem!

Shalom from Jerusalem! Hakol Biseder- Everything is good. We arrived Sunday evening and moved into the bed and breakfast where we will be staying for six weeks. There are guests from Australia, Switzerland, London, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, Israel, and us from the States. Most guests stay for about a week, so we should meet many new people over the course of our stay. We somehow got to the Commission on time Monday morning and were introduced to the very friendly staff- Commissioner Ahiya Kamara, our supervisor Gaby Admon-Rick, legal advocate Yisrael Haber who has been training us, and more. Meir, another intern but not working on our project, showed us around the area. He does not know much English and we know very little Hebrew- yet we had a fun time and became friends. Monday afternoon we got right into our work. Here is what our project this summer is all about:

Disability (n): The inability to perform a major life activity due to an impairment.

The Israel Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities was created in 2000 in response to the passage of the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act) passed by the Israel Parliament in 1998. Previously, a disability was part of a medical model, as opposed to a social model. In the medical model, a disability was the individual’s burden. If you couldn’t walk the steps to enter a store because you are in a wheelchair, it was your problem. Under the social model, it becomes our problem. The Commission’s work embodies the ideal that one’s disability affects us all.
             The Commission is in charge of advancing the rights of people with disabilities and enforcing the Equal Rights Law. In the past, the Commission had focused its efforts mainly on public accommodations; however, our project this summer focuses solely on employment.
            The employment of people with disabilities is a major dilemma for numerous reasons: People with disabilities are difficult to employ, employers are not required to hire anybody in a free market, and the multitude of types of disabilities make broad solutions difficult. Despite solutions like accommodations, employer incentives, laws, and funded programs, only half of working-aged Israelis with disabilities are currently employed. Employing the other half, along with finding appropriate occupations for those already employed, is a complex puzzle that is yet to be solved.

Our mission:
To connect pieces of this puzzle- To review and analyze the current practices for employing people with disabilities in Israel. To compare Israel’s situation to the United States and develop recommendations for the Israeli government, businesses, and organizations.

Our Agenda:
            Our first two weeks will consist of work with people at the commission, as well as conducting interviews with NGO’s, government agencies, and social enterprises. After that, we will interview Heads of HR or Corporate Social Responsibility at the Israeli sites of Multinational Corporations for another two weeks. The last week or two will be based back at the Commission offices at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem.

Thank you for following! You will hear from us again soon.