Home June 2011 Essence of Empowerment

Essence of Empowerment

“YEDID” means “friend” in Hebrew, explained Sari Revkin, the founder and executive director of Israel’s primary non-profit providing social and legal assistance to low-income citizens, empowering them to break the cycle of poverty.  Revkin, who founded YEDID, the Association for Community Empowerment, 13 years ago, wanted to help people who believed they could make a change in their own lives.

“The idea of YEDID Citizens Rights Centers is to be a friend, to give a hand to a friend in need,” said Revkin, who spoke at a Jewish Federation & Family Services’ Israel Matters lecture on May 11.  YEDID is an Israeli nonprofit that JF&FS has supported in its efforts to address communication gaps between such groups as immigrants and the rest of society, parents and school systems and poor people and financial institutions.

The impetus for founding YEDID was the need for absorption of Russian immigrants in 1997.  Today, many of the programs are in Kiryat Malachi, Orange County’s sister region, where there are many Ethiopian immigrants (60 percent of the population), as well as immigrants from rural areas in the Former Soviet Union.

“These immigrants don’t speak the language well, are not highly educated and are very primitive,” Revkin said.  “YEDID filters things and gets people around the bureaucracy.  We serve the weakest part of the population, and we’re lucky if people come to us before they get evicted from their homes.  We find alternative housing and someone to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Another place where YEDID has been active is Sderot.  In one case a child would not go to school, because other students were making fun of his “air sandwich” – two pieces of bread with nothing in between.  YEDID questioned why students were not getting school lunches and got a bill passed.  Although Sderot is an area with a poor tax base, YEDID wanted to make sure that the government was guaranteeing that school-age children got one hot meal a day.

“When children don’t eat, they can’t concentrate, and the cycle of poverty continues,” Revkin explained.

Education is a major issue, too, she said.  Israel has slipped, especially further away from the center of the country, according to Revkin.

YEDID can bring about change in other ways too.  In Tzfat, which is not considered a development town, the organization has attempted to create incentives to bring jobs to the region.  “We need people who grew up in an area to stay in order to create jobs,” Revkin said.  “The small-town mentality has been pervasive.  We need people to be willing to travel for jobs.”

YEDID has served 250,000 people across Israel.  Primarily, it helps people with problems such as debts, mortgage foreclosures, national insurance accessibility and labor law.  The organization also works on policy change by learning what the issues are and making precedents in the lower courts.  YEDID also focuses on getting issues into the media, because “the pressure of the press can help makes changes in the laws,” Revkin said.

There are other kinds of social issues too.  For example, as Revkin pointed out, 11th graders in Israel get to go on Holocaust education trips to Poland.  Only wealthy people can afford to send their children on such trips, so YEDID is working on changing the funding structure.  Another problem is that society considers people over 45 unemployable, so YEDID is trying to foster community-based programs for economic empowerment to help women get into or return to the work force and to develop financial literacy.

YEDID led a coalition of 50 organizations aiming for social change in Israel in 2008, and, as Revkin pointed out, it has led programs with the support of organizations in the U.S. that have fallen on hard times.  She recalled that during the Second Lebanon War there was nothing in place on the government level in Israel to help civilians who had lost their homes and livelihoods.  The non-profit organizations, which Revkin called the third sector, pitched in to help.

“We can be a catalyst, but we can’t take over what the government has to be responsible for,” Revkin said.  “The welfare minister has to cooperate.  It’s difficult to draw the line.  If we could stop spending so much of Israel’s tax dollars on security, we would do better at welfare.”

She added, “Israel is considered a developed country, so it’s required to do certain things.  The Israeli government doesn’t do certain things well.  We can contract certain things out, but the money has to come from somewhere.”

YEDID’s budget reflects $2.5 million dollars, but because so many people work as volunteers, the impact is as if it were $9 million, Revkin said.  There is no means test for people receiving help, but working class clients often give back, in the form of cakes, cookies, volunteering or cash.

Named as Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation in 2009, and delegate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Revkin has a lot of experience in social issues, including women’s economic empowerment, access to social justice, community development and immigrant absorption in Israeli society.  Shortly after receiving her MSW from the University of Maryland in 1976, Revkin developed the Baltimore Welfare Rights Organization.  A year after her 1983 immigration to Israel, she established SHATIL, the NIF capacity building and training center for social change organizations.  She led the organization for 14 years.

Sensing the needs of Israel’s underrepresented citizens in the geographic and societal periphery, Revkin decided to return to grass roots organizing.  When she founded YEDID, her democratic vision enabled her to build a volunteer-based organization with 23 Citizen Rights Centers assisting and empowering Israelis of all backgrounds.  Revkin and YEDID have earned international acclaim for the pursuit of social justice, including: President of Israel’s Medal for Volunteerism (2008); Jewish Women’s International Woman of Note (2006); and being named by Lady Globes, a leading Israeli financial magazine as one of the 50 most influential women in Israel in 2005.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Revkin lives in Jerusalem with her two sons, Ishai and Noam, and four four-legged friends — Charlie and Chucky (dogs), and Tom and Mitzie (cats).

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