Juan Taifeld is as Mexican as tacos and tequila, but deep in his corazón, he always knew he’d move to Israel. What Taifeld didn’t know was that one day, he’d head a nonprofit organization devoted to helping highly skilled professionals like himself land choice jobs in the Jewish state.
In early December, Taifeld replaced Gali Shahar — now a consultant at the Rashi Foundation — as CEO of Gvahim.
“I belonged to a Zionist family, and my grandfather’s dream was to come to what was then Palestine,” Taifeld recently told me over coffee and chocolates at Gvahim’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “He escaped Poland before World War II started but couldn’t get a visa to Palestine, so he ended up in Mexico, intending to come to the United States.”
Taifeld’s grandfather never made it to the U.S. or the Middle East, though, and he lived out the rest of his life in Mexico. His father did come to Israel in the 1970s but it didn’t go well, and he eventually returned to Mexico City — home to most of the country’s 40,000 Jews and one of the most solidly Zionist Jewish communities in the world.
Taifeld, 46, made aliyah in June 1991. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Tel Aviv University (TAU), a master’s degree in management and educational leadership from TAU, and a second master’s in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
That educational background, along with his position as regional manager of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Latin America, gives him a big advantage in his new position, for which he was selected among a pool of more than 700 applicants.
“One of the main barriers immigrants have in Israel is the lack of networking and difficulties with language and culture. They feel very frustrated,” he said. “Every year, roughly 30,000 people come to Israel, and 10,000 of them have academic degrees. After three years, 30% of those with degrees end up going back to their native countries, mainly because they couldn’t find the right job adapted to their skills.”
Gvahim, which means “heights” in Hebrew, aims to help olim realize their professional skills and land quality jobs. The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last June, also encourages new immigrants to set up their own businesses through one of its accelerator programs, TheHive, or its new sister program, TheNest.
Roughly 40% of Gvahim’s participants come from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries. Another 38% are French, while 17% come from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
According to a Gvahim handout, the organization — a subsidiary of the Rashi Foundation — has grown from just 15 participants in 2006 to some 800 last year.
To date, Gvahim has helped 3,000 new immigrants from 60 countries of origin; it boasts a 91% success rate in the career program — meaning that nine out of 10 alumni find jobs in their professions within 12 months of arrival. Startups established through TheHive have raised $20 million in capital, while TheNest has created 250 jobs.
“I believe that employment is the most important issue people who want to immigrate have to deal with,” Taifeld said. “We are strategically important in helping those immigrants and returning citizens with academic degrees by giving them all the necessary tools to start their professional journey in Israel.”
Each participant pays 700 shekels, which is only 10% of the program’s heavily subsidized real cost. For that, they receive a training program in which they learn how to adapt their resume to the Israeli market, practice interview skills and create a LinkedIn account. They also get up to five hours of one-on-one personal consulting and benefit from Gvahim’s network of more than 1,000 companies looking for the skills new immigrants bring to Israel.
Gvahim, which has 20 full-time employees in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ashdod, operates on a budget of NIS 7.5 million (about $2.1 million) per year; its main office is located on the campus of TAU. But the Israeli government funds only 5% of the total; another 5% comes from the municipalities where Gvahim operates, and the remaining 90% from corporate and private donations.
During 2018, Taifeld says he’d like to bring in the Israeli government as a partner to boost Gvahim’s capabilities. He also hopes to create a “Friends of Gvahim” fundraising association with an office somewhere in the United States — possibly New York.
“We are very professional in helping olim. And yet, most olim hear about us only by word of mouth,” he said. “We need to let people in Israel and Jewish communities overseas know more about the work we’re doing. That’s also one of the advantages I have coming from the Jewish Agency, where I have a very good relationship with people there who are relevant to our work.”
From 2001 to 2005, Taifeld was the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Mexico, then spent seven years with the nonprofit Hanoar Hatzionit youth movement, boosting its annual operating revenues from NIS 800,000 in 2005 to NIS 12.5 million when he left in 2012.
He also worked at the commercial office of the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv, and headed the Jewish Agency’s northern Latin America operations, which included not only Mexico but also Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala and Venezuela.
In 2016, according to government statistics, Israel received 28,172 new immigrants, with the largest numbers coming from Russia (7,221); Ukraine (5,938); France (5,119); the United States (3,242); Great Britain (730) and Brazil (693). During the first five months of 2017, immigration from Russia increased by 13% compared to the year-ago period, from economically troubled Brazil by 29%—and from politically paralyzed Venezuela by an astonishing 142%.
“Throughout Israel’s history, Zionism was always a minor part of migration,” said Taifeld, whose wife is from Slovakia. “Most people came here to find better opportunities, and some are escaping political regimes.”
He noted that while Israel’s living costs and taxes are high, “we’re also a welfare state, so you’re not paying for education, health or security. It’s a question of ideology.”
Yet, he added, “we’re missing a huge opportunity to connect American Jews to the State of Israel. One way is to become more religious and find, in religion, their connection to Judaism. But that’s a problem with liberal Jews. More and more Jewish Americans do not find themselves connected to Israel. Sometimes it’s because of Israeli decisions, and sometimes it’s because of assimilation.”
Noting the dramatic rise in immigration this year from Latin America, Taifeld said he expects Jews to continue flocking to Israel in 2018 from Brazil, whose huge economy is stagnating in the wake of a never-ending corruption scandal, and from Venezuela, where the Maduro regime has turned the once-prosperous oil exporting nation into an international basket case.
Even so, he said, “we do not have a special plan for Latin Americans. They need to adapt here in Israel, just as Ukrainians and Canadians do. We tell all the olim, ‘you’ll have many ups and many downs the first year, but in the end, you’ll be more resilient — with the assurance that you’re not the only one who has passed through this.”