January 28, 2013

There are not many store managers who would just shrug their shoulders upon hearing that one of the employees would be late for a shift. But Moran Goldfine – manager of The Women’s Courtyard at the Port – knew exactly with whom she would be working when she accepted the challenge to manage this social-venture boutique a few months back.

The store was opened in 2012 by the Women’s Courtyard, a multicultural organization that provides support and assistance for young-adult women in distress and at-risk who reside in the cities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Bat Yam.

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Organization heads decided that an upscale clothing store selling top designer wear was a great way to offer these women a chance to enter the workforce on the right footing.

It is fashion and compassion combined: Brands like Banker, Top Shop, Billabong and local designers donate previous seasons’ wear to the store and proceeds go to at-risk youth.

“It’s a different experience to shop here,” Goldfine tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s a relaxed experience. We don’t pressure customers. You buy and donate.”

A visitor to the store would find it difficult to imagine that the shop staff hails from the extreme margins of Israeli society. Thanks to Goldfine, who has more than 10 years of experience in store management, the first cohort of eight trainees has learned how to do everything from greeting customers to operating the cash register.

This is the first job they’ve ever held and while it is their lifeline out of poverty, distress, discrimination and abuse, these young women are not “regular” employees. They come late for work or not at all, or may leave in the middle of a shift to run an errand.

But Goldfine encourages them to do their best.

“It’s a confidence boost for them,” says Goldfine. “It gives them hope to wake up in the morning and know that they have a place to go. The salary also gives hope and puts them in another position. These young women are amazing and what they’re doing is really admirable.”

“It is empowering beyond belief. Some of the young women can already hold a shift by themselves. It is beyond what we expected,” says Noa Turgeman, co-executive director of the Women’s Courtyard.

Fashion power

Social workers Mirit Sidi and Leora Kessel started the Women’s Courtyard in 2003 because they saw the need for a safe, female space offering emotional support, educational activities, vocational services and crisis intervention to disadvantaged young women in the Jaffa area.

The Courtyard is located in the middle of a poor neighborhood, in a small free-standing building with a kitchen, living room area and a big courtyard. Therapists help the clients, aged 13 to 25, cope with everyday challenges.

The eight women in the program are learning skills including sewing.
The eight women in the program are learning skills including sewing.

“The organization promotes social justice, equal opportunities and the right of every woman and girl to achieve self-fulfillment in accordance with her will, aspirations and needs, independent of national origins or ethnicity,” the mission statement reads.

When they opened the store last year, Kessel and Sidi also set up a 24-month course to train the boutique workers in all aspects of the fashion business.

In addition to having a personal mentor, these 18- to 25-year-olds are learning about styling, design and sewing as well as how to run a store. The 6B Design College and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design donated free courses. “Fashion makes most women happy,” says Goldfine. “The women who work here love it. It’s a hobby that becomes an occupation.”

A new year of Courtyards

The organization opened a new Haifa Courtyard in January based on the Jaffa model. They hope to raise enough funds to open two other Courtyards in other parts of Israel this year to offer more opportunities to girls and women living on the margins of Israeli society.

“This target group is particularly complex because of the disadvantages that they face because of their gender, challenges reinforced by ethnic, social and geographical considerations,” reads the organization’s mission statement.

The eight women working at the store are among the success stories, yet they, too, are still reliant on the organization for therapy and a listening ear.

“Their life doesn’t stop just because they’re working,” explains Turgeman. “They still have challenges.”

The Courtyard gets financial support from municipalities, the Welfare Ministry, private foundations, local business and private donors, and collaborates with organizations such as Israel’s Social Security program for Employment, Yedid, the Doula program of Diada, Peres Center for Peace, schools in Jaffa and others. The majority of proceeds go to training and supporting the Foundation for Children at Risk and the Dualis Israel Social Venture Fund.

“We’re very unique in that we work inside the neighborhood. We work with everyone. We welcome everyone. We’re very tolerant and very patient,” says Tourgeman. “From a grassroots place to now owning a store and with more Courtyards on the way, it’s just amazing.”

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