TAU law students give religious women skills to open small businesses
Tel Aviv University (TAU) law students are giving free legal counsel to religious women on welfare, some of whom are feeding households with up to 13 children. The target is to turn a community's despair into dollars by helping underprivileged women set up cottage industries and small businesses.
The students are enrolled in the Microbusiness and Economic Justice Clinic run by TAU's Buchmann Faculty of Law. It was started two years ago to serve the distressed Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community of Bnei Brak, which is only a few miles from Tel Aviv University. Bnei Brak is one of Israel's poorest neighborhoods and families on welfare are finding it more and more difficult to make the shekel stretch.
Women find no alternative but to start underground businesses from home.
Some make clothes or bake and sell cakes, while others give manicures or run kindergartens. All of these industrious women are rolling up their sleeves to buy basics like diapers and bread and butter. "These women want to report earnings and work with the authorities," explains Galia Feit, a lawyer and supervisor at the Microbusiness and Economic Justice Clinic, "but they are intimidated by Israeli bureaucracy."
The law students provide one-on-one counsel to participating women who need help navigating through Israel's complex welfare system. In parallel, a team of about 50 TAU faculty members show students how to effect change at the government level.
"We are creating a win-win situation," says Feit. "Our students get credit toward a law degree, and haredi women get the tools to be free from welfare."
She describes the hard situations these women face when they need to leave their kids behind at home to check in with the authorities. Also, the conflicting protocol from one office to the next, and the confusing paperwork involved, makes it difficult not only for a religious woman to start her own business, but for practically anyone.
Before her post at the clinic last year, Feit worked as a legal assistant for the Supreme Court, learning the ins and outs of the Israeli legal system. This background gives her the power to meet welfare decision-makers head on, and change policies based on the real-world problems haredi and other Israeli women face.
Feit talks about the potential and the problems in Bnei Brak --"Many women in this community are educated and some are certified teachers, but there are simply not enough teaching jobs to go around. These women cannot go to Tel Aviv and collect a paycheck due to restrictions of the community. They have almost no options for working positions and have many children at home. For them, the most practical solution is to run businesses out of their apartments."
Each year the clinic matches participating women with one or two students, and has a far greater number of clients than volunteers, which keeps the students on their toes. In its second year of operation, Feit already boasts of success. Yaara Holtsman, copywriter for her own business, The Last Word, agreed to talk about her experience as an Ultra-Orthodox women seeking assistance through the TAU clinic.
Ten years ago, Holtsman was an art director in a large advertising company. When she decided to become more observant, Holtsman left the commercial world behind and became a full-time mom in Bnei Brak. Now divorced and with two children past the age of four, Holtsman wanted to get back into business, but didn't know where to start.
"I had no self-confidence, and no longer knew how the business world was working," says the thirty-something who avoids mainstream media such as television and newspapers. Yet, she knew there might be a way for putting her special talents in design and creative writing to work.
"I was afraid of the George Orwell 1984 story about bureaucracy, but the moment I opened and registered my business, I started to fly," she recounts. "The girls at the clinic helped me most with psychological and moral support for opening my business."
In turn, the volunteer experience gives a lot back to the students. Most of the female students who enroll in the class are given a rare and unique opportunity to peek into the private community of haredi people. Students learn about day-to-day life in Bnei Brak-- their hardships, their joys, their beliefs. "They recognize that we have much more in common than we tend to think," says Feit, who like Holtsman, is a professional working mother of two children. "It is an opportunity to see them as separate human beings-- as women and not just a part of a close-knit community that we hardly know about and hold stereotypes towards."
Much of the exchange at the Microbusiness Clinic is done through meetings, where students help participating women write contracts and business plans, and file social security papers. Depending on where they meet, sometimes TAU students are expected to meet the haredi dress-code of long-sleeved shirts and long skirts.
At the end of the day, the clinic boils down to being a much needed service, as state-funded legal aid in Israel is in short supply.
The clinic is funded by the Hadassah Foundation, the Koret Fund, and the Stein Family, Los Angeles. It is operated as one of seven legal clinics within the framework of the Cegla Clinical Legal Education Program at the Buchmann Law Faculty, in cooperation with Economic Empowerment for Women (EEW).
Over the past years, the legal clinics at TAU have been instrumental in shaping public policy and social awareness in Israel on various levels.
For example, TAU lawyers and students helped formulate new government policy which forbids disconnecting water from poor families who cannot afford to pay their water bills. Other examples include health insurance for migrant workers, rights for same-sex spouses, and the changing of environmental policy.
Each clinic runs as a full year accredited academic course. Faculty members, a staff attorney and students meet once a week to discuss theoretical, doctrinal and conceptual questions. In addition, the students work for 4-6 hours a week under the supervision of the clinic's lawyer, on community projects or public interest cases.
The legal clinics at Tel Aviv University are based on the notion that lawyers, individually and as a professional collective, carry a special responsibility to use professional knowledge to bring about positive social change. Lawyers are also expected to contribute to the community in which they live and work. For that reason, students who are accepted to the Tel Aviv University Buchmann Law Faculty are expected to participate in legal clinics. Such participation helps students develop their understanding about the potential and limitations of law to serve as a vehicle for attaining social justice.