At the age of 32, Ilanit Biran was a destitute woman, separated from her husband, and living with her daughter at her father's home, working odd jobs just to make ends meet. Today, at the age of 45, Ilanit is back with her husband, added three more children to her brood, and works as the financial and administrative director of the NGO Be-Atzmi. She is in charge of an annual budget of NIS 30 million, takes part in management meetings, and is highly valued both personally and professionally.
But let's start at the beginning. Biran, whose parents were originally from Turkey, was born in Jaffa—the 10th child of 11. Her mother cleaned houses for a living, her father was disabled, and they barely eked out a living.
"We wore ugly clothes from a thrift shop and one of our neighbors, who had a stall at the market, would bring us a crate of vegetables every night that he hadn't sold," she says. "But we were happy children. We played hopscotch and five stones (children's games). We were outdoors all day long and didn't feel any hardship. We had a pleasant home," says Biran.
Biran, like her older sisters, started working at the age of 12, cleaning stairwells in apartment buildings "so I could buy the shampoo and conditioner that I wanted."
When she turned 15, her mother died of a kidney disease. "It was really tough," she says, teary-eyed. "Mom was in charge of the household, the bank account, the rent and the grocery store. And my father, who went into a state of shock when she died, was unable to function. My older sisters were already married, and for my little sister it was a major crisis. Every day after school, I would run home to cook and clean, but continued to be a good student. I really liked going to school."
After she graduated high school, she went into the IDF. "None of my sisters served in the army, and my father took me to the Rabbinate so I could declare that I was religious (to get an exemption from service). But right after doing that, I went to the induction center and asked them to draft me," she says, laughing. "I served as a secretary the commander of a combat infantry battalion."
After her discharge from the army, she met David Biran, then a soldier on terminal leave. They married four years later. They bought their first apartment in Lod with a massive mortgage, after which their oldest daughter, who is now 17, was born.
"Neither of us had steady jobs and the situation was really bad," she says. "His mother helped us out with the groceries, but the debts kept piling up. We couldn't make our mortgage payments, they evicted us from the apartment, and we had nowhere to live. We had reached a dead end."
"When our daughter was 18 months old, we separated. He went to live with his grandmother, and my daughter and I moved in with my father, who was living with his partner in our childhood home," Ilanit says.
"This situation was good for my daughter and also for my father, because his granddaughter brought light into the house. But for me, it was complicated. I couldn't find a steady job, I taught private lessons in English, and worked as a substitute teacher's assistant at a preschool, just so I could have money for groceries. We were living hand-to-mouth."
"That lasted for four years. "At the age of 32, when you're either at the peak of your career or feel that you've missed the train, I couldn't raise my head and look into the future. I saw no future. My relationship with my separated husband revolved mostly around our daughter. I didn't have a new partner and wasn't interested in having one. My child was my life's project and apart from that—really, nothing," she says.
Making a start as a receptionist
And then, 12 years ago, came the turning point. "As a recipient of social services in the neighborhood, the community social worker told me about an employment program run by Be-Atzmi," Ilanit says.
"I wasn't familiar with the program, and she suggested that I come in and hear more about it. When I expressed doubts, she asked: 'What do you have to lose?' So, I went to the community center and found myself with ten other women from the neighborhood. We were all recipients of aid from the Department of Social Services. Two personal coaches and the program facilitator on behalf of Be-Atzmi—three polished women who spoke articulately—described the program to us, which is based on a model adopted from abroad that gives participants a foundation for success. When they finished talking, one of them said: 'Not everyone is accepted to the program. You need to have a personal interview first.' In retrospect, I realize that my interest was fueled by that challenge. Do they really think that they're not going to accept me? I can be accepted to anything, I told myself. Suddenly, I wanted to be just like them."
"I was asked to come in for an interview. I came to a nicely designed office in Tel Aviv, where I felt the team spirit and wanted to be part of it. At first, they were tough on me. Perhaps to encourage me to seek more. I was insistent that the program was right for me, and that I had the strength and ability to meet the requirements and persevere in a program that entails a process and a commitment—I would have to attend all the group sessions, and if I didn't stick to it, the group would keep moving ahead, and I would stay behind," she says.
"In the end, I was accepted. The program lasted about a year and began with an intensive, month-long workshop, during which each participant talks about what her career dream is. I spoke about photography, video editing and animation, but later on there was a twist in the plot, and I reached a totally different place," Ilanit says.
"I took the workshop seriously and really enjoyed learning. One of the important things I learned was how to talk. Prior to that, my self-confidence was at rock bottom, and when I spoke, my voice wasn't heard. By the end of the workshop, when I was asked to describe the process that I had undergone to Be-Atzmi's management, I spoke articulately and with confidence."
What did you tell them about yourself?
"I told them that when they taught us in the program how write a CV, I debated with myself what to write. Should I write that I'm 32 and that the last regular job I had was in the army? Without a degree or a profession, how could I sell myself in today's market? I did, however, add that I gained a lot of motivation during the workshop, and that I had acquired skills. And even if I don’t have any proven experience to offer, I believe that I have much to contribute to my next employer—that I have the passion and desire to devour the job market. I told them that I wanted to find a job where I can give and receive, that I want to get up in the morning, wear nice clothes, put on makeup, go to work and feel my self-worth. For me, I felt that a job was much more than just a source of income.
"At the end of the session, Topaz Dagan, the former CEO of Be-Atzmi, approached me, took out her business card and asked me if I wanted to work at the organization. She told me that they had been looking for a receptionist, which was the lowest entry-level position they had. I immediately said yes, of course. For me, this was something huge. It excited me, and I was very proud of myself."
Moving up the ranks
Her personal life also got back on track. While the workshop was still going on, Biran and her estranged husband started attending a parenting group, where the participants learned how to better communicate with their children.
"We began meeting once a week to discuss our daughter and ways to help her. And while doing so, we became closer. In the group, people saw the love between us, and that we were still attracted to each other, and encouraged us to get back together. After four years, we went back to being a family. Our three sons were born, one right after the other: Tomer, today 11 years old, Sagiv, 10 years old, and Yoav, 8.5 years old," she says with a smile and takes out her cell phone to show me her "quartet."
Having a larger family did not chill her enthusiasm at work, and she began climbing the organizational ladder. "In the first year, I answered the phone and emails and performed the most basic tasks. After I returned from my first maternity leave, I got a promotion and was appointed financial coordinator," she says.
What do you know about financial management?
"I've been managing budgets since the age of 12. Out of the NIS 300 I got for cleaning stairwells, I knew how much to allocate for treats, how much for the annual class trip and how much for other necessities. But, seriously, I went into it with the right mindset and learned on the job. In my previous position, I worked with the financial director and was a self-starter. I always wanted to assume more and more responsibility. When she was under pressure working on payment orders and salaries, I asked her to teach me the work. She saw my passion and my abilities, and when the financial coordinator resigned, they offered me her position.
"A year later, I gave birth again and with the blessing of the board, received yet another promotion: Financial and Administrative Director. I am in charge of managing the organization's budget and salaries, in addition to being responsible for the income received from our program partners, submitting financial statements, and more. This was just two years after I took part in the empowerment program as someone who was in need of help."
This is meteoric advancement.
"I agree. The chairman of the finance committee, who charts our financial and strategic course, helped me through this. We moved to the Panorama Building in south Tel Aviv, where our offices are still located. And I led the renovations, with the baby in his booster seat."
How did your new-old family receive the news of your new position?
"To tell you the truth, I debated with myself whether to take the job, because I feared that I wouldn't meet all my commitments at work or my home-related expectations. But my husband, who still didn't have a steady job, was all for it, encouraged me, and was an active and supportive partner. He was the foundation I could rely on when I accepted this promotion, which entails long hours in the office. Later on, he became a buyer for a fruit and vegetable business, which meant working at night. Today, he has a job that is no less demanding than mine, if not more. His is a partner in a fruit and vegetable business and operates concession stands at stadiums. We juggle between our jobs and the kids."
And all these millions that are under your responsibility. Any fears?
"No, because I'm not alone. Since 2009, I've been working under the CEO, Zvika Goldberg, who gives me new challenges and encouragement. He also pushed me to get a degree. In 2011, I started studying Economics and Management at the Open University. I've already completed over 50 percent of my degree requirements, and it has given me a lot. I suddenly became familiar with the concepts that are behind the praxis. In my case, it worked the other way around," she says, laughing.
For now, she has taken a break from her studies because it has been taking its toll on her family. "My husband can no longer provide all the needed foundation, and I didn't want my work to be affected. But I will return to my studies. I don't intend to give up."
9,000 people a year
Be-Atzmi is a social organization founded over 20 years ago. It integrates and advances disadvantaged individuals in the job market and empowers them economically and personally, as well as their families and communities.
Every year, around 9,000 women and men from Israel's geographical and social periphery avail themselves of Be-Atzmi's services, which, first and foremost, include employment advancement programs that are held in about 100 locations throughout the country.
Most of the programs last about a year, during which the participants receive individual coaching and take part in group workshops. In the course of this in-depth and extended process, they boost their self-confidence, are encouraged to make choices and examine their aspirations and abilities. The participants define an employment goal and devise an individual plan to achieve it. They also acquire job hunting skills and are coached during the initial period at their respective workplaces. All these services are provided free of charge.
Upon completion of the programs, around 70 percent of the graduates find jobs that suit their skills and aspirations and also remain employed. Be-Atzmi also operates a national hotline—*2119—for people who are unemployed and for those looking for a job.
For donations to Be-Atzmi please visit their website .