Juan Taifeld is as Mexican as tacos and tequila, but deep in his corazón, he always knew he’d move to Israel. What Juan 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, he replaced Gali Shahar—now a consultant at the Rashi Foundation—as CEO of Gvahim.
Juan’s grandfather, Pinkus Taifeld, left Poland in 1937 with his wife, Bronia, just two years before the outbreak of World War II.
“He predicted that something bad was going to happen in Europe,” Juan told me last week during an interview at Gvahim’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “Hitler had been in power since 1933, and my grandfather saw the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe. He understood that in order to survive, he had to leave Poland as soon as possible.”
But the British, who then ruled Palestine, denied Pinkus Taifeld’s multiple visa applications. So Pinkus, a baker, decided he’d go to Mexico—where an older sister was already living —and from there to the United States. Traveling directly there was out of the question because back in 1937, U.S. immigration quotas were very strict.
The young couple sailed across the Atlantic, ending up in the bustling port of Veracruz. From there, they went overland to Mexico City, where Pinkus established a small grocery at Calle Allende 77, in the city’s downtown district.
“Eventually, he bought a 400-sq-meter plot of land in Colonia Del Valle and opened a bakery,” said Juan. “On the first floor of the bakery, he built his house. I was born in that house.”
Like his father before him, Juan’s father, Moisés, was raised in a strictly Zionist family. In Mexico City—which was already home to a large, flourishing Jewish community—he attended a Jewish school, got married and had six children. In the late ‘60s, Moisés Taifeld decided it was time to make aliyah.
“So in August 1970, my father arrived in Israel and settled at Kibbutz Agoshrim, in the Huleh Valley. But the culture shock was too much for him,” Juan told me. “He tried to find work in Nazeret Illit, but he didn’t have a network of family or friends and had no idea who to call or how to do it. So in December—after only four months—he decided to go back to Mexico City. Two weeks later, I was born.”
Juan grew up in a Zionist youth movement known as Hechalutz L’Merhav. After high school, he came to Israel for a “gap year,” staying four months in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot Mizrach as part of Machon L’Madrichei Hul. He then spent six months at Kibbutz Ne’ot Mordehai, not far from his father’s old kibbutz.
“That year was very significant for me, because it was then that I understood that I would be the generation that would come to Israel — not like my grandfather, who was not successful, and not like my father, who came and then decided to return to Mexico,” he said. “I was going to be the one who made a positive change. And I knew from the beginning that I’d succeed.”
Juan did, in fact, make aliyah in June 1991. The 46-year-old executive has a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Tel Aviv University, a master’s degree in management and educational leadership from that same institution, and a second master’s in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
From 2001 to 2005, Juan 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.
That extensive background gave Juan 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 percent 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 recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, 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.
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.
“Employment is the most important issue people who want to immigrate have to deal with,” Juan said. “We help those immigrants and returning citizens with academic degrees by giving them all the necessary tools to start their professional journey in Israel.”
Gvahim and its 20 employees operate on a budget of NIS 7.5 million (about $2.1 million) per year. During 2018, Juan 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 need to let people in Israel and Jewish communities overseas know more about the work we’re doing,” he said. “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.”
Last year, Israel received about 29,000 new immigrants, with the largest numbers coming from Russia, Ukraine, France, the United States, Great Britain and Brazil. During the first half 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 Juan, whose wife, Lucia, is from Slovakia. “Most people came here to find better opportunities, and some are escaping political regimes.”
Like most Israelis, Juan plans to spend Israel’s 70th anniversary at home—in this case Binyamina—enjoying a barbeque and watching the Air Force perform acrobatics in the sky.
“For me,” he said, “Israel is still a miracle, where we pay a very high price for the right to have our homeland after 2,000 years.”
By Larry Luxner