June 24, 2024
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In Israel, Seniors and Caretakers Develop Symbiotic Relationships

Janet Tauro and Varda Kahanovich made a deal upon which their lives depend. Tauro, a foreign worker from Mumbai, provides Kah­anovich, a 90-year-old Israeli woman living on Kibbutz Maagan Michael, warm and devoted care. In return, Kahanovich hopes to live a long and happy life, well beyond her current age, with Tauro as caregiver.

Morbid as it may be to contemplate an old woman’s passing, for Tauro and the 60,000 oth­er foreign workers currently employed as car­egivers in Israeli households, the stakes are high. Work visas are patient dependent and are granted for four years and three months, with no extensions or opportunities for reas­signment in the event of the elder person’s death. Following the patient’s death, a caretak­er must return to his or her country of origin, terminating a source of income that has pro­vided countless opportunities for their fami­lies. The lots of the elderly and the caretaker are intertwined.

The situation of Tauro and Kahanovich is a familiar one in the Jewish state.

“Today the foreign caregiver that lives with the patient—this is the most common way to grow old in Israel,” Yaron Bengera, vice president of Yad Beyad, a Tel Aviv-based agency that recruits foreign workers, tells JNS. org. “In the past, patients would be taken care of by their family, but this is changing fast. With more capitalism and more demanding lives, it gets harder.”

There is a consensus among Israelis that caring for the elderly is demanding work. Many senior citizens require constant su­pervision and assistance. Despite their best efforts, working adults—balancing careers and young families—buckle under the pressures of modern life in Israel and are unable to provide adequate care for their aging parents without hiring help.

Yad Beyad helps Israeli families find the right caregiver to suit their specific needs. The agency also supports foreign workers, providing information about their rights and cultural resources, and counseling them to ensure their success as caretakers. In the case of Tauro and Kahanovich, a per­fect match was made.

“I was astonished to see such a beauti­ful girl. She is my friend,” Edna Oren reveals, recounting the day that Tauro first arrived at Maagan Michael to take care of her twin sis­ter. In this case the culture shock was minimal, since Tauro had previous experience work­ing in another Israeli home and she had even learned Hebrew.

“We are so lucky,” Oren says. “There are not many people like Janet,” Oren says. “She has two brains, not one, and she has four hands. She even learned to sing Ha­tikvah (the Israeli national anthem).”

Tauro says she works as a caretaker but also works “from my heart.” In her first job as a caretaker, she looked up Israeli songs on YouTube, singing and dancing with the woman she served. She even learned her patient’s style of cooking. “My motive is to make her (Kahanovich) feel like she is liv­ing in her own house and can make her own decisions,” says Tauro.

The system is not without faults. Many foreign workers suffer emotional distress, having been separated from their children and families abroad. Likewise, difficult work environments have, on occasion, re­sulted in abuse.

“You’re always dependent on your employ­er for your quality of life,” Nora Lender, Kibbutz Maagan Michael’s administration manager for the elderly welfare explains. Both Lender and Bengera confirm having personally witnessed cases where employers physically and men­tally abused foreign workers. Hidden cameras have caught caretakers hitting elderly patients and revealed neglect. “Like anything in life, you take a chance,” Lender says.

Israel may not be perfectly adapted to support a foreign work force, but a signifi­cant effort has been made to inform work­ers of their rights, regulate payment, and provide a genuine welcome. By law, work­ers are entitled to a base salary of 4,300 NIS ($1,235) per month, out of which employers can make deductions accounting for the live-in caretaker’s room and board. Con­tracts also stipulate that caretakers receive nine paid holidays based on their own country’s calendar, and 150 percent pay on weekends.

It is not a competitive salary from a Western perspective, yet it “can be life-changing for families in the third world,” Bengera explains. “If you had a country that you could work in and then you could buy your own house, put your kids through school, you would take this opportunity,” he says.

According to Kavlaoved.org, a website and hotline providing an overview of for­eign workers’ experiences in Israel, near­ly 80 percent of foreign caregivers in Israel are female. “We prefer to bring female care­takers with families to Israel because they need the income and are better motivated,” Bengera says.

Bengera is conscious that the presence of this workforce is affecting the culture of Israel, as well as that of the foreign workers’ native countries.

“In the worker’s homeland the fathers become the mothers,” he says. “Sometimes mothers don’t go back to their husbands. The women feel free here. We are not sure that this is for the better.”

Patriarchal and traditionally closed soci­eties are being pried open by what Bengera calls the “global competition for a work­force.” Israel is providing a path of escape to some individuals and a sound mecha­nism for social mobility.

Critics may call the system exploitative, call­ing the isolation that foreign workers endure borderline inhumane. “If a first-degree rela­tive is working in Israel it is almost impossible for [his or her kin] to visit,” Bengera notes. But workers like Tauro tell a different story. Asked how she copes with being so far away from her two children, she says, “It’s not the hardest part of my job, it’s the hardest part of my life.”

Life’s circumstances led Tauro to the con­clusion that seeking work abroad was the best way to provide for her children, and she is com­mitted to the course she chose, no matter the hardship.

“Everything I earn is for my kids’ edu­cation, I believe in education,” Tauro says, adding that her work will be complete only when her children can stand up on their own and say, “Mom, we’re done with the help. Now we want to help you, it’s our turn.”

Being dependent on Kahanovich’s health for continued employment, there is always the fear that Tauro’s contract will end abruptly, leaving her unable to contin­ue working in Israel and creating a family financial crisis. Bengera, however, affirms that the experience of foreign workers in Israel is valuable to other Western employ­ers, specifically in the United States, Cana­da, and England. Many workers use Israel as a steppingstone for better positions in other countries.

Critics lament that for talented work­ers like Tauro, there is no path to Israe­li citizenship and no exceptions to the pa­tient-dependent contracts of four years and three months. Israel is throwing away val­uable expertise whenever veteran work­ers are deported, they say. Bengera suggests that the contracts exist partially as a practi­cal protection against worker burnout, but believes there should not be a limit on the number of years a worker can stay in Israel.

“I think the [Israeli] government should recognize that these workers are a part of the fabric and culture and I think it should be possible for families to visit,” he says. “It will do good for the workers and the tour­ists to see their children in Israel, and for the children to understand their parents’ work.”

Tauro echoes those sentiments when she explains her sympathy and involve­ment with the Jewish people whom she has met and served in Israel.

“After being in Israel this long, I am a part of the pain and the joy,” she says re­garding her experience caring for Holo­caust survivors and observing Israeli me­morial days for fallen soldiers. “I salute the country.”

By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org

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