It may seem like an unlikely pairing; however, Michaela Bercu and Tal Ohana were on a mission to help their communities. Around them, volunteers packed dozens of boxes of food and other essentials, as others came to pick them up in order to deliver them to those in need throughout the town.
The volunteering opportunity was made possible in part by Bercu’s mobile app called Tribu, which hopes to become the Uber of volunteerism.
“We looked at how Airbnb works – every room nowadays can become a hotel room, and how Uber works – every car can become a taxi,” Bercu told The Media Line. “We thought: There are so many wonderful things in the world of volunteering that are done, so let’s bring all the technology into this world.”
Bercu rose to fame in 1988 when she became the first-ever model to appear on the cover of US Vogue wearing denim jeans. The jeans in question were paired with a Christian Lacroix haute couture sweater; apparently, she was unable to fit into the matching skirt after she gained weight in Israel while on vacation.
“I was a model and I was Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover,” she said. “I lived in America, worked in America and I loved living there.”
Now 51, Bercu eventually pivoted from the world of modeling and became a drama therapist for several years before landing in volunteerism when she realized that she wanted to give back to her community.
Four years ago, she and her husband, Israeli businessman Ron Zuckerman, launched Tribu in order to optimize volunteering.
The app matches users with local opportunities on days and hours that are convenient for them. All types of initiatives are available, whether it is working with animals, packaging food for the needy or helping the elderly.
Tribu now has 30 employees and works with hundreds of non-profits across Israel. According to the company’s website, the app has logged some 19.3 million hours of volunteer or community service work since its launch.
“With the platform of the technology of Tribu we’re working in 95 percent of the high schools in Israel,” Bercu said. “We’re working with the Ministry of [Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services]. We have almost 100 municipalities working with us.”
In Israel, high school students are required to complete dozens of hours of community service in order to graduate.
While the app is currently only available in Israel, the former model hopes to expand it internationally in the near future.
Bercu and Ohana met ahead of International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8. This year’s theme celebrates women in leadership positions who have helped shape a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Many female leaders around the world have won praise for their handling of the pandemic, including Yeruham’s Ohana.
Last fall, cases of the coronavirus in Yeruham were skyrocketing and the mayor decided to take action, shutting down all the schools in the town immediately.
“I closed the town 48 hours before the government started the lockdown,” Ohana said. “For all those decisions, I understood that I’m 100% responsible for the results.
“I think that women are much more effective in political positions and I wish more and more will choose to come to this field,” she added. “We’re now about 15 women all over Israel out of 257 municipalities. It’s a very small rate.”
Ohana, 36, entered the political arena at a young age. When she was just 26 years old, she was appointed deputy mayor of Yeruham and, in late 2018, she became the town’s first woman mayor.
“This is the place where important decisions are [made],” Ohana said. “I’m very happy to do that: To be involved in welfare, education, health, housing and culture.”
In the second half of January, while Israel was still under its third full lockdown, the unemployment rate nationwide rose to 16.7% from 13.7% in late December, data gathered by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show. These figures translate to roughly 680,000 people out of work compared to 566,000 a month earlier.
Women in particular have been hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic. In fact, up to 70% of all those who lost their jobs last year were women, according to the Israeli Employment Service.
To address this disparity, Yeruham launched a program called “She Works” in a dedicated public building that is currently undergoing renovations. Geared toward female entrepreneurs, the initiative will not only give participants an office space in which to build their businesses, but will also provide them with useful skills such as accounting workshops and lessons in social media marketing.
“Women were most affected by the coronavirus pandemic,” Adi Rosenberg, director of strategic planning in the Yeruham local council, told The Media Line.
Rosenberg is leading the “She Works” program and said that, so far, 14 women – mostly in the fields of cosmetics, beauty and fashion –have applied to participate. Overall, the project is slated to last 18 months, after which the entrepreneurs will hopefully be able to launch full-fledged businesses with their own shops and offices.
“They were working from home and businesses working with the public were one of the first to be restricted,” Rosenberg said. “On top of this, these women did not receive financial aid from the government because they were not registered as official places of business with the tax authority. So not only did they stop working, they also didn’t get any financial help.”
As for Ohana, she is hopeful that the political playing field in Israel will become more level in the coming years. One of the reasons so many women are discouraged from entering municipal government, she said, is that they are often expected to volunteer long hours for years before advancing to more prestigious positions.
“There is a structural challenge,” Ohana said. “Young women have families, careers; they cannot volunteer so many hours per week.”
“When the younger generation sees me and other examples, they understand that they can [achieve] this,” she concluded.