Natural gas lights a brighter future for northern Israelis

Natural gas lights a brighter future for northern Israelis

A delegation from Jewish National Fund-USA visits a classroom used for the new practical engineering program at Erez College in northern Israel. (Photos provided by Jewish National Fund)
A delegation from Jewish National Fund-USA visits a classroom used for the new practical engineering program at Erez College in northern Israel. (Photos provided by Jewish National Fund)

Jobs are coming to northern Israel in the country’s fledgling natural gas industry, and Erez College is opening the door to those new careers.

People have long joked that after 40 years in the desert, Moses still led the Jews to the only place in the Middle East without oil or gas. In 2009, that all changed with the discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan offshore gas fields. But while natural gas offers the prospect of freedom from foreign energy interests, Israel has few qualified practical engineers ready to populate the industry.

Into this gap leapt Sandee Illouz, CEO of Erez College, a vocational college in the town of Shlomi on Israel’s northern border. “The discovery of natural gas in Israel opens a whole new realm of jobs and job opportunities,” Illouz said at a March 10 ceremony that unveiled the college’s Mechanical Practical Engineer program and new Natural Gas Laboratories.

Illouz, who made aliyah from Iowa in 1975, welcomed leaders and investors from World ORT, the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency, and government representatives, along with American donors from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) “Go North” initiative, which has supported the new program from the beginning. Go North aims to bring 300,000 new residents to northern Israel, taking the pressure off the center of the country—but the initiative can only accomplish its objective if high-quality jobs and training exist in the north.

The jobs will be there, said Amit Marom, CEO of the philanthropic Marom Group. Speaking for industry giant Noble Energy, a Texas-based Fortune 1000 oil and gas company, Marom said, “We need 1,500 practical engineers now. We will need another 500 every year.”

With its Israeli partners, Noble Energy has led the way in helping Israel broker deals with neighbors Egypt and Jordan that could build political stability in the region, in addition to building alliances within Israel. Marom said that as a non-profit, Erez College is an important piece of the puzzle.

“We should build the [Israeli natural gas] industry through the non-profit world,” he said.

Leviathan is the largest gas field discovered in the 21st century, said Erez College’s pedagogical advisor, Edward Breicher. Approximately 30 times larger than Tamar, Leviathan contains as much as 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“With oil,” Breicher said, “you must use 50 percent of every shekel for development, to take it from the ground, refine it, to complete the whole process. It’s expensive energy. Natural gas, on the other hand, comes to you ready-to-use. Every country is trying to use it.”

Half of Israel’s current power emanates from natural gas, and the Jewish state is now working on a major pipeline to carry natural gas across the country. Natural gas remains the cleanest fossil fuel, with far lower emissions than petroleum. It is also easier to access and store. But as is the case with any fossil fuel, it can be dangerous, demanding specially trained professionals to handle it safely. Additionally, the natural gas industry is being held up in the governmental arena. Regulations and anti-trust matters must be dealt with before the gas is made available.

Once the government gives the green light, Erez College graduates should be ready, having trained in Israel’s largest laboratory for the processing and testing of industrial materials, built with JNF’s partnership.

Yaniv Bracha, a student in the Erez College practical engineering program, said, “Natural gas will create an economic revolution, along with new business opportunities for me.” Married with two children, Bracha is currently the northern region manager for Paz Oil, Israel’s largest fuel company.

When Breicher devised the idea of a practical engineering program as an enticing new area of study, he approached two large training schools, but was turned down. Yet Illouz recognized the potential the natural gas industry could have for Erez College and the town of Shlomi, in terms of educational and employment opportunities, and quickly made Erez’s program a reality.

Sandee Illouz founded Erez College 30 years ago, with assistance from the Jewish Agency for Israel, to bring new hope to Shlomi’s nearly 2,000 residents. “Most of them had no high school diploma and would have left if they could for the wealthier central areas of the country,” she said.

 Development towns like Shlomi sprouted up all over Israel in the 1950s to house a flood of refugees from Arab countries and to ensure the country’s security in sensitive areas. But even today, funds remain scarce for these residents, and many are still among the poorest in Israel.

Shlomi itself, a quiet town nestled in Israel’s woody northern foothills, was the target of the initial rocket volleys that were launched at the Jewish state during the 2006 Lebanon War.

While many organizations speak about breaking the cycle of poverty, Erez College has seemingly smashed through every obstacle in its path. Shlomi Mayor Gabriel Naaman is one of 13 children, and only one—his younger sister—managed to study beyond high school, since so few options were available in northern Israel for education and vocational training.

That was the first thing that needed to change, Naaman believed. When he became Shlomi’s mayor in 1999, he demanded 25 million shekels (about $6.3 million) from Israel for the building that now houses Erez College.

“I wanted something with a long future,” said Naaman. “This is what the region needed.”

Along with its new natural gas program, Erez College offers education in mechanical engineering, software design, and food preparation, in response to labor-market demands. Shlomi now has more than 7,000 residents, and Erez College has become a magnet for the entire Western Galilee.

Since many of Erez’s students have day jobs, the college holds classes in the evenings and on Fridays, when most Israelis don’t need to work. More than 14,000 students have graduated so far, including single mothers, new immigrants, Arabs, Druze, and demobilized soldiers. Eighty percent of Erez graduates are employed.

Today, Mayor Naaman’s own children, nieces, nephews, and their friends are laying down roots in northern Israel rather than leaving the area.

“JNF and Sandee Illouz’s vision is fast becoming a reality,” Naaman said. “Erez College is giving the entire region a huge boost, and now training our workforce for the field of natural gas.”