Pittsburgh man beats drum for proposed special needs Ecommunity in Misgav

Pittsburgh man beats drum for proposed special needs Ecommunity in Misgav

Ira Caplan
Ira Caplan

A Pittsburgh area native is at work in Israel building partnerships between Diaspora Jews and a Misgav-based company employing special needs people to recycle electronic components from computers.

Ira Caplan, originally from the South Hills and a Chartiers Valley High School graduate, is the U.S. liaison for Ecommunity, an electrical waste recycling company, which dedicated its Misgav facility last week. Ecommunity CEO Danny Kogen and Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz cut the ceremonial ribbon.

The company currently employs 60 full-time special needs employees and 14 additional staff at the main facility. It  has a smaller plant at Beit Shean.

But Caplan, 42, says that’s just the beginning.

“Our goal is a global village and industrial park in the Gallil [Galilee],” he said

He described the future global village, slated for the Misgav site, as an environmentally self-sustaining community with a residential village, an international education center, housing for visiting families and company officials, an international corporate center, a tourist component, a host of therapy options and a goat farm, which would support a dairy kosher restaurant.

The initial cost estimate for the project is $28 million, though the village is expected to generate its own revenue when finally done over the next five to 10 years.

Clearly, the proposed village is an ambitious undertaking, but one consistent with the mission of Ecommunity.

“Ecommunity is an electronics recycling company, but its mission is especially to employ the special needs community,” Caplan said, “so in that sense it’s what we call a ‘social business.’ It’s a business; it’s run as a business. [But] it’s specially geared to service a need in society.”

There are an estimated 800,000 special needs individuals in Israel, about 300,000 of whom are employable, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Caplan said the work they do harvesting electrical components is therapeutic for the workers and they perform a necessary environmental function.

As Kogen, the company’s CEO, put it, “Ecommunity’s role is to minimize the unemployment of people with disabilities and to maximize social integrality.”

And they’re working in a field that needs to expand.

“The need for recycling electronics has grown very high, particularly so because people aren’t educated about it,” Caplan said, “and when electronic waste is considered to be like regularly disposed of items — the metals can make the air and water supply toxic — it’s a formula for not taking care of our air and water.

“If we want to continue to enjoy these amazing electronics properly,” he added, “we have to recycle them properly.”

Kogen, the father of a special needs son, which inspired him to start the business in 2009, envisions Ecommunity’s future in Israel and abroad.

“We see Ecommunity continuing to expand as a positive international phenomenon, because most every country in the world has a special needs population that must find its place and the parallel need of proper, compliant electronics recycling,” he said.

Ecommunity was not aware of Misgav’s partnership with Pittsburgh when the site was selected for the new facility, but when he learned of it, Caplan began seeking out Pittsburgh connections.

“Because Karmiel and Misgav is such a green area with a green conscience, and because I’m from Pittsburgh, it was a natural coming together,” he said.

A songwriter, cantorial student and author, Caplan came to his current job in part through an unpublished teen book he wrote, titled “Ec’o.”  

“It’s the story of an adolescent youth feeling misunderstood by his parents encountering a dolphin calf by the bay near his home in similar straits,” he said. “The two overcome the barrier between land and sea to learn from each other and bring surprising gifts back for those they love.”

His interest in the story line brought him to the southern Israeli port city of Eilat where he saw dolphin therapy actually used. That experience sparked his interest in environmental work and special needs children.

He sees Ecommunity as a way of bringing Israeli and Diaspora Jews together in a common effort.  

“I’ve been very lucky to see the Jewish international relations from a lot of different perspectives,” Caplan said, “and I’ve seen over an over again how easy it is for Jews with shared interests and lots of shared strengths to misunderstand each other. I’ve been fortunate to see how many valuable things can be achieved when we’re able to team up. I really see what Ecommunity is doing as an environmentally conscious business.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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