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Natural Gas Lights a Bright Future for Northern Israelis

March 26, 2015
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
       By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

Erez College Engineering Go North March 2015.jpg

A delegation from JNF-USA visits a classroom used for the new engineering program at Erez College, a JNF partner in northern Israel.

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

People have joked for years that after so long 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.  However, 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,” said Illouz at a ceremony to unveil the college’s Mechanical Practical Engineer program and brand new Natural Gas Laboratories on March 10.

Illouz, who made aliyah from Iowa in 1975, welcomed leaders and investors from World ORT, Nefesh b’Nefesh and government representatives, along with American donors from Jewish National Fund’s 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 it can only do so 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 Israeli partners, Noble Energy has led the way to help Israel broker deals with neighboring Egypt and Jordan that could build political stability in the region. It’s also building alliances within Israel. Marom said that as a non-profit, Erez College is an important piece of the puzzle. “We should build the industry through the non-profit world.”

Leviathan is the biggest field of gas 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% 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 power emanates from natural gas, and it 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’s also easier to access and store. Yet, as 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 thumbs-up, Erez College grads will be ready, having trained in Israel’s largest industrial materials processing and testing laboratory, built with JNF’s partnership. 

Yaniv Bracha, a student in the program said, “Natural gas will create an economic revolution, along with new business opportunities for me.”  Married with two children, he’s currently the northern-region manager for Paz Oil, the largest Israeli fuels 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.  However, Illouz recognized the potential the industry could have for Erez College and Shlomi in terms of educational and employment opportunities and quickly signed on. “This is what we’re about.”

Sandee Illouz founded Erez College 30 years ago with assistance from the Jewish Agency 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 upall over Israel in the 1950s to house a flood of refugees from Arab countries and to ensure the country’s security in sensitive areas. However, 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 launched the 2006 Lebanon war.

Erez College Engineering Go North March 2015 p2.jpgWhile many organizations speak about breaking the cycle of poverty, Erez College has smashed through every limitation in its path, thanks to Shlomi mayor Gabriel Naaman.  Naaman said he is one of 13 children, and only one, his younger sister, managed to go beyond high school, since so few options were available in the north for education and career training.  

That, he believed, was the first thing that needed to change. When he became mayor in 1999, he demanded 25 million shekels from the state for the state-of-the-art building that now houses the college. “I wanted something with a long future,” he said. “This is what the region needed.”  (In the photo above, Shlomi Mayor Gabriel Naaman and Kenneth J. Krupsky, JNF Assistant VP, Go North, at Erez College.)

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

Many of Erez’s students have day jobs so it holds classes in the evenings and on Fridays, when most Israelis don’t have to work. Over 14,000 students have graduated so far, including many who are unemployed, single mothers, new immigrants, Arabs, Druze, and demobilized soldiers. Eighty percent of graduates are working, and there is no doubt that the college’s mechanical engineer alumni will too.

Today, Naaman’s own children, nieces, nephews and their friends are staying in the north.  “JNF and Sandee Illouz’s vision is fast becoming a reality,” said Naaman.  “Erez College is giving the entire region a huge boost, and now training our workforce for the field of natural gas.”

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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