TEL AVIV -- For 20 years Aviva, 48, flamboyant and transgendered, worked the streets of the business district of this Mediterranean city, as well as the seedy square mile around the central bus station and the Tel Baruch beach, once a notorious hub of Israeli prostitution that has become a spruced up stretch of sandy coast.
Alona, 40, immigrated to Israel with her parents from Ukraine in the early 1990s. Her circumstances quickly degenerated from working in a casino to a life derailed by debts, drugs and prostitution. When she was not in prison, the squalid streets around the bus station became her home.
"In the streets there was no toilet, no toilet paper," Alona said. "I forgot a lot of things, like how to look after myself, to love myself. I learned to survive."
Now, in an endeavor as far removed from their former lives as the gleaming banks and trendy boutiques of Tel Aviv are from the city's sleazy subculture, the two, who asked to be identified only by their first names, recently completed a free course in styling and the retail clothing business. Along with other former prostitutes who have received similar training in dress design and sewing, they are now aiming to find a place in the world of fashion. There is always demand for sales staff in Tel Aviv's bustling stores, and one talented graduate even went on to a professional design school on a scholarship.
"The course gave me a lot of self-confidence and knowledge," Aviva said. "Maybe one day I'll be able to start something of my own. When they gave me the certificate -- the first in my life -- I was proud of myself. I'd done something positive."
The idea for the program grew up from the underside of Tel Aviv.
The program's initiator, Lilach Tzur Ben-Moshe, was working as a fashion writer and editor at a leading Hebrew news Web site and volunteering at the city's rape crisis center when, four years ago, she moved to the dilapidated Shapira Quarter near the bus station. Her squalid new neighborhood exposed her to the full misery of the sex trade, and she determined to help women to leave it.
"I didn't want just to answer the phone in the help center," she said. "I wanted to offer something more optimistic, more beautiful, the opposite of that awful world of prostitution."
With an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 prostitutes in Israel, a country of about eight million people, antiprostitution campaigners say the industry has an annual turnover of more than half a billion dollars. While it is illegal to pimp or to run a brothel, prostitution is not a criminal offense in Israel. There are efforts to promote new legislation that would impose criminal penalties on people who are clients of prostitutes.
Up until a few years ago Israel was a prime destination for traffickers of women. An estimated 3,000 women per year were smuggled in, mostly from Eastern Europe, to work in the sex industry. That number has declined since Israel passed an antitrafficking law in 2006, according to the United States State Department Trafficking in Persons Report of 2012, and most of the prostitutes here are now said to be Israelis.
At around the same time as Ms. Tzur Ben-Moshe's move to the Shapira Quarter, Israel's first hostel for women trying to get out of prostitution and undergoing rehabilitation, Saleet, opened nearby. Ms. Tzur Ben-Moshe built the first course with Ido Recanati, a local fashion designer, offering women from the hostel training in sketching, fabrics and stitching. She then teamed with Iris Stern Levi, who had worked for 20 years at the rape crisis center. They founded an association, called Turning the Tables, and now are directors of the program, whose weekly sessions take place over a period of several months. Some students come from the hostel; some via Elem, an Israeli organization for youths in distress; and some are from a shelter for women straight out of prison.
Financing has come from the National Council of Jewish Women, an American organization of volunteers and advocates of social justice, as well as local companies and private individuals. Many Israelis connected with the fashion industry -- designers, fabric suppliers and the Gertrude fashion house among others -- have donated time and materials.
The efforts, Ms. Tzur Ben-Moshe said, are "our little bit, to show there's a way out."
At a recent session in a building off Dizengoff Street, in the heart of Tel Aviv's chic shopping and cafe district, half a dozen women practiced unpacking boxes of stock at a workshop given by Uri Reiss of 911 Fashion Ltd., which imports unique brands to Israel and runs a chain of stores in and around Tel Aviv at which the women will get some work experience.
Pulling a short chiffon dress out of a box, Aviva, amply built with long, dyed-blonde hair and a deep laugh, guffawed, "For me, that's a shirt."
Alona, whose thin arms bear the scars of years of drug abuse, offered advice to Mr. Reiss about how stores can fall short -- customers buying shoes might have nowhere proper to sit, or mirrors might not go all the way to the floor. Shoplifters, she added, often cover security tags with nylon or aluminum foil to prevent them beeping at the exit. "A saleswoman," she said, "always needs to keep an eye."
Many prostitutes here begin as teenagers and have little education and no other work experience.
"Working in stores will help them integrate into the real world," Mr. Reiss said.
The courses also teach them how to get through a job interview and to cope when prospective employers ask whether they have ever stolen or used drugs.
"The answer," Ms. Stern Levi said, "is, 'Yes, I have a past. But I am looking forward now.' Turning the Tables is turning people with the stigma of being ex-sex workers into women with expertise."
Aviva came to Israel with her family from India in 1979, and, still male, completed compulsory military service. Afterward, Aviva made the transition to female but felt rejected by society and could not find a regular job. Prostitution was her answer. Change came, she said, when she found love. Now in a steady relationship, she found her way, with the help of Elem volunteers, to the hostel and the course -- a whole new world of people.
"At first I wasn't sure if I would understand them," she said. Having completed the course, she was waiting to hear from a fashion designer about a job as a seamstress.
Alona first heard of the hostel after visiting an emergency apartment it ran near the bus station where prostitutes could come in from the street to shower and rest. This was her third attempt at a reset. The first time she moved into Saleet she stayed for one day; the second was a short stint directly from prison. Now it had been six months and she said she wanted to become a stylist in a clothing store and had been reading a lot about the building of fashion empires like that of Coco Chanel.
"It's a new life," she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.