At first glance, technology giants Apple and Amazon have little – if anything – in common with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of Bnei Brak, one of Israel’s poorest municipalities.
Yet the observant community – more regularly associated with kollel and cholent than with coding and computing – is slowly starting to change, proving that haredim and hi-tech are not mutually exclusive. What’s more, it’s often haredi women among those taking the lead.
Bridging the gap between Israeli hi-tech and the large but underrepresented haredi and Arab populations has often been cited as a solution for the Start-Up Nation’s shortage of 15,000 skilled engineers. Integrating haredim in the workforce is particularly critical given the rapid growth of Israel’s population, which is set to soar from 12% to 40% by 2030.
While haredi girls often studied to become teachers at seminaries across the country after graduating high school, the lack of open teaching positions for the 9,000 girls entering seminaries every year has meant that other professions – including accounting, design, architecture, therapy, and computer science – have increasingly been adopted.
SARI ROTH, a haredi entrepreneur and mother to seven children, studied computer science but moved into the family business after marrying at 19.
“I wasn’t happy and I felt I could do much more,” Roth told The Jerusalem Post. “I told everyone I was looking for a new challenge.”
Together with tech-savvy yeshiva graduate Tzvi Cohen, she established Bontact, a smart multichannel communication platform now enjoying considerable international success.
“We knew we had to raise funds, but there was no network and no community,” said Roth. “I certainly didn’t have a LinkedIn page. If every entrepreneur faces a lot of barriers, it felt almost impossible for haredi women entrepreneurs.”
Seeking funds to develop her business, Roth met serial entrepreneur Moshe Friedman, co-founder and CEO of KamaTech, a Bnei Brak-based program facilitating the integration of haredim into hi-tech.
With Friedman’s assistance, Bontact raised over $2 million in venture capital funding, was accepted to Microsoft’s Israeli accelerator program, and received a research grant from the Israel Innovation Authority.
“I received a lot of feedback from the haredi community and helped some start-ups write business plans and intros, but I never did anything with the fact that I was a source of inspiration to them,” Roth said. “One day I told Moshe: ‘I think I have to give back to the community. Let’s do something small but meaningful.’”
Roth discovered that while approximately 900 seminary girls learn computer science or practical engineering every year, very few actually make it to hi-tech companies, for a variety of professional and cultural reasons.
“We met with all the seminaries,” Roth said. “When an outsider comes and asks them to change their curriculum, they are resistant. But when we came, there was a lot of trust. We’re from the community, the same lifestyle, and we are fighting for the same things.”
Working together with seminaries and hi-tech companies, and with requisite approval from the community’s rabbis, Roth and KamaTech set out to leverage the talents of haredi women in the workplace while enabling them to maintain their lifestyle and values by creating suitable work environments.
Backed by key supporter Prof. Amnon Shashua and Western Digital, KamaTech designed an innovative education platform to teach seminary girls necessary technical skills, and to screen graduates to identify those with the highest potential for hi-tech employment.
Learning from employers that the seminary graduates were strong at coding but still lacking theoretical knowledge, KamaTech partnered with Western Digital – led by Israel site manager Shahar Bar-Or – to build a three-month, intensive, self-learning boot camp to supply missing educational content.
After 23 of 24 participants in the first boot camp cohort were hired by hi-tech companies, including major firms Cadence and OrCam, KamaTech is now scaling the program to train hundreds of ambitious women.
“We were approached by all the seminaries wanting to take part and the hi-tech companies wanting the talent,” said Roth. “They just banged on the doors. We built a database for 600 students including their tests, marks and motivation. With this amazing database, we went to hi-tech companies to see who they were interested in hiring.”
Buoyed by the potential they’ve witnessed among KamaTech program graduates, leading companies – including Amazon, Apple, Check Point and Bank Hapoalim – have all decided to hold screening days to hire new employees.
“We started with haredi women, but we now have other communities asking about the concept, method and platform,” Roth said. “This will help other communities from peripheral areas or other minority groups.”
According to Friedman, there is a growing understanding within the haredi community and hi-tech industry that greater opportunities can be opened up by offering haredi women online and tailor-made education than by trying to persuade them to commence university studies.
“We can build a new form of education,” Friedman said. “Rather than persuading haredi women to study at university, we can supply something even better with education tailor-made for their needs and for the industry’s needs. This is such a big opportunity to bridge the gap of education, the cultural gap, and bring haredi women to the best companies. It’s a big win for the haredi community, for the Israeli economy, and the hi-tech industry.”
Friedman is also hopeful that KamaTech’s project will serve as a case study for other communities in Israel and across the world.
“We are proud to have built something in Bnei Brak, and now work with the best companies in the world,” he said. “People in the United States and elsewhere are really interested to learn about this project. Imagine people in the Silicon Valley taking a case study from Bnei Brak.”