Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On my first trip to Israel as part of a Taglit tour eight years ago, our itinerary included the standard young adult fare: floating in the Dead Sea, climbing Masada and watching a spider the size of a cat scurry across our sleeping bags during a night camping in the Negev.
This summer, I was thrilled to return to the country with Vibe Israel, which curated a weeklong behind-the-scenes tour for journalists and bloggers to meet women breaking gender barriers in a range of roles, from building apps to running multibillion-dollar companies. But as we traveled throughout Israel’s major cities and most remote Southern corners, meeting activists, artists and entrepreneurs, my thoughts kept returning to one stop on our journey: Bnei Brak, the largest of four ultra Orthodox communities in Israel.
I did not know what to expect as we greeted our guide, Tovi Spiegel Hirschler, at the corner of a busy intersection. We wended through the heart of the city as Hirschler told us her story. Hirschler grew up in Bnei Brak but was destined for an unorthodox path: she divorced her husband and left the city while becoming a successful talk show host on secular radio station 102FM. As we explored the bakeries, supermarkets and clothing shops along Rabbi Akiva Street, Hirschler explained that the passersby we saw likely had no access to television, newspapers or Internet, save but a few sites. Most of the women married young and worked as schoolteachers to support their large families.
I thought of all the things the women walking Rabbi Akiva Street would never be: doctors, lawyers, or accountants, not to mention astronauts, racecar drivers or rabbis. But at the final stop of our neighborhood tour, at a traditional kosher restaurant on the edge of the city, we met one woman who figured out how to provide Haredi women with greater opportunities within the confines of Bnei Brak’s traditions. Nili Davidovitz, founder and chief executive of six-year-old Daat Solutions and our dinner guest that evening, provides Haredi women with jobs as software developers and computer programmers.
Daat’s flexible schedules and women-only offices cater to the community’s codes. Davidovitz, who lived in Bnei Brak until the age of seven, had worked in computer science for 20 years before developing the idea for her business. “I had reached my dreams,” she said. “I wanted to be a vice president of R&D and I achieved it. I asked myself, ‘What’s next? What do I want to do now? What’s going to be my next personal achievement?’ A good friend of mine told me, ‘Nili, isn’t it time to think about other people?’ This was the trigger.”
About half of the company’s growing workforce comes from Bnei Brak and half from other Orthodox communities. For most of them, Davidovitz says, Daat Solutions is their first exposure to the working world and to technology. But workers learn more than how to search Google and use a smart phone. “The families and the community are now open to the technology and therefore, to the world,” she says. “We provide a place that sees employees for what they are: brilliant programmers and working mothers with a unique way of life and priorities to use their abilities and earn, but are not looking to develop a career.”
And it pays better than teaching.