Haredim in hi-tech: Setting the stage for Israel's future

There is a movement among aspirational haredim eager to implement in the workplace the strong analytical skills they have developed through their religious studies.

Avratech director Aaron Safrai (right) is pictured with ultra-Orthodox Jewish students learning computer programming at Avratech's Jerusalem offices (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avratech director Aaron Safrai (right) is pictured with ultra-Orthodox Jewish students learning computer programming at Avratech's Jerusalem offices
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

When people think about the hi-tech scene, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not generally come to mind. However, in recent years, there is a growing contingent within the haredi world looking to integrate more. As a result, a number of fast-moving start-ups and organizations are coming to the fore.

Phone.do, founded in Jerusalem 2019 by Martin Reisner, is “uberizing” call centers. “How do they do it?” you may ask. With Phone.do, any gig worker (contract worker) can sign onto their phone or computer and become a call-center specialist at a company. By just following a prepared script, they can work for 10 companies, providing customer support. 

This decentralizing of call centers allows companies large and small to offer fast phone support to their customers. What’s more, given the fact that those gig workers can be anywhere in the world, phone support can be offered in multiple languages.

Walking through Phone.do’s office, you will see a work environment similar to Tel Aviv’s, only here the founders and most of the staff are haredi. 

Phone.do is part of a movement among aspirational haredim eager to implement in the workplace the strong analytical skills they have developed through their religious studies.

Haredi women in the tech sector (credit: ABIR SULTAN/FLASH90)Haredi women in the tech sector (credit: ABIR SULTAN/FLASH90)

CEO Reisner comments on Phone.do’s exponential growth. Today, he says, Phone.do employs about 100 workers, almost all of whom are haredi. The company has also raised millions of dollars in capital and boasts nearly 1,000 businesses as its customers. It is a company to watch out for as it continues to expand internationally.

Phone.do’s CTO Israel Weinberg, who has an impressive background in the IDF and in start-ups, describes the company’s growth in artificial intelligence. 

“We are envisioning a future where any customer can call a company and have an intelligent conversation with a robot and have no idea it’s not a real person. If things get too complicated, it will pass the call on to a human. Our technology is fast growing; within the next few years, we hope to roll out these features as we continue to compile call data,” he says.

ANOTHER JERUSALEM-based company that is quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing start-ups in the world – not just in Israel – is Triple Whale. According to president and co-founder Maxx Blank, the company helps to “centralize, visualize and automate e-commerce for Shopify sellers.” The company, which employs approximately 110 employees – 40% of whom are haredim – has raised $27 million to date and is expanding weekly. 

Blank says that the impact haredi workers have on his business is immense. “They are an unbelievable talent. Their quality and work ethic are the best, and they are extremely loyal.”

That is partly due to Triple Whale’s work environment, which accommodates the haredi lifestyle. Blank sees the haredim in Israel as “untapped talent. They work together well and are incredible at thinking outside the box.”

Triple Whale CEO AJ Orbach, who grew up haredi, believes his upbringing has contributed to his success. “The way you learn Gemara teaches you how to break down problems. Like a doctor examining symptoms of a sickness, seeking to find the root of the problem in order to predict what comes next – that’s what Gemara gave me. 

“It is the same for start-ups and hi-tech. Any problem can have a number of suitable solutions, but being able to see the core of the problem and solving it makes all the difference – and that’s how we run the company.” 

It also taught Orbach how to buckle down, something required in fast-growing companies. 

“In yeshiva, I would sometimes sit and learn for 12-14 hours a day with extreme intensity. The same is required in building a business.” 

Orbach also sees his upbringing as a positive influence on the company’s mission. “We are building a data automation company to help small businesses be successful, with a shot at being one of the most meaningful companies in the world. We help people get free from a 9-5 job and work for themselves. God commands us to create and build, and we really believe we are on a holy mission – helping our employees, people and the world at large."

Cross River – another large Jerusalem-based company with a large number of haredi employees – is restructuring the way traditional finance is operated through loans, trading and crypto. The company, which has raised more than $600 million to date, is continuing to expand, with a major office in the East Coast’s tri-state area.

One of Israel's most common complaints: Many haredim don't work, serve in the IDF

ONE OF the biggest complaints in Israel today is that many haredim do not work. As a result, many people feel that the rest of the population has to foot the bill so that the ultra-Orthodox can maintain their way of life. In addition, most haredim refuse to serve in the military. Efforts to encourage them to enlist in the army or do sherut leumi (National Service) are commonplace. 

There’s also a push for mandatory secular and English-language studies to be taught in haredi schools. With the formation of a new government, many of these hoped-for reforms are expected to take a back seat. The haredi party, United Torah Judaism, is looking to block these reforms and instead increase funding for their community.

There is, however, an organization that is working within the haredi community to help them branch out and learn tech skills. MeGo, founded and led by Yitzik Crombie, is doing “game-changing” work in this area. A successful entrepreneur himself, Crombie believes that the question of whether haredim will have to integrate is not the right question. According to him, “they will have to.” Part of establishing an environment where this is possible is by creating opportunities for them, he says.

Crombie notes that a major issue is that since their time is spent primarily in kollel (Jewish study halls), they lack most of the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. That is why MeGo places an emphasis on job training, primarily in coding, but also in English language skills.

MeGo operates the Bizmax center, which works with the government and other organizations to provide support, mentorship and training for aspiring haredi business owners and entrepreneurs. In many ways, it functions like a traditional start-up accelerator. There is also an innovation center, where tech and programming skills are provided to young haredim. 

MeGo’s goal is to integrate 2,000 workers in the next year. So far, 2,300 people have applied for its newest cohort starting in February 2023. Crombie says, “We take approximately only 10%. It is a very selective process; not everyone is suited for hi-tech work.”

Working alongside the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, it also receives much of its funding from private donors. Aside from teaching and mentoring, MeGo is also helping the Knesset realize its five-year plan to boost integration in haredi communities. 

Crombie points out that the biggest challenge is training. “The workforce, especially in hi-tech, is looking for good employees. The companies are there; our problem is education.” 

To that end, he is pushing for greater funding and allocation of resources for training programs. Crombie also wants to see the salary gap between secular and haredi workers close. Today, only 51% of haredi men in the country work, of which a mere 1% are hi-tech employees, earning approximately 55% less than their secular counterparts. 

“It is a big problem,” Crombie laments.

NOTABLY, A significant number of employees working in haredi-led companies are women. Historically, women in the haredi community earn money, while the men study. Martin Reisner at Phone.do believes this is empowering to see.

“The girls come with incredible confidence, never compromising their value. It is important that they can work while also maintaining their way of life. They are very appreciative of the fact that they can take time off when they have children; it is very important to them.

“When I got married, the most important thing was that your wife was [employed as] a teacher. Today? The number one job on the list for potential shidduchim (matches) is software developer,” he says. Moreover, haredi women can maintain their traditions while also working in tech companies. It just goes to show that integration isn’t as scary as many believe it to be.

“When I got married, the most important thing was that your wife was [employed as] a teacher. Today? The number one job on the list for potential shidduchim (matches) is software developer.”

Martin Reisner

Chedva Ovadia is a woman who does formidable work with haredi women, helping them learn tech skills and integrate into the workforce. She runs HWDC, which has a community of 5,000 haredi women. She is also the co-founder and CEO of OpalNet, a software training house, as well as Jobtech, an organization that helps haredi women find jobs in the hi-tech industry.

For Ovadia, one of the most important factors for haredi women is having the flexibility to work from home. In many cases, they may have five or more children, which requires time to be with them. Offering mentorship and respecting their needs is key to their integration and success.

Yael Raavad, founder of the Haredi Women in Hi-Tech Community and a senior software developer at BlueVine, started her organization to create a professional network for some 3,500 haredi women working in tech. Having seen that there were few options, she decided to start one herself. 

“It grew so fast. Within a week, we had over 100 women coming,” she says. Over time, it became a strong community. 

A born community leader, Raavad manages various groups that organize events and help women find jobs, as well as share general knowledge. She says that the biggest challenge for haredi women to break into hi-tech is the lack of resources available. She continues to build her organization in order to ensure that all haredi women are prepared for success. Of course, she says, “the cultural differences are massive,” but also being a mother has its challenges. A lot of these challenges are eased by new global initiatives that encourage more fluid work practices.

BEIT SHEMESH, 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem, is the youngest city in Israel today where most of the population is haredi. This poses a unique challenge for the municipality, as it must integrate them into the workforce. Today, the workforce in Beit Shemesh, which is home to many yeshivot, is split 50/50 between haredi and non-haredi workers. Therefore, earlier this year the municipality started an initiative to promote employment. 

Esti Moskovitz, the head of the city’s employment bureau, oversees this initiative. She says the three areas of focus are employers; services to residents; and local infrastructure. Each group has its own challenges, she stresses.

“Regarding employers, there aren’t enough professional, high-paying positions in the city with flexible hours. With respect to services for residents, we have expanded the offerings to the residents via government and philanthropic funds. 

“For example, [there are] boot camps, Amazon Web Services training and data analytics courses, but we are having trouble reaching the residents and informing them about the offerings. In regard to local infrastructure, we are working on strengthening infrastructure for employment in various ways, such as ensuring that there is sufficient transportation to work in the city and building a professional training center (via government funds). Also, an adequate city job board is lacking.”

The city’s initiative is entirely in partnership with the government, which provides funding and resources – but it is not enough. Moskovitz says that the biggest hurdle for haredi men to succeed in the hi-tech workforce is finding a way to support their families while spending time learning and gaining the necessary experience in order to enable them to succeed.

“When looking at the future of haredi men in general in the marketplace, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each group or sect has its own cultural path, and we need to respect it. As time goes on, the cultural barriers are meeting with reality,” she says. “But in general, each one must find his own path of meeting the workforce where it is right for him.” 

She also mentions the hesitancy of many residents when given the opportunities. “Even when we offer courses, they are very cautious about joining training opportunities. They want to know ‘What’s the bottom line? How much will we earn at the end of the course?’ Solving these issues is a huge challenge; but as a society, there are many great people and initiatives working on it, and we are surely moving in the right direction.”

The Joint Distribution Committee and the Ministry of Economy and Industry are working together to boost haredi integration into hi-tech. The two joined forces to create a marketplace of organizations, philanthropies and companies eager to make a change in this area. Chaviva Eisler, the director of the Haredi Employment Coalition, of which JDC is a part of, says, “We are helping to create an ecosystem to help haredim get into the workplace.” 

They also discussed the challenges they faced with Eli Salomon, head of the haredi sector at JDC Tevet, a part of the organization that works to increase productivity and quality integration into employment, saying, “There are a lot of challenges. The biggest one is that there is a lack of junior positions available, and we need more training.” 

This is a common problem, as there is a lack of junior positions for haredim, many of whom do not have the experience to take on more senior positions. This makes integration much more difficult for them.

Aviad Schwartz, senior director of haredi employment at the Economy Ministry, addresses the government’s work pertaining to its collaboration with JDC. The program costs the government approximately NIS 6 million, though more funding could be found in the future. Much of what he says focuses on courses for training, which are to be offered around the country. He agrees that “the big thing is bringing forward new junior positions.” 

This seems to be a challenge, as the JDC’s data shows that hi-tech companies in Israel are not so eager to hire haredim. The reasons given are issues such as How will they blend in? Do we have to kosher our kitchens? Are they professional? As a result, most jobs are not being heavily advertised in haredi areas.

Historically, haredim have shied away from integration, as they fear that the mainstream secular society wants to destroy their way of life. However, the organizations and companies aimed at changing this are having success because they are led by influential haredim in the community, not outsiders. 

There is no doubt that one of the greatest challenges facing Israel today is the integration of the haredim into society at large. As the fastest-growing sector in the country today, haredim are expected to be the majority within the next 50 years. It is essential, therefore, that they join the workforce and contribute to the army or National Service. If not, the country could be faced with a major economic and national security crisis. 

Thankfully, there are pioneers within the haredi community who are paving the way for a future that is both true to their tradition and impacts their families and society in a positive way.

The work ethic and loyalty of haredi workers is apparent. As Reisner puts it, “Money is not the driving factor in our community, so it offers a different perspective. God leads us; we just need to see that and understand what God wants from us.” 

Orbach echoes the theme. “We are working hard not because we want to make money but because we want to make a difference.” 