Kosher breadwinners

All-female workplaces are allowing more haredi women to pursue a career.

haredi woman working 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haredi woman working 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If a job I do seek, people will say, "A king's daughter must be meek." And if I hide in my abode, people will say, "You are why he left yeshiva." If my calling is to teach, how will I make ends meet? All that I earn from work so bitter will go straight to the babysitter. "Do not misunderstand my intent," they say. "You must work to pay the rent, to care for money and payment, but heaven forbid enlightenment." Though if I abandon education and deviate from expectation, sullied and disparaged will I appear for choosing the worst of all - a career. - From "Elegy to a Working Haredi Woman," by Leah Meizel What is a haredi woman to do, asks Leah Meizel. She is expected to support her husband's full-time learning of Torah, but at the same time to adhere to the religious strictures befitting a modest, impeccably devoted wife and mother. A haredi woman is fighting with both hands tied behind her back, points out Meizel, whose elegy, which appeared in the haredi weekly Mishpacha last month, aroused a storm of controversy. She lacks secular education, so she cannot pursue a "career." In fact the very mention of this six-letter word is an anathema that conjures up for many haredim images of untended children with runny noses and neuroses, inappropriate contact with members of the opposite sex and, most importantly, the idea that a job can be anything other than the utilitarian means of making a living. But she also cannot just stay home. Otherwise she might be blamed for forcing her husband to leave his Torah study. Or she might be held responsible for allowing the worries of breadwinning to ruin her husband's concentration. The dilemmas so poetically expressed by Meizel, an accountant and a mother of 17 who comes from a respected rabbinic family in Jerusalem, are daunting, but nothing that market forces, a little business acumen and an understanding of haredi sensibilities cannot solve. Joe Rosenbaum, a multimillionaire haredi real estate investor from America, understood this. In August 2003 he put into practice an economic gospel that would make both Adam Smith and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv proud. "I wanted to create a workplace that accommodated haredi women's needs and made them feel comfortable," says Rosenbaum, chairman of CityBook, a US-based company that provides title insurance and lease abstraction to major real estate firms. "I was willing to do it as a type of charity. But the rabbis warned me against that. When I came to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman for a blessing, he said, 'Run it as a business because if you make it into a charity, you will not succeed. But if you run it as a business, then, God willing, you will succeed and others will come too.'" Rosenbaum's model was successful, and just as Steinman predicted others copied that success. Major hi-tech companies, such as Matrix-Talpiot, Matrix's haredi-only subsidiary which employs 200, mostly women, Malam Systems and EDS, and Imagestore, a low-tech archive management firm, have all built identical and highly successful models in Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit and Beit Shemesh. Partner, the cellphone operator, has established a haredi women-only workplace in Jerusalem. Matrix is planning to set up two additional segregated workplaces in Haifa and Elad. Of Modi'in Illit's population of 5,000 families, 750 mothers are employed by eight different firms. CEOs of these firms laud the haredi version of Max Weber's Protestant work ethic. They say haredi workers are more diligent, waste less time and are more professional than their secular counterparts. "The Matrix group employs 2,000 people in Israel," says Matrix CEO Ronen Engler. "The commitment and work ethic demonstrated by our 200 haredi employees is quite simply unparalleled." Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit, towns ranked among the poorest in the nation, are flourishing. "It has completely transformed our city," says Modi'in Illit Mayor Ya'acov Guterman. "Those 750 jobs cause a ripple effect. Each woman who goes out to work puts her children in child care. She spends more money on retail items. She pays arnona [municipal tax]." ROSENBAUM'S IDEA was simple. Set up a workplace located inside a haredi community so that women can get to and from work quickly and easily. Maintain strict separation between men and women. Be sensitive to the specific needs of the working haredi woman. The timing was perfect. Macroeconomic policy was leaning sharply to the Right. Then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu was aggressively slashing the public sector, including various welfare benefits. Before the cuts, child allowances, various tax exemptions and National Insurance Institute benefits enabled many haredi families to get by without working. In fact, many were better off not working. Netanyahu's aim was to get haredi families and other chronically "unproductive" members of society off the dole and into the workforce. At the same time, steps were taken to improve and subsidize child care and provide grants to employers. For instance, a program called Tzofia, run by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, subsidizes child care so that a woman can pay as little as NIS 270 a month for child care from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Employers in Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit and other towns in which the ministry runs programs to encourage employment can be eligible for as much as NIS 1,000 a month per employee for five years. For instance, CityBook has been receiving NIS 600 a month per worker since July 2005. What will happen when the subsidies end? "Government aid helps a business get started," says Eli Kashdan, director of projects at CityBook. "But in the long run, if a business is successful it can manage without the subsidies, and if it is a failure the subsidies won't keep it going." Rosenbaum's model was tailor-made for the new haredi communities that sprang up in the 1990s. Places like Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit and Elad were 100 percent haredi. They were run by young, savvy mayors like Guterman and Yitzhak Pindrus of Betar, who understood the importance of finding work for their citizens and had the time to invest in courting business. These towns were far enough from large cities to make commuting impractical for young mothers. But because they were young, these women, many of them English speakers, were able to learn new technologies and skills rapidly. In contrast, haredi families living in cities like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak tended to be older and therefore less able to adapt. Besides, hi-tech companies based in larger cities had already established a working environment. These companies did not want to hurt secular sensibilities by completely revamping their workplaces to make them congenial to haredi demands. Also, plenty of haredi women in bigger cities were willing to compromise. Even a cursory look at the Jerusalem-based Malam or NDS reveals a large haredi workforce working in a gender-mixed environment. "Haredi women have been going to work for decades," says Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor-in-chief of Mishpacha. "There is nothing new about that. What is new about the new models set up by companies such as Matrix in Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit and other places is the creation of a truly ideal working environment for haredi women. Every haredi woman working in a mixed environment feels a little bit uncomfortable. Many would love to switch over to a segregated environment as soon as they get the chance." The models that proved themselves in Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit are spreading to Jerusalem, Haifa and other large cities. Women employed at CityBook said that they would never work in a mixed environment. "I would not feel comfortable mixing with secular people," says Rivka, a resident of Modi'in Illit in her late 20s. "I would prefer staying home." Women at CityBook work from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., when there is a mass exodus as mothers rush home to their children. Gross salaries are between NIS 4,000 and NIS 5,000 a month. In contrast, at Matrix-Talpiot women put in eight-hour days. They gross between NIS 3,000 and NIS 5,000 during their first two years. But there is plenty of room for advancement and some women can end up earning more than NIS 10,000. Women said that their work was not a means of self realization or a career. "I sat down with my husband and we made a cold economic calculation," recounts one woman of her deliberation of whether or not to go out to work. "We reached the conclusion," says another, "that even after we lose our 90% arnona exemption and add up costs like child care, we will still end up with more money at the end of the month if I work. If that had not been the case or if we had broken even, I would not be here." Grylak says that the concept of a career is alien to Judaism. "Even men don't talk in terms of career," says Grylak. "Rather their job is a means of supporting their family. The real career is coming closer to God. "For women the idea of pursuing a career is even more foreign. A woman's first obligation is to her children. The term 'career' implies putting ambitions before duties. Just look at what happens to the children of career women. They end up neurotic and confused." But not everyone agrees with Grylak. "Haredi women, like any other career woman, are looking for intellectual challenge and stimulation," says a female haredi manager in a major hi-tech firm. "If they have already taken the plunge and decided to go into the workplace, they want to do it the best they can. Women don't talk about their aspirations openly, but I'm sure they have them. I know I do. And it does not make me a worse mother."