A Moshe of all trades

Engineer Moshe Lebel has done what others only talk about, such as getting haredi men educated and working in the military and hi-tech industry.

haredi men black hats 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi men black hats 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Electronics engineer Moshe Lebel has never been an MK or cabinet minister, but has had a significant impact over the past 40 years in his own field of expertise and as a soldier, educator, consultant, founder of businesses and volunteer.
From being part of the team that jammed enemy transmissions since the Six Day War to getting haredi yeshiva students to work at vital jobs in the Israel Defense Forces and advising the government on the Jerusalem Light Rail project for the past 11 years, Lebel is as much an initiator as he is a doer.
An only son to his Holocaust survivor parents, Moshe came on aliya with them from Romania in 1959 at the age of 10; it had been planned soon after his birth, but the then-communist authorities held up their departure. Moshe was even prevented from studying in a Romanian school for a year.
The Orthodox Jewish family had a cousin who was a minister in the government, but that did not help them leave. In the meantime, the Lebels lived off their income as the owners of a dairy that produced milk for Jews.  
The family came to the young Jewish state and settled in Kfar Saba, whose lack of a religious school meant that Moshe had to attend the secular Katzenelson School. But he graduated at 17 and joined the academic program of the Israel Defense Forces, which sent him to Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology for his degree. He graduated as an engineer at 21 and began IDF service, serving in the Communications Corps and the small electronic warfare unit.
“Most of the things we did, I can’t tell you; they are still classified,” says Lebel a few weeks after introducing himself during lunch at a Yeshiva University in Israel-Jerusalem College of Technology conference on science and Jewish law. During his military service, he carried out 17 different technical projects.
Lebel received a graduate degree in applied physics at the Hebrew University, and also studied industrial management at Tel Aviv University. After his discharge, he served as chief engineer at Tadiran’s crystal quartz unit, and then engineered systems for projects at Tadiran Communications. He launched and managed two companies – one making microwave and radar parts and the other computerized examination systems.
BEING A professional examiner of R&D projects in the Chief Scientists’ Office of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and an adviser to the Defense Ministry on local and foreign industrial firms are also on his resume. He also taught at the Jerusalem College of Technology and Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, but the father of five and grandfather of 11 now works as an independent consultant. He has been especially busy since 1999 supervising electromechanic systems of CityPass’s Jerusalem streetcar network for the government. He even invented a device, now standard, that determines the exact colors of diamonds.
But as a modern Orthodox Jew who wears a crocheted kippa, he is very proud of getting haredi yeshiva students who studied Talmud but no English, science or math to join private industry as computer programmers and the IDF as vehicle mechanics while supporting their families. Some have even gone on to graduate as engineers, he says.
Haredi girls learn English, math and some science in their high schools, he says. “There is no problem for them to find jobs if these are suitable for their lifestyle. The problem is the men,” Lebel insists. “Their fathers and grandfathers had four or five children and enough wealth to help them start out. But the current generation – without a secular education of any kind – have as many as a dozen children and can’t support their families, even with their wives working.”
A new research study from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies showed that the share of haredi men aged 35 to 54 who do not work has tripled in the past 30 years.
As a volunteer in 1996, Lebel designed a program to select yeshiva students for jobs in hi-tech. “I thought they might be suitable for computer programming because of their painstaking study of Talmud. But it was very difficult in the beginning to get a private company to prepare them,” he recalls. Lebel designed a pilot project to interview 300 applicants and choose 28. Within four months, those selected immersed themselves in secular studies.
“It was very focused. Talmud students excel in complex thought and self teaching.”  Selecting suitable candidates for such courses is critical, he says. “Not only high IQ and aptitude are necessary, but also motivation and ethics.”
LEBEL GAVE yeshiva students who didn’t know a word of English a dictionary with 100 technical words; they learned them nearly overnight. They were given chapters on Pascal computer language and they gobbled it up in a week even though they knew only elementary arithmetic. The course graduates were then ready for six months of study leading to positions in the IDF. He even used subjects from the Talmud so the learning became culturally acceptable. Lebel opposed their having to get matriculation or an academic degree, but some have received degrees through the Open University, he says. After long months of stud, all 28 received high marks and were accepted into well-paying jobs.
“If they are selected and trained properly, they can do almost any job.” Tens of thousands of students have since undergone this transition from yeshiva classes to hi-tech.
In 2005, Lebel initiated a similar project to get yeshiva students jobs such as vehicle and aircraft mechanics in the IDF. (The program, he notes, has no connection with the Nahal Haredi, whose ranks are increasingly filled by nationalist Orthodox young men, not haredim, and which is involved with combat duty.) His program, called Shahar, took three years to implement, and hundreds of haredim have joined the army to take such vital, blue-collar positions.
“Some people believe that haredim are not good with their hands because as children they had fewer toys, but it’s not true,” Lebel says.
His technique for choosing and preparing haredi yeshiva students for the IDF has been adapted and adopted by Bar-Ilan University and the Jerusalem College of Technology, which uses a similar technique for its Machon Naveh program, Lebel says.
During the past three years, haredi yeshiva students have joined the Israel Air Force, the Israel Navy, the Communications Corps, the Intelligence Corps and other units. “They don’t turn down any type of work; they are ready to perform jobs that the military needs,” says Lebel. Until now, the IDF has taken young men around 22 years of age who are married with up to two children. “They need to make a living. During their studies, they get paid. They wear uniforms plus black kippot in their jobs and get glatt kosher food. Women are not allowed where they work. These IDF staffers are so proud that they don’t switch from their uniforms to their haredi garb when they return home from work.” But Lebel believes the program is suitable for unmarried haredim – even the shabab troublemakers who are unsuited for yeshiva study but can’t free themselves of it.
The Shahar program has been carried out with the approval of haredi rabbis. Most of the yeshiva students are hassidim, but there are former Lithuanian-style yeshiva students as well. “The atmosphere and even norms have changed. These young men come from Jerusalem, Ashdod and other places; less from still-rigid Bnei Brak,” Lebel explains. “They have turned into Zionists and love the army.” He believes that in the coming decade, as the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students grows, many tens of thousands can be prepared for jobs in the military and civilian markets.
Today, he says, there are haredi former yeshiva students who work as Egged drivers. Some wear gloves so they don’t touch women passengers’ hands  when they give change. “I hope they will also go to work as conductors on Jerusalem’s Light Rail when it opens,” the engineer adds.
Lebel worries about the fact that “in the event of any bomb or other mass catastrophe, densely populated Bnei Brak will be a major victim. It is the least safe place in the country.” Due to the physical crowding – Tel Aviv has only a fourth of the density – the haredi city’s infrastructure is not suited to its population, he says, adding that the municipality and other authorities have ignored all civil-defense regulations. The tiny shelters that exist in older apartment buildings are populated by endless young couples and their children who can’t afford anything better. Even in newer buildings, the reinforced rooms were not built according to standard, insists Lebel, who has carefully investigated the matter.
“Bnei Brak is a black hole in terms of safety. In a nuclear attack, half of the 150,000 residents would be wiped out,” he claims, compared to an estimated 6,000 in Tel Aviv, 5,000 in Haifa and 700 in Jerusalem. The rabbis and residents say that no matter, “God will protect us.” The Home Front, Lebel continues, “is furious because they have been fooled.” Either half of Bnei Brak has to be rebuilt, or the population has to be dispersed to the Negev, Galilee and other parts of the country, he advises.
The engineer, who has many contacts in Israel’s government and military establishment, claims they are “not really worried” about the survival of the state if Iran dared to dispatch a nuclear bomb.
“Such an attack would cause limited physical damage,” Lebel contends, “and underground shelters and reinforced rooms would save most lives. While in public the leaders say they are very concerned, they say so for diplomatic reasons and because they fear an indirect consequence from a nuclear attack.” Such an attack would cause tens of thousands of elite hi-tech professionals and their companies to leave en bloc for other countries. In addition, foreign investors would be too scared to put money into Israel. This, says Lebel, “would leave a Third-World economy. That’s what is really worrying the leadership.”
Lebel says Israel’s industrial economy is lopsided, with the elite in hi-tech industry and the remaining 95% in conventional, somewhat backward industries. “Computerization and robots are used in only a minority of companies. There are star companies such as Teva Pharmaceuticals and Intel, Osem and Elite. But most of the rest are not modern enough. The government doesn’t invest enough in conventional industry. And unemployment in the periphery of the country is a cancer.”
Lebel asserts that for the past few decades, it has been a mistake for the hi-tech sector to sell its knowhow, including its computer programs, and not to manufacture goods. “The Ministry of Trade and Industry is partly to blame for this. There is not enough effort to turn industries such as agriculture or waste processing into white-collar jobs that would be respectable for all. Attractive vocational training must be boosted,” says Lebel, who helped develop the first mazlat (unmanned aerial vehicle) in 1973.
Finally, as an independent consultant supervising the much-criticized and -delayed light rail system in Jerusalem, Lebel says that in a few years, Jerusalemites will fall in love with it. “It is true that there were many errors,” he concedes. “But there is no project like this in the world. The capital is very hilly and located on stone. In addition, the track has to meander through neighborhoods like a snake, requiring the railway cars to be short and articulated.”
The light rail, for which digging began in 2003 and that was supposedto take two years to complete, is now due to start operating in thespring of 2011. “But it took Poland 25 years to launch its metro.Electric buses could have been used, but they have disadvantages suchas slipping; the light rail will be so quiet that people won’t feelthey are moving,” Lebel declares.
And he concludes – after the government has finally vetoed DeputyHealth Minister Ya’acov Litzman’s and Atra Kadisha’s fierce oppositionto moving pagan bones to build a reinforced emergency department atBarzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon – that “many ancient Jewish boneswere found all along the route of the Jerusalem Light Rail. AtraKadisha quietly examined them and built over them.”