Haredi women: A new force in the country's economy

A workforce to be reckoned with.

Temech has created more than 4,500 jobs for women since 2008. (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Temech has created more than 4,500 jobs for women since 2008.
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
While the public’s attention focuses on getting haredi men into the workplace, women have begun to develop their own wage-earning potential. These statistics from the Israel Bureau of Statistics and Bank of Israel give a perspective on women in Israel’s workforce. Seventy-three percent of women in the general population participate in the workforce. In the haredi sector, 68% of women participate in the workforce, of which 35% are working in part-time educational positions (compared to 17% in the general population). Forty-four percent of haredi women are working in part-time positions.
Orthodox women traditionally work to support the husband’s Torah studies, but in modern times, the problem has been finding workplaces that honor Orthodox modesty codes. The secular work environment is an uncomfortable place for a haredi woman. If a man extends his hand on being introduced, she’ll be in the awkward situation of explaining that she doesn’t shake hands with men. She closes her ears to office flirtations and hardens herself to casual swear words, certain kinds of humor, and gossip. To avoid these tensions, women from ultra-Orthodox communities have usually settled for low-paying jobs that offer few opportunities for advancement: teaching in schools like the ones they attended themselves, or working as secretaries in religious institutions.
Some ultra-Orthodox women are qualified to set up their own businesses, which raises another set of challenges. A woman may have learned graphics, architecture or design, but has nowhere to put her papers and phone except on the kitchen table, after the children are in bed. She’s obliged to meet clients in her living room. Often, she has no access to the Internet.
Such a climate hasn’t encouraged entrepreneurship among ultra-Orthodox women in Israel, but times are changing. And one of the contributors to this change is the Temech nonprofit initiative, whose offices are based in Jerusalem but whose reach extends into haredi communities all over the country.
“Temech” comes from the Hebrew for “support,” and implies a support system, as a mother is the “temech” of her family or the support pillar of a building is a “temech wall.” The organization’s goal is to empower religious women in their business potential.
In Jerusalem visited the Temech office, on the ninth floor of the capital’s Sha’arei Ha’ir building. What one finds there is the Hub, a facility where members find a comfortable, state-of-the-art workspace – half of the Temech initiative. A pleasant secretary buzzes you in. There’s a large, bright lobby attractively arranged with chairs and low tables. Bookshelves stacked with professional literature in Hebrew and English offer material for browsing or borrowing. Here and there, plants in containers make green notes against the businesslike gray walls and purple office chairs.
A stroll around the facility yields glimpses into workrooms for rent by the hour, day or month. Each has a computer, a comfortable chair and a bookshelf. There are two large conference rooms, spaces for lectures and workshops, and a bank of computer workstations. In one large room, a number of women wearing headphones sit in front of computers as teachers move around, guiding them; it’s a computerized training center for ongoing courses.
A modern kitchen offers members hot drinks, a refrigerator and microwaves for dairy and meat. There’s a print and fax center. Fixed to a wall is a rack where subscribers may leave their business cards. Glassed- in cases display photography, jewelry and other work produced by artists who have joined the Hub. An LCD screen advertises members’ businesses. Off to one side, a patio opens out to the Jerusalem cityscape. A few women sit at tables there, some eating lunch, some conducting informal meetings, and some, preferring the open air to a workstation, gazing into laptop screens.
Shaindy Babad, Temech’s director – a 40-year-old mother of six who made aliya from New Jersey 21 years ago – talks about the history of the project and explains its aims.
“At first, we focused on getting Israeli companies that needed more workers to consider integrating haredi women into their workforce. We had to look at the gaps, the information and skills that the women need to acquire, and at the stereotypes that had to be overcome,” she says. “And there must be interest from the companies. In every case there will be some adjustment. The level of ‘adaptation’ varies.”
Temech has created more than 4,500 jobs for women since 2008. Most of Temech’s training answers specific needs of specific companies. A company will run a recruitment process before the course. Candidates who pass are the ones likely to fit into the company. They are hired and start their course, which may range from two weeks to eight months.
“Take our work with HRS, an American medical coding company,” says Babad. “Our course teaches women anatomy and biology as background. Then they learn coding, which uses tens of thousands of codes that the women will need to work with.
They’ll be servicing medical practitioners and institutions in the US, and these codes will be used on every single medical record.”
Temech courses are partly government-funded, but they depend largely on private philanthropy. The private donations allow the organization freedom to teach courses that aren’t on the government lists; the training courses for HRS are one example.
“We set the courses up so that after the first group of women is hired, companies continue training on their own. So there’s a ripple effect, where there are actually more than 4,500 women now training through these programs,” continues Babad.
“We’re not an employment agency. We work backward: We approach a company – although at this point, companies are reaching out to us. We ask, ‘What do you need? What are the people that you need to hire? What types of jobs are available?’ Then we match women from the local community to these jobs. At the same time, we provide heavily subsidized courses to the local communities so that interested women will be ready to work. We run courses on English, computers, managing work/home life, basic skill sets. Computer skills are absolutely necessary at every level, even if a woman wants to work as a cashier in a supermarket. We have training programs in 19 different towns across Israel, from Arad to Safed.”
Temech’s training projects fall into two categories: the ones that go hand-in-hand with companies, and the ones for women entrepreneurs and small-business owners, which are centered in the Hub.
Babad explains, “Our main focus was creating jobs for haredi women. At the same time, we started hearing from women who weren’t looking for jobs with big hi-tech or accounting companies, where a big group of haredi women work together. Some were far more interested in becoming owners of their own businesses.”
She notes that there are a number of challenges facing those women.
“One challenge is knowing how to market. Another problem is the lack of business-world know-how that most haredi women have. The third layer of challenge is simply being a haredi woman. She’s not comfortable with social media. She may not have influence at home, or have a quiet work space, or even any space at all,” she says. “We asked ourselves how we can help these women get started – give them the traction that they need in order to succeed and bring home income. Hopefully they would also create a tier of employment within their communities; [for instance,] a business owner may hire a secretary or salesperson.
Yet another issue that she says the Hub addresses is “the loneliness of women entrepreneurs. They have little to talk about with their stay-at-home neighbors. While you may be thinking about business challenges, the other women will be talking about child-rearing or household problems. They’re talking about lunch and baking muffins while you’re thinking about your business trip to Japan and how you’re going to miss your kids, and feeling like a rotten mother. The other mothers don’t get what you’re talking about. Professionally and socially, that creates a huge deficit.”
Babad and three friends, professional women like herself, began meeting in cafes. The meet-ups grew to 200 regulars. They invited speakers on topics like pension plans for the self-employed, yoga relaxation techniques, understanding Israeli bank plans, and business legal issues. Out of these meetings, she and colleagues at Temech developed the haredi professional women’s conferences, the first of which took place in 2009, in English, at the capital’s Ramada Hotel.
“There were so many requests to hold a conference in Hebrew that by last year we developed a two-track model in which English and Hebrew conferences run side by side on the same day. We’ve also held conferences outside of Jerusalem, specifically in Bnei Brak,” she says. “The next project was to create a physical platform that offered women their own work facility, and gave them the opportunity to network and to study at an affordable price. That evolved into the Hub.”
Program manager Miri Green explains how it works.
“A woman may call me up and say, ‘I have these talents, but I don’t know how to exploit them. I don’t know what exactly I need.’ I sit down and work out a list of courses appropriate to her needs. We don’t impose a schedule or obligatory curriculum. If she wants, I’ll set her up with a suitable mentor and start her networking with like-minded women. I also help her choose the best work space for her. New workshops and courses are offered all the time. Students learn how to build a website, or study marketing, advertising, and working with software.”
The mentorship program is a significant facet of the Hub.
“We’re seeing that it’s more and more important, for women who want to move up their career ladders, to have a mentor,” says Babad.
“We built a pilot program together with Bituah Leumi [the National Insurance Institute], which didn’t understand the concept at first. They thought it was tutoring, help with the classes. When we sat down together with the proposed mentors, professional haredi women, all leaders in their fields with significantly responsible positions, the Bituah Leumi representative almost fell off her chair. ‘No way, there can’t be haredi women doing those things!’ she said. But there are, and these women want to give back, help other women cross bridges they themselves had to cross, make it easier for the next generation.”
Mentors meet with their students 12 times yearly and are also available by phone or email.
Another of the Hub’s attractions is its prime location on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, minutes from the central bus station and easily accessible by any mode of transportation. Subscribers pay NIS 175 yearly for use of the space. Included in the heavily subsidized price are three free workshops and an hour of one-to-one business mentoring. Meanwhile, the modern building and security system give the women a feeling of shelter and safety.
Members use the facility in different ways. One example is Chani Buchbut, director of the Tiltan academy for alternative therapies.
“Tiltan is located in Tel Aviv, but many religious women from the Jerusalem area asked for classes closer to home. So we opened a branch here,” she says. “The Hub provides the school’s religious branch with a roof. We rent space for our courses and workshops. Once our students have earned their qualifications, they continue here to learn basic and advanced business skills so they can put their knowledge to work.”
Tsiporah, a semi-retired businesswoman who runs a secondhand clothing store, says that “the free workshops have given me unexpected insights into issues like home/business time management, and the one-on-one mentoring session turned out to be quite valuable. And just being around other religious women who are full of initiative and energy inspires me. It’s a pleasant, respectable place to meet clients. If we need computer and Internet time, we can rent an hour at a workstation. The Hub also gives me space for personal quiet time. I just sit in the lobby or on the patio with my notebook and calendar and focus peacefully on whatever I need.”
Another Hub user, Naomi (not her real name), is a writer. “I rent a room by the month and work here every day. I’ve been here five months and already see great results. My work is progressing faster than when I worked at home. I find it more efficient to sit in a room that’s mine alone, with my books and files and a lock on the door. I expect to work here for a long time yet.”
According to Babad, “our goal is to empower religious women’s business potential.”
It certainly looks like they’re succeeding.