Higher power meets 'hire power'

Looking beyond the kollel and the yeshiva, many haredi men are seeking employment in the world of hi-tech.

Haredi men at JDC 521 (photo credit: Eyal Toag)
Haredi men at JDC 521
(photo credit: Eyal Toag)
Bnei Brak resident Shlomo Goldberg is known as something of a star among his colleagues at Sela Group, the IT company where he works as a software consultant and instructor. Goldberg, whose hi-tech know-how has earned him the nickname Rabbi.Net, recently won a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional award – an accolade conferred on outstanding technological community leaders.
It’s not just Goldberg’s software skills that make him stand out from his peers, though. As a haredi man, he doesn’t have a degree in computer science, nor did he study technology at school or in the army.
Just six years ago, Goldberg didn’t have any work experience or education outside the haredi world of the yeshiva and kollel. Back then, Goldberg was struggling financially, with no steady income and a wife and four small children to care for. His situation was not particularly out of the ordinary for the haredi world, but what was unusual was his decision to look for work in hi-tech.
“I was always interested in technology, although as a kid I didn’t have a computer at home,” says Goldberg. “So when I discovered that Sela Group was opening a programming course for haredi men, with fees subsidized by the Joint Distribution Committee, I asked Sela to let me sign up. I turned out to be good at programming, and after the course finished, Sela hired me.”
In his move from welfare-dependent full-time Talmud scholar to successful IT consultant, Goldberg is at the vanguard of a revolution in the haredi community. It is a revolution that is only just starting to gather momentum, however.
Haredi participation in Israel’s labor market has always been very low. Men are encouraged to forgo work in favor of yeshiva study. According to a recent Bank of Israel report, only around 37 percent of haredi men work, compared with almost 76% of the rest of the population. More than half of haredi women work, but as many are mothers with large families, it is difficult for them to find professional employment.
As a result, haredi poverty rates have grown by 50% in the past decade.
With Israel’s 730,000-strong haredi population set to reach one million by 2022, there is an increasing realization that integrating haredim into the job market is essential for the country’s economic future.
Government expenditures on projects intended to increase haredi employment, including educational stipends, professional training and employment support, exceeded NIS 300 million in 2010.
Despite these efforts, the hi-tech sector is still failing to absorb significant numbers of haredi workers.
Although there are more haredim in hi-tech than a decade ago, it’s still rare for someone like Goldberg to forge a career in the secular-dominated world of Silicon Wadi, the hi-tech-rich region around Rehovot, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Petah Tikva.
According to Chaim Guggenheim, CEO of haredi recruitment firm Manpower Bereshit, the haredi community still faces significant obstacles to employment in the sector. Perhaps the most serious of these barriers is not the haredi community’s unwillingness to look for work but its lack of suitable academic education.
“Hi-tech companies are not yet flexible enough to waive their requirements for an academic degree,” says Guggenheim. “And that’s a problem – haredi candidates have to compete with secular graduates from top universities.”
Very few haredi schools teach math, science or English, and strict rules on gender segregation preclude haredi adults from enrolling at mainstream universities or colleges. And though some haredi women learn vocational subjects in seminaries, it is uncommon for haredi men to receive an education outside the yeshiva world.
As a result, says Guggenheim, even when mainstream hi-tech companies hire haredim, they tend to gravitate towards entry-level hi-tech jobs, leaving the more advanced roles to their secular colleagues.
Manpower Bereshit attempts to overcome this by training haredi hi-tech candidates in cutting-edge technologies, as well as older, less trendy technologies that secular programmers shun but are still in high demand.
“We are looking at ways to integrate haredim into higher-level roles,” Guggenheim adds. “We try to carve niches that our candidates can fill.”
Another challenge for haredim looking for work in secular-dominated hi-tech companies is the strict religious requirements they demand in the workplace.
“Haredi employees have specific requirements,” notes Guggenheim. “They need a kosher workplace, they cannot work on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays, for example.”
Momo Mahadav, CEO of Maala, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that promotes corporate social responsibility, agrees that while haredim are increasingly willing to work, religious and cultural barriers mean that mainstream companies might not see them as potential employees.
“Companies often don’t know how to evaluate haredi candidates,” says Mahadav. “Haredim don’t study in universities, so their academic credentials are different.
And recruiters don’t understand what special religious requirements haredim need in a workplace.”
Maala recently organized a tour for secular human resources managers to introduce them to the haredi sector. Mahadav believes this is a positive step towards increasing the number of mainstream companies willing to hire haredim.
“If companies hire haredim or other minority groups, of course they are helping society,” he adds.
“But it also has good business benefits.”
While secular hi-tech workers have traditionally demanded high salaries, the new wave of haredi programmers has so far been willing (perhaps from lack of choice) to accept considerably less in return for training and a suitable work environment. These cost savings have encouraged mainstream hi-tech companies like Matrix to invest in software centers, dubbed “greenhouses,” in haredi towns.
The business model of the greenhouses is simple. By hiring and training local haredim, usually women, they provide a hi-tech career for those who would otherwise find it next to impossible to enter the market.
According to Nili Davidovitz, CEO of Daat, the haredi-only branch of Tel Aviv-based technology company RealCommerce, haredi software greenhouses also ensure that programming work stays in Israel by giving companies a cheaper alternative to overseas outsourcing.
“There are cultural advantages to hiring Israeli [haredi] engineers,” says Davidovitz. “When Israeli companies outsource to developers in Eastern Europe, they have to deal with cultural and language differences, and that can slow down work and lead to misunderstandings.
Our engineers speak Hebrew, and they have the same Israeli mentality.”
Daat shares many of the basic concepts of the standard haredi hi-tech greenhouse model, with one significant difference: it is headquartered in secular Tel Aviv rather than Elad or Modi’in Illit.
Davidovitz says there are considerable business benefits to Daat’s central location.
“Tel Aviv is a very good place for us because it’s easy for our employees to reach us. It’s also far more convenient for our clients to attend meetings here rather than in Modi’in Illit,” she explains.
Of the nearly 40 haredi women working at Daat, most commute to Tel Aviv from haredi towns, but others travel from cities like Netanya and Rishon Lezion.
Davidovitz adds that Daat’s central location has made it easier to find suitably qualified employees.
“Being in Tel Aviv gives us access to a far wider pool of potential employees rather than being restricted to hiring from the local town,” she notes.
Though most of Daat’s employees studied technological subjects at seminary level, Daat provides additional in-house training to bridge inevitable knowledge gaps.
Davidovitz says that part of her motivation for creating Daat was to do something positive for haredi women by offering something that is still difficult to find: an intellectually stimulating hi-tech career with a good salary.
“It’s harder for haredi women to find work because they have special requirements like a gender-segregated environment. They are also likely to be married with children, so they can’t work the long hours the industry demands,” says Davidovitz. “But it’s good for them to work; it changes their lives. It’s not just about money. They also gain self-confidence and respect from their families.”
The number of haredi-only hi-tech companies like Daat is growing, but Davidovitz believes that much more needs to be done to encourage wider haredi participation in the hi-tech market.
“There are more hi-tech companies hiring haredi women now than there used to be, but there definitely are not enough,” she says.
Though haredi-only software greenhouses are a market- friendly way to increase haredi participation in hitech, one main criticism has been that because they usually hire only women, haredi men are left at the mercy of the open labor market.
Motti Feldstaine, director of the Kemah Foundation, a nonprofit that helps haredi men access employment, is convinced that haredi men can be excellent hi-tech employees, but they need the right training and tools to help them find work.
“There are already haredi men working in good jobs in hi-tech, but there is definitely plenty of room for more. For that, more need to be trained,” he says. “But I believe the majority of hi-tech companies appreciate haredi employees and realize that it is good to invest in them. Yeshiva study gives haredi men sharp minds. It makes them inquisitive and creative, and these are good qualities for hi-tech.”
Kemah assesses haredi men for job suitability and matches them with an appropriate training course, providing scholarships of up to 85% of course fees.
According to Kemah’s website, the largest number of haredi students are in the Central region.
Feldstaine notes that a growing number of local institutions, such as the Holon Institute of Technology, now offer hi-tech training courses especially for the haredi sector.
According to a Bank of Israel report published in March, the number of haredim taking academic and vocational courses has tripled since 2010.
Yossi Perl, chairman of the Merkaz Haharedi [Haredi Center] for Technological Studies, a nonprofit educational institution with a large branch in Bnei Brak, believes that the increased availability of vocational education is helping haredim enter the hi-tech workforce.
“Are they [haredim] going out to work more? Definitely yes,” says Perl, a veteran oleh from the UK who combines a successful career with yeshiva study. “A lot of haredim want to work, but the typical haredi doesn’t want to study at university, he wants a good educational institution with the right religious values.”
From its centers in Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Modi’in Illit, Haifa and Jerusalem, the Merkaz Haharedi offers students government-accredited diploma courses in professional and vocational subjects like computer programming, engineering and technical writing.
Graduates go on to work in mainstream hi-tech companies such as MalamTeam and Elta, while others have formed their own businesses.
According to Perl, the increased number of haredim going out to work is changing the economic makeup of Israel’s religious society, making it more in line with its overseas counterparts.
“In the UK and the US, haredi men don’t just study, they go out to work as well. There is not the systematic way of only studying that we see here in Israel,” he adds.
According to a 2009 study by the National Economic Council, 75% of Israeli haredim aged 30-34 studied full time, compared with 17% in London. As a result, Perl believes that Israel’s haredim have not developed a middle class, unlike their counterparts in the US and Europe.
Bnei Brak, which houses one-fifth of Israel’s haredi population, is one of the country’s poorest and most densely populated cities.
“But now the haredi middle class is starting to grow,” says Perl. “In the next generation, there will be more haredi professional workers and fewer people who only study. Of course, people will still live in Bnei Brak, but things will be different.”
Behind the shift in mindset from full-time Torah study to work is a growing belief that earning a living is completely compatible with religious and traditional values. In a recent speech to Merkaz Haharedi graduates, Bnei Brak Mayor Rabbi Ya’acov Asher dubbed this concept “education for Torah and derech eretz [the way of the land],” a concept that combines traditional religious values with the modern world.
Asher, who was elected mayor in 2008, has pledged to create hi-tech centers in the northern part of the city.
“Our aim at the Haredi Center is to help haredim earn a good living,” says Perl. “And the demand is there. Four years ago, we started with 400 students; now we have 1,600. We’re growing all the time.”
Yet although more haredim are studying in vocational courses and finding ways to access the workforce, the number of haredim in employment has not increased significantly in the last five years, according to the Bank of Israel’s March report, “Education and Employment in the Haredi Population.”
Perl believes that a lot more needs to be done to help the haredi sector integrate into the hi-tech workforce.
“What is needed is for people to listen to what we need and to work with us rather than trying to lecture us or impose solutions from the outside,” he says.
Although the haredi hi-tech revolution is moving slowly, in Bnei Brak and beyond many are optimistic that Silicon Wadi will start to include more religious employees.
“It’s hard to open people’s minds, but with time and patience it is possible,” says Guggenheim. “There are still not enough hitech companies hiring haredim, but I am a firm believer in the haredi mind and the haredi work ethic. It will take time and it’s difficult, but there are ways we can overcome these difficulties.
It can be done, and we can succeed.”