A shift is taking place in Israel, and it has begun to change the face of Israeli society. More and more Chareidi men who were formerly learning Torah full-time are entering the workforce, or preparing to enter it through academic or vocational training. According to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, dated December 31, 2017, the number of Chareidi students in the higher education system grew from 1,000 to 10,800 between 2007 and 2017. Increasing numbers of Chareidim, both men and women, who were formerly limited both by their social mores and education to a limited range of low-paying occupations, are gradually finding their way into higher-paying jobs in high-tech, business and medical-related fields.
In order to understand what is happening here, we must consider the historical background. How did Chareidim in Israel come to a place where their options were so limited? In the post-Holocaust years, following the decimation of the European yeshivot, leaders of the Lithuanian yeshivah world (in particular) were driven by a desire to rebuild what was lost. The Chazon Ish reputedly said that in order to restore Torah learning to its former strength, two generations of bnei Torah must devote themselves to full-time learning. Young women in Bais Yaakov schools were urged to do their part by marrying full-time learners and embracing a kollel lifestyle, materially humble but spiritually rich.
This idea caught on particularly in Israel, where additional factors came into play that caused the Chareidi community to entrench itself in opposition to the secular establishment—and as a result, to participate only marginally in the country’s economy. Universal conscription became the axis around which an intense social struggle has revolved since the State of Israel was founded.
The centrality of army service as the point of contention can hardly be overemphasized. Above and beyond serving as a defense force, the army is very much a cultural institution in Israel. Historically, Chareidim have viewed the army as antithetical to the way of life prescribed by the Torah. They perceived it as a training ground for the ideal member of secular Zionist society—the tough, macho “Israeli,” divorced from mitzvah observance, who came to replace the “Jew” of the prewar Diaspora. At the same time, on the spiritual level, young men who gave up material pleasures to learn Torah day and night have always believed that they were doing their part to protect the Jewish people through the merit of their learning, no less than their brothers serving in the army.
“Thirty percent of the children in Israel are Chareidi. If they don’t promote the Chareidim, we’re lost.”
The revival of the Torah world in the wake of the Holocaust has been an astounding success, both in Israel and abroad. But in Israel, that growth has been accompanied by an economic trend that, according to natural law, is unsustainable. In a nutshell, parents who are themselves living the kollel lifestyle can’t financially support married children who have also been taught to embrace the kollel lifestyle.
The hard-won draft deferment for yeshivah and kollel students (codified in the Tal Law which was declared invalid by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2012) was contingent upon full-time learning and not working in any remunerative occupation. Thus, working for a living essentially became inseparable from army service. Bolstered by the undisputed Jewish value of Torah lishmah (Torah learning for its own sake), the belief took hold in Israel’s Chareidi community that staying out of the secular workforce was the only way to retain spiritual integrity. Socially, this thinking was reflected in lower status within the community for working men and their families. Many talmud Torah schools accepted only children of kollel men. “Going into chinuch” or working part-time as a sofer sta”m has been among the very few acceptable sources of livelihood for men who don’t want to be viewed as having left the Torah world. Women who took the burden of main breadwinner upon themselves were praised, but the range of employment options for them was also narrow, and the pay low. While many Chareidi women have traditionally worked in small family businesses or in secretarial jobs and the like, teaching within the Chareidi school system was regarded as the ideal profession until roughly the 1990s, when it became glaringly clear that there weren’t nearly enough available jobs for all the seminary graduates with teaching certificates.
An Unsustainable Reality
With housing costs soaring (Israel’s Housing Price Index reached an all-time high in September 2017), the situation has long since passed the crisis point. It was once the norm in Israel’s Chareidi society for parents to buy apartments for their children; that is now for the privileged few. Instigated in part by a social climate of simmering resentment toward Chareidim for their perceived refusal to “share the burden” (of army service and contributing to the national economy), government budget cuts over the past few decades have slashed child allowances, once a major source of support for large families, as well as aid to yeshivot and kollelim. The average monthly income of Chareidi households is approximately 35 percent lower than the average income of other Jewish households, as per the aforementioned Israel Democracy Institute study. But due to the typically large size of Chareidi families, the difference in per capita income jumps to an alarming 171 percent.
Naturally, this unsustainable reality has drawn more and more Chareidi men and women to seek employment in fields beyond their community’s original comfort zone. “Since 2002, ultra-Orthodox employment rates have increased from 35 percent of men and 50 percent of women to 52 percent and 73 percent, respectively,” says the report, compiled at the end of 2017. But the change is not coming easily. One does not simply walk into a high-tech company and get a job, especially if one is wearing a wig or a black hat.
Cultural isolation has left Chareidim unfit for many of the job opportunities that offer a better income. While women educated in Bais Yaakov schools usually have basic knowledge of English, math and science, Chareidi schools for boys typically provide only the most rudimentary background in math, and none in science or English. As one kollel student put it, “I would gladly work to support my family, but I don’t know how to do anything but learn.” And in a polarized society, Chareidim often find themselves stigmatized and unwelcome in the general job market, even if they are qualified. As for Chareidim in the world of high-tech—until recently that was an idea that simply did not compute.
Emerging Solutions: KamaTech
“They would look at me as if I were an alien, just landed from another planet,” says Moshe Friedman, describing his first attempts to get a footing in the Israeli “startup nation” about a decade ago. He had a viable idea for an online video editing app, but no one would take him seriously, much less invest in him. “If you’re not part of that ecosystem, it’s very hard to get in,” Friedman explains.
Friedman was thirty years old at the time, a husband, father and Torah scholar in Bnei Brak’s famed Kollel Chazon Ish. A proud great-grandson of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Jerusalem-born Friedman had learned in the prestigious Chevron Yeshiva (Knesses Yisroel/Slabodka) prior to his marriage to a granddaughter of Rabbi Gedalia Nadel of Bnei Brak. It was time to seek a good source of parnassah for his family, and Friedman felt the pull of high-tech.
“I was very interested in computers,” Friedman relates. “I had a computer at home, and although I didn’t have any background in technology, I found plenty of resources to teach myself, and I kept at it until I felt I was ready for my own startup.”
Friedman’s break came at a big conference for high-tech entrepreneurs and investors, where he met Yossi Vardi, whom he dubs “the godfather of startups.” Vardi was a pioneer in Israel’s high-tech industry, and after making his own fortune he became an investor, on the lookout to fund promising young entrepreneurs.
“I told him I had an idea for a startup,” Friedman recalls, “and he was skeptical like everyone else. ‘I’m over seventy,’ he said to me, ‘and I’ve never seen a Chareidi entrepreneur or investor in high-tech.’” But Vardi was intrigued by Friedman’s product. Momentarily baffled, he said, “Wait, maybe you’re not the typical Chareidi. You came on aliyah from France, maybe, or you’re a baal teshuvah?”
Friedman assured Vardi of his bona fide Yerushalmi credentials, mentioning his familial connection to the legendary founder of the Eidah Chareidis.
Vardi looked thoughtfully at the eager young “alien.” He saw the irony. “Everyone complains that the Chareidim don’t work,” he remarked. “And then when a Chareidi wants to work, nobody wants him. You know what? I’m going to help you.”
Backed by Vardi’s help, influence and connections in the industry, Friedman not only launched his online video app, called Clipop, but the unlikely pair also founded an initiative called KamaTech. Their aim: to help and encourage promising candidates from the Chareidi sector with an interest in working and earning in the field of computer technology.
He had a viable idea for an online video editing app, but no one would take him seriously, much less invest in him. “If you’re not part of that ecosystem, it’s very hard to get in,” Friedman explains.
“I wanted to help other Chareidi entrepreneurs,” says Friedman, “but Yossi Vardi told me I was getting ahead of the game: ‘What Chareidi entrepreneurs? First let’s teach them something.’ So we approached Vardi’s business contacts and discussed with them the idea of opening subsidized training courses for talented Chareidim.”
In short order, executives from thirty high-tech companies and venture funds were on board as co-founders, including such big names as Cisco, Intel, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amdocs, Check Point, and many others. Some of the companies, such as Cisco, already had social responsibility programs designed to equalize opportunities for various underprivileged communities. But the idea of opening the gates of high-tech to Chareidim was especially intriguing. Israel’s burgeoning high-tech industry was, and still is, in great need of fresh talent, with some 10,000 potential jobs to be filled. And the poverty of the Chareidi sector wasn’t that community’s plight alone; it could soon become catastrophic for Israeli society as a whole, given the rapid growth of the Chareidi sector, expected to reach 16 percent of the total population by 2030. “The people who help are those who realize that this is the future of Israel,” Friedman explains. “Thirty percent of the children in Israel are Chareidi. If they don’t promote the Chareidim, we’re lost.”
The response from the Chareidi community was enthusiastic. Through social media alone—no traditional advertising—900 applicants for a course in cyber security were recruited in two days. Friedman brought in experts of high caliber, such as Dov Moran, inventor of the USB flash drive (DiskOnKey), to deliver introductory lectures in the heart of Bnei Brak on opportunities in the high-tech world, and hundreds came to listen.
The harder part was getting them into good jobs. Friedman soon found himself advocating for his trainees, and even for Chareidi graduates with college degrees in computer engineering, who complained that the HR departments of big high-tech companies wouldn’t give them a second look, or would only offer them low-level jobs. “Our people have a lot to offer, and they make dedicated workers,” he says. “Employers are afraid of disrupting the company culture. But we show them that it isn’t so hard to resolve the issues. You just need to create a bit of good will and bridge the gap.”
Three years ago, in addition to setting up hundreds of young men and women with training and job placement, KamaTech began to fulfill Friedman’s dream of assisting would-be entrepreneurs. KamaTech’s Accelerator program is designed to provide select Chareidi entrepreneurs with everything they need to launch their startups: a monetary grant and free mentorship to guide them in developing their business plan and go-to-market strategy. KamaTech Accelerator is backed by one of Friedman’s Bnei Brak lecturers, Amnon Shashua, a founding partner of Mobileye, which was recently sold to Intel for $15 billion.
Parents who are themselves living the kollel lifestyle can’t financially support married children who have also been taught to embrace the kollel lifestyle.
Out of more than 200 applicants the first year, eight people—four men and four women—were chosen to participate. Each one raised $1 million for their startup, and after a year each company had fifteen employees. By the third year, Accelerator had launched twenty-six startups, all of them successful, and employing a total of 200 people. While these numbers aren’t huge, there’s a sense that the energy behind them is unstoppable. “At the beginning I was the only one,” Friedman marvels, “and since then, 1,000 people have come to us hoping to start high-tech businesses.”
When it became clear that the grassroots interest was there, Israel’s government stepped in and launched a nationwide program to promote the integration of Chareidim into the workforce, not only offering its assistance to KamaTech, but also backing and coordinating the efforts of foundations and NGOs such as Joint, The Kemach Foundation, Atidim, and other educational institutions. Government-sponsored Machar (Misgerot Chareidiyot) programs, essentially gender-separated mini-campuses for Chareidim, were set up in conjunction with Ono Academic College, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Technion, The Strauss Campus at Hadassah Academic College and others, in addition to the existing gender-separated program already in place at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT, still known colloquially as Machon Lev, its former name).
The IDF, too, has made efforts to carve out suitable niches for Chareidi soldiers in its ranks, including career training through its Shachar program, which trains recruits in computer programming and system engineering for the army.
JCT: We’ve Been Here All Along
Among the colleges now accommodating large numbers of Chareidi students, the Jerusalem College of Technology occupies a unique position in that it has always been a staunchly religious institution, combining Torah study with high-level academic training. Founded in 1969 by Israel Prize-winning physicist Professor Ze’ev Lev, JCT is now among Israel’s largest colleges.
JCT’s president, Professor Chaim Sukenik, outlines the vision of JCT’s founder: “Professor Lev was close to Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, and he was Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s go-to man for halachic questions involving physics. He was a talmid chacham—he wrote sefarim on the principles of physics as applied in halachah, with haskamot from the Steipler Rav. While on the faculty of Hebrew University, he felt the need to train bnei Torah to become leaders of the State of Israel. He started with a dozen young men in Bayit Vegan who learned Torah all morning and studied in the afternoon toward academic degrees in high-tech fields: computer science, electronics engineering, or electro-optics engineering. His aspiration was that with their training as bnei Torah and their advanced training as engineers, they would assume positions as leaders.”
While that vision is still a “work in progress,” JCT alumni have made very significant contributions to Israel’s defense technology, as well as to the high-tech industry. Graduates from the Dati Leumi community were involved in developing the Iron Dome system, for example. One graduate is the technology head of the Arrow-3 Missile Defense System project and won the Israel Defense Prize this past year; another heads the IDF’s Satellite Surveillance Department and won the same award five years ago for applying his skills in electro-optics to repair malfunctioning spy satellites from the ground using stars as reference points. His work saved Israel’s Defense Ministry untold amounts of money and effort.
Today, students wearing black kippot and white shirts, some in full Chareidi dress including peyot, are seen in significant numbers on JCT’s spacious, predominantly Dati Leumi men’s campus in Givat Mordechai, mingling harmoniously with the other students. The primacy of Torah study at JCT, its religious atmosphere and complete separation of male and female students combine to provide an environment where Chareidim who choose to pursue academic studies can comfortably do so. No other college [in Israel], says Professor Sukenik, offers engineering and computer science degree programs of the scope found at JCT and in a Chareidi-friendly fashion. Out of some 13,000 Chareidi students attending Israeli colleges today, 2,000 are in JCT, according to Professor Sukenik.
JCT is the only institution, he says, that is women-friendly in computer science. “In general, less than 30 percent of computer students are women,” says Professor Sukenik. “At JCT, it’s more than 50 percent. Further, well over 90 percent of those students are employed in their field within a year of graduation.” He believes that the large number of women students and their high rate of employability after graduation is a strong endorsement for gender-separated education in STEM programs. Seemingly, more women are willing to come and study these disciplines in an all-women program. The Professor’s remarks come in response to protests against gender-separated study programs for Chareidim on the grounds of sexist discrimination.
Women students study at JCT’s Machon Tal campus in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, and at its Lustig campus in Bnei Brak. Several Chareidi alumnae of these campuses have made headlines in the last few years for their technological contributions to key industries in Israel. In an article posted on JCT’s web site in 2015, Rami Sartani, CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is quoted as saying, “We employ fourteen Chareidi students and graduates from Lustig Campus. . . . Some of them already serve as project managers. . . . They are currently spearheading the software development for the IAI, which is responsible for the computerized systems of satellites and ships, as well as for the development and launching of aircrafts.”
Torah study continues to fill half of the academic day at JCT and is mandatory. But in certain cases, the administration is willing to modify that requirement. Professor Sukenik explains, “When we began to see increased interest from the Chareidi community, we decided it was legitimate if these students preferred to pursue their limudei kodesh in a different yeshivah that they were affiliated with. We’re not trying to change anyone. We also have older guys with families and serious financial responsibilities who tell us that after they have been sitting in kollel for years, they now want to focus on learning a profession, but also need to work on the side in the meantime. So we established a policy where a fellow who has a certain level of yeshivah experience and has reached a certain age can be exempted from the kodesh part of the program. Married women also, especially if they have children, are given a reduction in their limudei kodesh requirements, in recognition of their family responsibilities.”
Over the past twenty-five years, JCT has branched out, offering degree tracks in business administration and accounting, and more recently, nursing. Three years ago, the nursing track was expanded to include a men’s nursing program, with some thirty-odd students each year. “The demand for male nurses is very great,” says Professor Sukenik, “but very few have come from Israel’s Jewish population. We expect that our program will change that. About half of our male nursing students are Chareidi, and the rest are Dati Leumi. Every one of our nursing graduates has two job offers in hand.
Even for a talented and ambitious Chareidi student, the challenge of making the grade in a rigorous academic program is formidable. With very little secular education behind them, Chareidi men in particular need to spend over a year of intensive effort in a high-school equivalency program to prepare them for college. “We have to invest a lot in our Mechina program,” Professor Sukenik acknowledges. “We have learned how to try to help these young men. But the sad fact is that about half of those who enter the Mechina program fail, either in the Mechina program itself or in the first year of college-level study. That’s very distressing to me because these are young men who felt they were ready to take the step, or their financial responsibilities necessitated that they take the step. To then fail after making such a bold decision is particularly sad.”
The media paint a picture of enmity between secular and Chareidi society. But in the high-tech world, there’s actually lots of tolerance, curiosity and ahavat Yisrael.
Some say that the most common obstacle to academic success for Chareidi men is poor English language skills. In Professor Sukenik’s experience, what prevents family men from getting to the academic finish line are those very financial responsibilities that motivated the plunge into academia in the first place. Many of these households simply can’t survive for the four or five years it takes for the head of the family to earn a degree, while in the meantime their income is woefully inadequate. These men are forced to seek work that doesn’t require that investment of time.
Commenting on this problem, Friedman of KamaTech says: “We try to address that issue by offering shorter term, non-academic training courses. It’s second best, but it’s a good solution for a lot of people in that position.”
Itamar: Social Consciousness
A good income isn’t the only motive for pursuing an academic degree, as Itamar’s story illustrates.
Yeshivah-educated, intelligent and self-reliant, thirty-four-year-old Itamar is married with three young children. He was working in fields that were typical of his social background (he is from a hardworking religious Sephardic family in Tel Aviv): “I was running my own restaurant, and before that I had a clothing store. I always believed that with enough willpower, I could succeed. I was making enough money to support a family, but I didn’t feel I was fulfilling my potential.” At a certain point, encouraged by the new opportunities opening up for Chareidim, including financial aid to ease the transition, Itamar decided to “believe in myself and jump into the fire,” as he puts it. He’s now taking a course called “Introduction to Psychology in Education” at Ono Academic College’s Chareidi campus, where men and women study separately on alternate days of the week; his goal is to earn a degree in criminology which will qualify him to work in a professional capacity with youth at risk. Meanwhile, he works part time managing a bookstore, as well as devoting time to social projects encouraging dialogue between the Chareidi and secular communities.
The transition has not been easy. “Before, I was making money doing what we call avodot shechorot [work that doesn’t require any educational credentials]. Now I’m in a world where you have to put a lot of time and effort into your studies if you want to succeed, and meanwhile, money is tight and I still have to pay the bills. I’m less available to help at home, too. Without my wife’s understanding and support, I couldn’t do this.”
For Itamar, it’s not only about money, though, nor is it only about personal fulfillment. “I believe that it’s good for the Chareidi community as a whole,” he says. “We need professionals among us, so we can be less dependent on outside resources. It’s not suitable for everybody because the academic world is wide open. You’re bound to encounter things that aren’t in line with our values, so you have to approach it with a strong sense of identity and a mission to be an agent of positive change in your community.
“The people we’ve helped are very mainstream,” says Moshe Friedman of KamaTech. “They’ve kept their Chareidi identity. There’s no contradiction between working in high-tech and maintaining that identity—especially now that we’re a community of high-tech Chareidi professionals. The media paint a picture of enmity between secular and Chareidi society. But in the high-tech world, there’s actually lots of tolerance, curiosity and ahavat Yisrael.”
He quotes his own mentor, Yossi Vardi, as saying, “Our really big achievement is kiruv levavot. We’ve brought people together. The Chareidim aren’t trying to change us, and we respect them as they are.”
Yocheved Lavon is a freelance writer and Hebrew-to-English translator living in Jerusalem. She made aliyah from New York in 1976.
By Yocheved Lavon
David Asher, twenty-four, is a cyber analyst living in Elad with his wife and two children. His father, an MIT-trained physicist who passed away eight years ago, had become close to the Bostoner Rebbe while still living in Boston. But like many children of ba’al teshuvah parents, Asher, who was born in Jerusalem, received a completely Chareidi education. He was raised as a chassid, attended a Jerusalem cheder, studied at a Chassidic yeshivah in Bnei Brak, and learned in kollel after his marriage.
He always had a curious, searching mind. “But whenever I’d ask my father a question about science, like, ‘What are genes?’ he would go into a long explanation that went over my head. I had almost no background in science or technology,” Asher says.
Asher is an energetic young man, and after three years in kollel, he was getting restless. He felt he had untapped talents that he ought to express. He and his wife began to talk about prospects in the high-tech world, which looked exciting as well as profitable, but Asher didn’t quite know how to find his way in.
When his wife saw an ad for a course in cybersecurity for Chareidi men, sponsored by KamaTech, she suggested that Asher apply. He did so, but was told they were really looking for candidates with at least a little background in high-tech.
Asher had one big advantage: a working knowledge of English, the language of high-tech, due to his American parents. And more than that, he had tremendous drive and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The screening committee allowed him to speak directly to the lecturer who would be giving the course, and try his luck. “I told him, ‘I’m not a boy who wants to do this just for the experience or just to pass the course and get it over with. I promise I’m going to take it very seriously and do whatever it takes to learn this material.’ When you know you need it to survive, you have a whole different perspective.”
The lecturer, Erez Kreiner, agreed to give him a chance, and Asher was as good as his word. “To earn the certificate, I had to learn 750 pages of text at home and, of course, do homework, practice, and take tests. In half a week, I plowed through those 750 pages.”
Asher turned out to be the star pupil. At the end of the eight-month course, KamaTech was able to set him up with two job interviews right away. “One was with the Israel Electric Company,” Asher says, “but I saw no room for growth there. I ended up being hired by the Malam Team, and I’ve been working there for about six months and loving it.” The Malam Team provides computer infrastructure for many of Israel’s major corporations and government agencies.
Asher’s job as a cyber analyst involves monitoring six screens, collecting logs of online events and looking for anomalies that could indicate a security breach, flagging them and alerting the appropriate colleagues. He gives a simple example. “If I see a transaction paid with a credit card in Jerusalem, and then a minute later I see a transaction on the same credit card in Hong Kong, something is probably wrong.”
Commensurate with the short training he received, Asher’s salary isn’t as high as, say, a programmer’s starting salary. But he is quite happy with what he has. “And my bosses let me know that they’re proud of me, which isn’t true of every high-tech company.”
In fact, Asher was invited to give a presentation at Israel’s CyberTech conference, which he says is “the number-two conference in the world on cyber technologies.”
The Chareidi presence in Israel’s high-tech industry is now an accepted fact, and it is growing. “In the building where I work and the two buildings next to it, there are a total of ten minyanim for the three daily tefillot,” Asher enthuses. No longer does a Chareidi employee have to feel like an alien.
David Asher speaking on a panel at Israel’s CyberTech conference in Tel Aviv this past January. Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik