Israeli Life: Going into Labor
In Israel, ultra-Orthodox men and women are finding careers in a variety of workplaces that cater to their community’s religious and social needs.
They might not admit it, even to themselves, but Israel’s insular, tradition-minded ultra-Orthodox communities are on the edge of a revolution of sorts. Haredi men and women—separately and on their own terms—are stepping into Israel’s modern labor market.
Long the mainstay of the ultra-Orthodox household, haredi women are working as computer professionals, medical secretaries, paralegals and accountants, a far cry from the religious-school environments where they had previously sought employment. And men, too, are beginning to move from the yeshiva world to the workplace.
In offices throughout israel, married women in modest garb and sheitels (wigs) work in single-sex, family-friendly business environments. “They simply can’t earn enough teaching in haredi schools,” says Batsheva Taube, a mother of five whose husband studies in a kolel (yeshiva for married men). “There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and many work part time.”
Taube works for Citybook Services, an outsourcing company that does paralegal work for real estate firms in the United States through Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. The company’s upscale, blue-carpeted main office is in the haredi town of Modi’in Illit (also known as Kiryat Sefer), between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“The company gives women a four-month course in these subjects,” explains Eli Kazhdan, the modern Orthodox chief executive officer of Citybook. “They are extremely analytic. They beat any of the students I studied with at law school.”
The same intellectual potential and energy is being discovered in haredi men, who are also being employed in single-sex offices that parallel the environment many found in the yeshiva world.
“In spite of the men’s limited formal education, they’re very sharp,” says Yitz Motechin, a New Jersey businessman who established Ramsgate Leasing Services, an equipment- leasing company that has all-male offices in Har Hotzvim industrial park near the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Their talmudic background teaches them to think critically, look at a situation from every perspective.”
It is Israel’s increasing role as an outsourcing center that has allowed workplaces to cater to haredi needs. In call centers, employees need not see customers face-to-face, limiting interaction with the secular world. And the offices can be anywhere—even close enough to a haredi town that a young mother can get home at the same time as her school-age children. “Haredi employment has become an integral part of the globalization of Israel’s economy,” says Kazhdan.
The advantage for American companies opening Israeli outsourcing centers—many of them also have some prior connection to the Jewish state—is that they pay Israeli salaries to mostly English-speaking workers. “In certain cases,” says Kazhdan, “the pay scale for a starting position in Israel is half of what it is in the U.S. The haredi women working in outsourcing will be earning what an Israeli would earn—above minimum wage, which is around $7 an hour—and then have performance-based raises. A manager could earn up to $12 an hour. Yet these businesses are tapping a Western-oriented, highly intelligent source of employment.”
The idea of a paralegal outsourcing center for haredi women in Israel is the brainchild of Joe Rosenbaum, the ultra-Orthodox American entrepreneur from Lakewood, New Jersey, who owns Madison. He was already employing ultra-Orthodox women from his community in paralegal work when he began Citybook in 2003 as a way to help Israeli haredim. The company started out with eight people. Today, it has three branches that employ over 200. Recently, Madison used Citybook paralegals to prepare documents for an $8-billion real estate transaction involving the Extended Stay hotel chain, which included some 700 properties throughout the United States.
“A main reason that we were given the contract for the hotel chain is because of our Israel office,” Rosenbaum told The Jerusalem Post. “When we presented our bid, we explained that essentially we would be available around the clock for 6.5 days of the week. We put all of our Kiryat Sefer staff on the job…and we finished it before the deadline with everything done perfectly.”
“In the workplace,” explains Kazhdan, “the secret is to bring the companies to the women and create conditions appropriate to their family lifestyle. Citybook Services is…15 minutes away from their homes in Modi’in Illit.
“Many of the women have large families,” continues Kazhdan, who shows his office schedule where blue marks the women on maternity leave and yellow those who are expecting. “Of our 111 employees in Kiryat Sefer, only 90 will be working at any one time. And that’s fine, our business model is built accordingly. The accommodation to women’s needs also includes a room with a row of private booths, where women who are still nursing can express milk.”
There are a number of companies in Modi’in Illit that followed Citybook’s model. All together, they employ almost 1,000 women in services from software development to accounting and translation.
“Companies have sent people to us to learn how to organize flexibility for women,” notes Libie Affen, chief operating officer of Talpiot, Modi’in Illit’s women-only branch of the Israeli Matrix Computer Corporation. A well-dressed professional whose husband directs the Kiryat Sefer kolel, Affen was working for Matrix when she volunteered to help establish Talpiot.
“I felt it important to have a high-tech company in the town so haredi women with computer training could have high-level jobs near their homes,” she says.
The ultra-Orthodox move into the work force has been mostly one of necessity. According to a 2007 Bank of Israel report by economist Daniel Gottlieb, haredim make up 20 percent of the poor in Israel. The Jewish businessmen who fund those studying in the yeshiva no longer have the means to support a community that has grown by leaps and bounds. And government subsidies for haredi families, which often include seven or more children, have slowly been reduced since 2000.
Economics, however, is not the only motivating factor. “There certainly is poverty, but at the same time, people are seeking a higher standard of living,” says American-born Aviva Chechik, whose husband works in high technology. “I see advertisements directed to this community for family vacations, special lessons for children. Even the post-high school classes to prepare girls for better jobs in the professions can cost $3,800 a year.”
Some in the haredi world see the drive toward better living as part of the negative influence of secular society. There is constant fear of erosion of religious values. This might be at the core of a recent backlash by a number of haredi rabbis; they issued a religious decision discouraging women from going for a degree in education at haredi colleges, since the Ministry of Education mandated a curriculum the rabbis considered subversive.
Yet haredim are far from monolithic, explains Leo Rose, a Gerer Hasid who works at Ramsgate. Groups within the community vary in their attitudes toward employment and higher education. “There are Hasidim and Litvak yeshiva-types and educated haredi Americans,” he says. “The Belz rebbe, for example, encourages men to work. Even in the Litvak yeshiva circles, a man might study in the yeshiva for up to 10 years after marriage, but in the end, most go out to work, often into teaching or they become scribes.”
However, as traditional jobs get harder to find for men and women, working in companies such as Ramsgate and Citybook becomes more attractive. Yet the question remains: As haredim enter into the workplace, will there be a change in mindset—particularly among the men who are newer to the job scene? “How porous is the boundary between the haredi and non-haredi world?” queries Fran Ackerman, a family therapist. “Can men go into the work force and yet remain within the boundaries of the community ethos?”
It is exactly that tension between traditional ideas and the demands of the workplace that makes the single-sex environment so attractive—despite the fact that many earn less because of their choices.
“There’s no doubt [many] would make more money in high-tech centers in Herzliya, but they don’t want to work the overtime demanded in high tech,” says Affen. “They sacrifice salary for a religious environment and family life.”
“This job was sent down straight from heaven,” declares Leah Bogan, New Jersey title manager at Citybook and mother of 10. But she makes her hierarchy of values clear. “First of all, I want to be in a religious environment close to home. Haredi women in Israel work primarily to support their families so their husbands can study in the yeshiva.”
And, in general, haredi women have more training than the men. A number of ultra-Orthodox high schools for girls offer a two-year, post-high school program in fields such as computer engineering, accounting and graphics. “The women receive basic computer skills and then we supplement it with more extensive training in software development,” says Affen.
Haredi men, however, are in a bind. Yeshiva boys, who are taught there is no greater value than studying Torah, receive almost no preparation for professions or the working world. According to researcher Jacob Lupu’s 2004 study on haredim for the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem, “Tens of thousands of students are being educated in total isolation from secular studies.”
In 1996, Avraham Matityahu Fuss, an American-Israeli lawyer, decided to open a haredi college to address the problem. Realizing that he must have rabbinic approval, he approached talmudic scholar Rabbi Elazar Shach, who gave Fuss the green light to establish the Haredi Center for Technological Studies. It started out catering to men and eventually expanded to include a women’s division. “We accepted Rabbi Shach’s conditions that there be a spiritual committee of Torah scholars overseeing the Haredi center,” says Fuss, “and that only married men above 23 years of age could enter the program. Anyone under 23 would have to get permission from the head of his yeshiva.
“Today, there are 1,400 men and women students studying at the centers in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak,” he adds. “The women study in the morning while the men take classes at night, so they can attend kolel in the morning.”
Other haredi colleges and courses of study have come in its wake, supported by the government and supervised by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Hadassah College Jerusalem offers speech therapy and laboratory courses through Jerusalem’s Haredi College for Women, which is directed by Adina Ben Shalom, daughter of former Sefardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. And there are programs for social work sponsored by Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
“The women come…with a good background, but the men must have a six-month preparatory program where they study for a four-point matriculation equivalence in mathematics,” says Fuss.
Yossi Croitoru, COO of Ramsgate and a secular Jew, is very impressed with his employees. “I see tremendous intelligence and determination,” he says. “But many face a real dilemma. They have to earn a living, yet…feel they should be studying Torah.” Studying in the yeshiva is not only an intellectual endeavor, but a shelter against the negative influences of the secular world, explains Avi Shapira, who works for Ramsgate. A men-only haredi workplace where the men pray together and share a way of life can serve some of the same functions as the yeshiva.
At the same time, there are stigmas. The value of full-time Torah study still prevails—a religious imperative leading Orthodox rabbis encouraged after World War II to compensate for the scholars killed in the Holocaust. And young women feel their greatest privilege is to marry a Torah scholar. “It’s hard for a man who doesn’t study in the yeshiva to find a shiddukh [match],” says Channie Tal, a Bais Yaakov high school student.
According to Jacob Lupu, rabbis downplay the colleges and courses of study, fearful that gifted yeshiva boys will be attracted to the challenges of the high-tech world. “They try to diminish the aura of professions considered prestigious, representing them as the counterparts of traditional vocations,” he says.
Nevertheless, helped by the new type of workplaces and educational centers, changes are happening. “If you love learning, and see it as the optimal way of living, it’s very traumatic,” says Pinchas Shaer, a Ramsgate employee. “But there comes a time when you see that you’re not making it economically and have to make the plunge.”