As Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Enter The Workforce, High-Tech Beckons

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom live in closed religious communities, on a bus tour of the Israeli offices of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. The tour is sponsored by KamaTech, a group that helps integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israel's high-tech sector.

In his ultra-Orthodox enclave of Jerusalem, Yosef Eharman is juggling Bible study, family life — and his first job, at age 33.

Since childhood, Eharman had studied in a Jewish seminary, or yeshiva. He had never taken math or science; they weren't part of the curriculum.

"I realized I didn't have any education for the workforce," Eharman says. "I was looking for jobs, [but] I didn't get any interviews, anything!"

He had to start from scratch, taking night classes in basic subjects other Israelis learn in high school. He took the prerequisites to enter university and went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering.

Eharman is among a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have recently joined Israel's workforce. It used to be that most ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, men in Israel studied the Bible full time through adulthood. But that's changing. The Israeli government has cut welfare benefits for large families, and the cost of living in Israel is going up.

Government statistics out this year show that for the first time, more than 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox men now hold jobs — up from about a third 13 years ago.

It's worth noting that ultra-Orthodox women, who typically don't attend yeshivas as long, work in even greater numbers. Around three-quarters of them work full time outside the home.

"We had two kids already. I didn't have any income. It was a question of responsibility," Eharman explains. "To step up and make a living for my family."

Eharman got help from KamaTech, a company that helps integrate ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli workforce and specifically into the high-tech sector. It gets funding from big tech giants — Cisco, Intel, IBM, Google, among others — and also the Israeli government, which is pushing to better integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israel's mainstream.

Israel wants the ultra-Orthodox to work, and to serve in the army, which many decline to do. They make up 11 percent of the population. But with a birthrate more than double the national average — many haredi families have eight or 10 children — their community is growing fast, and claiming more and more government benefits.

"They are not serving in the army. They are not going to the universities. They do not belong to the secular society," says Moshe Friedman, KamaTech's CEO, who comes from a haredi family himself. "So for example, if I want to be a rabbi, I have a lot of friends who can find me a very good job. But if I want to be an engineer in Microsoft or Cisco, I don't know anybody in those companies."

So Friedman is trying to change that, by taking a busload of ultra-Orthodox men — and a few women — on a tour of the Israeli offices of Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

Most of the attendees — in black hats, beards and prayer shawls — are from very conservative, religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, a city north of Tel Aviv. While they are open to working for secular companies, they also maintain strict modesty rules: On the tour, they instructed the women among them, including this NPR reporter, to sit in the back of the bus.

For some of the job seekers, it was the first time they had set foot in modern glass and steel skyscrapers in Israel's tech hub of Herzliya, on the Mediterranean coast.

"You ever been [outside], on a very hot day, and you walk into an air-conditioned building? It's that feeling of abrupt change. It's very different!" says Daniel Warrenklein, in his black hat and beard, as he walks into the lobby of Microsoft's offices in Herzliya. "But after the first 'What are you doing here?' people are great."

He and his friends argue that studying ancient biblical logic can actually prepare someone to write computer code.

"Some say it's probably impossible. They've not studied math or English," says Nimrod Kozlovski, a venture capitalist who is scouting for talent on this tour. "And we are shocked. They pick up in months how to do programming, the math — even English."

He says Israel's tech sector is second only to Silicon Valley — but that the ultra-Orthodox have been left out of the high-tech boom, until now. Of the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox joining Israel's workforce in recent years, about 12 percent of them are entering the high-tech sector, according to Friedman. Others go into education, teaching at the yeshivas they once attended — or into law and business management.

Friedman wants to boost those high-tech numbers by narrowing the educational gap between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis. KamaTech offers mentoring, internships and training courses.

At Microsoft Israel, the director of engineering gives a speech to the ultra-Orthodox job seekers, explaining that his company isn't necessarily looking for people with a tech background — just raw talent.

"It seems like [long-term Bible study] does have some sort of mathematical thinking around it, which helps a lot with programming," Microsoft's Ram Yonat tells NPR after his speech. "And whenever talent is available, we are happy to recruit them."

There are obstacles: Companies have to provide kosher food, and in some cases, offices segregated by gender. But it's just like accommodating any other group with special needs, Yonat says.

One big voice of dissent comes from ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Friedman's great-grandfather was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. So he is well-connected and says he spends lots of time with rabbis, trying to convince them that this high-tech work is OK for their community.

"Most of the rabbis are afraid that when people in the community go to secular companies, they will not be religious anymore. Part of the ultra-Orthodox culture is isolation from the world. They want to stay traditional," Friedman explains. "No doubt, there is a threat to tradition. But my view is that if you have strong foundations, you can stay with your beliefs."

He says that out of about 1,000 people KamaTech has helped place in high-tech jobs or internships, none has left their faith.

Still, their work can sometimes be a paradox: Some rabbis forbid the very kinds of smartphone apps these tech workers may be designing. They insist on so-called kosher phones — older models that don't connect to the Internet, which is considered a distraction from holy life.

Back in his ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, Eharman has landed a job as an electrical engineer with a solar energy firm.

His rabbi allowed it — as long as Eharman squeezes in a few hours of Bible study before work, or after. His neighbors were skeptical at first.

"Of course they look at you different. They don't understand how could it be, an engineer and religious?" Eharman says. "But they learn, they learn."

He says some of his neighbors are even asking him for career advice now.

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