Ultra-Orthodox Jews in un-Orthodox high-tech positions

Jessica Naziri
Tech advisor, Hillel Fuld, left, meets with Jeremie Berrebi of Kima Ventures, a haredi angel investor.
Source: Hillel Fuld

Tucked away in one of Jerusalem's hi-tech neighborhoods, long-bearded men in black suits and women dressed in long skirts with head coverings are taking part in an organized afternoon prayer—men to the left, women to the right. When they are not reading from the Torah scripture, they're coding for JavaScript and building mobile applications for websites.

These men and women are part of the haredi community or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and although math and science skills take a backseat, with the focus primarily on Talmud, some have found an unlikely home in the country's booming high-tech industry.

"The thirst for knowledge and the constant drive to apply this knowledge are fantastic attributes for a budding entrepreneur, developer or analyst," said Jon Burg, an Orthodox Jew who works in product marketing at the online platform web publishing company, Conduit, in New York.

Advocates say their intense, methodical study of ancient religious text, community values, logic and morality provide tools that are applicable and beneficial to the technology ecosystem.

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"From the very beginning Jews have been business people and entrepreneurs," said Jonathan Medved, founder and CEO of OurCrowd, an equity crowdfunding platform that invests in Haredim and other Israeli and global start-ups. "Whether you look at Moses or Abraham—they all had professional careers," added Medved.

While many if not most Israelis jump from graduate school into the high-tech sector, the ultra-Orthodox dedicate their life to Torah study. Israeli life tracks secular and haredi Israelis apart from each other from birth to death—separate schools, separate neighborhoods, newspapers, activities, etc. Many see the integration of haredim as a win-win both for the quickly growing community and for Israel as a whole, which needs their manpower.

"Work is the only place that they have to potentially cooperate and learn to respect each other. When that happens, we have seen amazing results," said Doron Orly who works at JDC Israel, a worldwide Jewish relief organization that also places haredim into jobs.

Still challenges remain. There is a cultural gap between most of the "ultra-Orthodox" or yeshiva world, and the secular world of industry and high tech. High-tech firms have to provide religious employees with a same-sex work space, cafeteria menus must follow the dietary kosher rules more stringently, a censored Internet connection that blocks access to websites seen as ethically unsound according to rabbinical law, 8-hour workdays to help with child care and allocated for prayer time.

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"These haredi get in at 8 and work till 5, they don't move," said Liat Mordechay, a mother of three and co-founder 24me, an iOS calendar lifestyle app. Mordechay employs the ultra-Orthodox because of their work ethic, "when they work, they really work."

For Hillel Fuld, an Orthodox Jew known as the "Robert Scoble of Israel," who advises tech start-ups, "religion is a non-issue. I work hard, I try to do good things for people and my kippa or lifestyle is not even discussed." He said the secular world of tech tries to encourage more awareness and sensitivity toward the religious, without undermining the haredi lifestyle. Even in the non-stop 24-hour start-up culture, Fuld manages to sign off every Friday to power down from "all ringing, pinging, tweeting devices for 25-plus hours with family time and prayer."

Although the haredi community has long been stigmatized for raising large families on taxpayer-funded handouts and taking part in widespread army draft exemptionscultural and religious barriers have also kept most ultra-Orthodox Jews from joining the industry. To help these men and women break out of their cloistered world of religious study and integrate into Israeli workforce and society, many of the country's biggest tech employers are investing in programs to help blend the ultra-Orthodox into the high-tech scene.

"We are going to see an influx of very capable and very intelligent people enter the high-tech workforce," said Michael Eisenberg, who has been involved in the development of many of Israel's leading tech companies and start-ups. Eisenberg, who was a General Partner at Benchmark prior to founding his company, Aleph, forsees another 50,000 participants in the innovation economy.

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Last month the Israeli Ministry of Economy announced two new programs, including 200 hours of free mentoring and grants offering up to 2 million shekel (about $578,200) in hopes of enticing more haredi tech entrepreneurs.

And the payoff goes furthereach start-up can receive 5.6 shekels, or about $1.61 from the government for every shekel it receives from nongovernment investors. That money can be paid back as a loan that goes toward future income. The Israeli government also offers subsidies for employers who hire new haredi staff.

Through a program known as Ravtech, which combines Talmud studies to leverage the unique potential and capabilities of the Talmudic colleges' graduates (high yeshivas and kollels) into delivering top quality software services. Haredi men spend their morning hours poring over religious texts and engaging in vigorous theological debates, with coding in the afternoon and evening.

Although challenges are even more daunting for female entrepreneurs in the haredi community who grow up hearing the importance of modesty, women have proved an asset to Israel's high-tech companies.

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R-Net is a haredi-owned IT company which provides technical support to client companies and currently employs three haredi women in its Jerusalem offices, paving the way for others haredi to enter the job market.

"There is much opportunity for career advancement at R-Net and I am going to move ahead," said Vardit Magen, 25, who works at RNET 8.5 hours a day while supporting her three children and husband, a full time Torah scholar.

Advocates say there is increasing concern about training and educational tracks designed even for haredim in the haredi world because of the present political tension around the government legislation. Still, many agree that haredim need this more than ever, as poverty is no longer acceptable to the haredim themselves.

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— By Jessica Naziri, Special to CNBC follow her @jessicanaziri