High-Tech Haredim

haredim

Members of the Garage Geeks, a group of scrappy, beer-drinking Israeli entrepreneurs who regularly assemble to play Guitar Hero, barbecue meat in the abandoned chassis of a wrecked car, and tinker with tech, were out in full force last May at a “Meet The Industry Leaders” event. On stage were an unlikely duo: Ashton Kutcher, the hip, rich American movie star, producer and tech investor, sporting a baseball cap, and Moshe Friedman, a scholarly ultra-orthodox Jew turned tech entrepreneur, wearing a skull cap.

No one in Israel is surprised that Kutcher, who is credited with being the first to amass one million Twitter followers, “gets technology” and is now a regular fixture on the tech scene. The Two and a Half Men star, along with his business partner Guy Oseary, Madonna’s Israeli-born manager, are partners in A-Grade, a venture capital firm that has made investments in over 60 tech start-ups including Airbnb and Spotify.

What is raising eyebrows in Israel is the recent entry into high tech by Friedman and other Haredi, the Israeli term for ultra-orthodox Jews.

The Haredim — which make up about 8% of Israel’s eight million citizens — live in a cloistered world foreign to Israel’s secular society. They have strict rules about what they can eat, how to dress, and how they can interact with members of the opposite sex. They enjoy sweeping draft exemptions although military service is mandatory for everyone else. The men study religious texts full-time. Many live in poverty, existing on taxpayer-funded handouts, to support their families, which commonly include eight to ten children.

Bringing the Haredi and their ethos of scholarly rigor into the work force could be beneficial to tech companies and the Israeli economy while at the same time easing one of Israeli society’s greatest schisms, the cause of a perennial source of partisan political discord, says Zika Abzuk, a senior manager at Cisco Israel, responsible for business development.

That is where Kama-Tech, the organization she co-founded, comes in. Kama-Tech, which was formed two years ago and is spearheaded by Abzuk and Friedman, seeks to help Haredim get jobs in the high-tech sector.

The program emulates another that Abzuk initiated and led for Cisco focusing on Israeli Arabs, who make up 20% of the population but only about one percent of the tech work force. (See a related story about Cisco on pages 14 and 15.) A coalition of tech companies was formed that committed to hiring Arab students and graduates. That program was very successful and gained the support of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Then, says Abzuk, DLD co-chair Yossi Vardi introduced her to Friedman and suggested they do the same for Haredi men who are studying topics relevant to the tech sector but were having a tough time finding jobs.

“We have copied the model with the Israeli Arabs and formed a coalition of 30 high-tech companies who are committed to hiring ultra-orthodox men and are also reaching out to the orthodox to help them adapt to the high-tech culture,” says Abzuk.

So far, Kama-Tech has helped find about 50 Haredi men jobs in the high-tech sector, at companies like Cisco, Google and Checkpoint.

“We are now looking to expand the partnerships and bring the government in — we want to make it a national-level program that will enable the Haredi men to be a core part of the high-tech industry,” she says.

Torah scholars like Friedman, who manages Kama-Tech’s day-to-day operations, runs his own start-up company, and takes college courses while caring for a wife and children, make up the first wave of ultra-Orthodox men to enter the tech sector. Hence the moniker Kama-Tech, a reference to Bava Kama, the Aramaic name for the first of a series of three Talmudic tractates.

Placing Haredi men in high-tech companies is easier said then done. Most Haredi study in independent school systems that focus primarily on religion, while ignoring math, science and English.

A small but growing number are bucking tradition and risking being shunned by their families and communities to sign up for intense prep classes that allow the most motivated — within a year — to catch up on these topics and then enroll in universities to pursue engineering and computer science degrees.

Some turn out to be brilliant students but have trouble attaining the connections and grasping the soft skills needed to land jobs. Many tech industry jobs go to friends that entrepreneurs have met through their Army service or through social connections. The majority of Haredi men don’t do military service, and don’t use tools like LinkedIn and Facebook; some don’t know anyone who has ever held a paying job in a commercial organization.

“In general, most of the men are not working, but in the last few years there is a shift in the community and young Haredi don’t want anymore to live in poverty and they are going out to universities and colleges to acquire education and professions but there are a lot of challenges in front of those young people,” says Friedman. “They have problems to pursue a higher education because they lack core-curriculum studies and also because most of them get married very young and have families and children to support so it’s very hard for them to provide for their families at the same time.”

Those who manage to meet those challenges risk being discouraged — and ridiculed by their community — because the Israeli secular workforce is not enthusiastic about hiring them. “Diversity is not valued very highly in Israel and minorities such as Haredis or Arabs are having a hard time to get hired,” Friedman says.

He learned first hand that it is no easier for Haredi entrepreneurs to get funding when trying to raise a first round for his start-up, Clipop, which aims to make professional online video editing and presentation easy for everyone. “Israel has an amazing ecosystem of entrepreneurs but if you are not part of the group the ecosystem will not support you,” says Friedman. “I met with one of the most famous VCs in Israel and after one hour he told me, ‘Moshe, I will be very frank: you have no chance to have any venture capitalist invest in you because you are Haredi which makes you a higher risk because you are different, you look different, you talk differently and we don’t know exactly how you think.’”

Friedman was told he would have a better chance if he moved to London or New York. “I found that very shocking,” says Friedman. “I am part of this nation.”

While it is true that there are some cultural integration issues for religious people who want to work in secular companies, such as access to kosher food, Friedman maintains that these issues are easily solvable. “Ninety percent of the problem is due to prejudices and misunderstanding,” he says.

Getting tech companies to open their minds and their doors to this new type of recruit is crucial, he says. “We have a very deep concern that if the first wave of Haredi men who went through all the challenges do not end up with success stories we will not see a second wave.”

Kama-Tech, which has secured a grant from the United Jewish Israeli Appeal in New York, has hired Nurit Levin Gershoni, who previously worked as an active sourcer and international recruiter for Google and Cisco, to help smooth the way. Part of her job is to prep Haredi men on how to use social networks, create a CV, and reply to questions in job interviews. “Being modest is part of their education — they are trained not to talk about themselves — so it is a big challenge for them to shine during an interview even though they are really smart guys,” she says.

Levin Gershoni also tries to get tech company HR people to adapt their usual procedures to allow for differences. Some tech companies will only consider hiring people with a grade point average of 90, but a rigid cut doesn’t make sense for this community. For example, one Haredi candidate with five children and no training in math, physics or English was able within less than two years to catch up on the core curriculum, take on a full-time job in a technology unit of the Army, enroll in night-time college courses, and maintain a GPA of 80. “These kind of guys have so much potential,” she says. “I emphasize to the companies that they did not study like we did — only the Bible — but they start at a very young age and their ability to do highly-concentrated solo study requires a tremendous amount of self control. They are trained to learn and grasp things by themselves but also to study together and collaborate.” These are important skills that can be put to good use at tech companies, she says.

Ultra-orthodox Jews form an integral part of many commercial sectors everywhere but Israel, points out Avi Mayer, an LA-based young Haredi entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist, who played a role in Kama-Tech’s genesis. At the annual President’s Conference two years ago, Mayer brought to Vardi’s attention the fact that Haredi men were trying to get jobs in the tech sector but were being rebuffed.

Vardi investigated and found it to be true, so when he was later approached by Friedman at a DLD Tel Aviv conference he got Abzuk involved and Kama-Tech was born. Mayer and Shlomo Robert Reichmann from Toronto, another businessman and philanthropist involved in Kama-Tech, come from communities in North America where Haredis work like everyone else and they are trying to convince the Israeli Haredi community to do the same.

Mayer points out that the situation in Israel is an anomaly that came about because the government proclaimed that Haredi could only be excluded from military service if they did not join the work force or attend secular universities. But that law has been amended, paying the way for Haredi to go to work.

Eventually Haredi women may also receive aid from Kama-Tech. Thousands already work in the tech sector in low-paying jobs. “We have a lot of women who want to work but there are two main obstacles,” says Friedman. “The rabbis do not let them attend secular universities, only special religious colleges and the result is that they don’t have prestigious diplomas,” he says. What’s more, most of them don’t want to work in secular companies along with men; they prefer to work in women-only companies. “The result is that there are a special companies especially for Haredi women to do outsourced software projects where they earn very low wages in software sweatshops and they become like third-world workers,” says Friedman.

To scale Kama-Tech, the government’s help will be needed. Friedman says he is confident that Cisco’s Abzuk, who is secular, can get the job done. “She has a big heart and she wants to make Israel better and create a more just society,” says Friedman. “She has imagination and the ability to change things.”

Abzuk says she sees a chance to do good in a way that is good for business. “Including the Haredi will lead to a better society but it is a win-win because it will help companies here become more creative and more innovative,” she says. “The tech sector is considered the jewel of the Israeli economy and can lead change in Israel society,” she says, quoting a secular text that is unlikely to be familiar to many Haredi. “As Spiderman learned with great power comes great responsibility.’”

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