Picture this: a student who has been described as “off the charts bright” graduates from one of Israel’s major academic institutions specializing in hi-tech. After graduation, as a part of a highly selective and intensive software engineering and computer science training, the student reaches the final round of a national cyber security contest and shortly afterward, is hired by Microsoft as a software engineer.
Chances are that the student you imagined does not look like Chaya Binet, who became both an award-winning computer scientist and mother at 23 years old. Oh, and she is also haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Indeed, Binet is not the typical hi-tech employee. Neither is she the typical haredi woman, for whom it may have previously been considered unacceptable to seek secular education and work outside of the haredi world – although, perhaps, that is slowly changing.
Raised in a haredi “but more open” family, Binet grew up in Romema, Jerusalem, with her parents, one from Israel and the other from New York, and three siblings. Perhaps unlike most haredim, as an adolescent, Binet had access to her family’s shared computer, which she recalls fixing many times as the most technologically oriented member of her family. She was raised to think that “anything is possible.” She took mathematics in high school, and her family has supported her studies and career path.
If you ask Binet if she is “typical,” she will tell you that there is “a lot of diversity within haredi communities” and perhaps there is no such thing as a “typical haredi.”
Similarly, Shmuel C., a former JCT computer engineering student who now works in management at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, similarly agreed that even ultra-Orthodox tech students “are not one classification” and that among themselves, they are “so diverse.”
He, for example, made aliyah from Madrid and therefore enjoys more acceptance as a working haredi man, which he noted “is not the case for a haredi man who grew up in Israel.”
Stuart Hershkowitz, vice president of Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), sees these kind of examples of diversity within haredi society on a daily basis. In fact, he quips that when it comes to haredim, there are really “50 shades of black.”
Within that diverse haredi society today, according to Binet, haredim have begun to understand that “it is hard to afford a family and a house with the husband studying full-time,” and so it has become more acceptable for them to seek secular education for the purposes of working to earn a respectable income.
Shmuel, too, noted that many “modern haredi” and hassidic people are choosing to go down the tech path in order to bring home a decent salary for their families. As the head of Rafael’s Cyber Division, Shmuel has hired multiple haredi tech students.
He added that the increase of ultra-Orthodox workers not only solves a family-wide problem of poverty, but also a national challenge. With a growing haredi population in which 45% live beneath the poverty line (compared to 11% among other Jewish Israelis), the country will not be able to sustain itself economically if such trends continue.
Since less than 50% of haredi men work, women are expected to get decent jobs to support their families, Hershkowitz explained, “but if that doesn’t work, the whole economy has a problem.”
At the same time, he posed, there is a shortage of hi-tech workers in Israel, resulting in the outsourcing of many hi-tech jobs – work that haredim could be doing to answer both the micro and macro economic challenges of the ultra-Orthodox and Israel as a whole.
As Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd told The Jerusalem Post, “Israel has many “tribes” – which is often viewed as a cause of much disagreement and of fragmentation in politics, culture and national life. Rather than seeing this kaleidoscope of people as a negative factor, we should in fact celebrate this diversity as a source of strength, and gain insight and nachat from this multitude of flavors, customs and outlooks.”
He continued, adding, “In particular, the technology business sector needs to have active participation from all of Israel’s “tribes” in order to be strong and to recruit sufficient man- and woman-power to grow our wonderful Startup Nation into Scale-Up Nation.”
Challenges ahead - According to Hershkowitz, this answer to economic challenges will only be effective if haredim can maintain their religious standards while in school and working. If students came to JCT and became less haredi, he posed, “that would be the end of haredim seeking education, so we do everything [we] can to encourage that.”
To make a more “haredi-friendly” environment, JCT offers only practical courses, as opposed to liberal arts classes, and has an active beit midrash open all day, where between 400 and 500 men study Torah daily.
Like the large majority of haredim, Binet acknowledged that she wouldn’t have enrolled in a traditional Israeli university with a co-ed environment and without the ability to learn Jewish studies at the same time as her secular studies.
JCT was a “great place to learn” where one need not choose between receiving the best education and keeping one’s religiously observant identity, according to Binet.
That is not to say that academic life is without great challenges. Studying completely new subjects without prior studies in secular subjects – and oftentimes in a second or new language – is difficult. Because studying is not fully accepted within ultra-Orthodox societies, parents are hesitant to talk to their children about their experiences – and therefore haredi students do not receive the same support at home as non-haredi students.
But the most pressing challenge for prospective ultra-Orthodox students, said Hershkowitz, is the cost of education. “The State Comptroller recently came out with a scathing report that there is an 80% dropout rate of all haredi students in higher education, which is a problem,” said Hershkowitz, explaining that the dropout rate, especially during the year-long preparatory course, can be largely attributed to financial challenges. Thus, JCT is currently working to find subsidies for students with financial need so they can continue to study.
‘Under the radar’ understanding within the haredi community - As haredim have come to understand that they need not compromise their identity to solve their economic woes, Hershkowitz told the Post, within haredi communities there is much more understanding today for individuals who choose to study and work than even five years ago, with fewer being ostracized from the community for taking such a path.
Shmuel maintained that while haredi women are “well accepted, given that they are in a suitable environment,” there is a clear preference for men to dedicate themselves to the study of the Torah and “therefore you will not hear the same acceptance in the street [for haredi men who study at a technological college].” A man who studies secular subjects, he said, might be considered a “modern haredi” and “not part of the mainstream haredi community.”
However, according to Binet, with more educational opportunities in which women and men can study in single-gender environments, “this is something that even [haredi] rabbis are supportive of,” she told the Post.
Hershkowitz added a disclaimer that ultra-Orthodox rabbis, although offering “green lights” on a one-on-one basis to prospective students, are doing so under the radar, careful not to endorse this path publicly.
The changes that take place in haredi society therefore represent a “bottom-up grassroots evolution” that can be observed through the steady increase of ultra-Orthodox elementary schools teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), girls’ schools with vocational training and men’s schools offering high school matriculation certificates when those possibilities did not previously exist. “This is still certainly not mainstream, but people are more and more aware of it happening,” said Hershkowitz. Compared to other social revolutions, he continued, “this revolution is moving relatively quickly despite the fact that the haredi leadership has not embraced it.”
Accommodating ultra-Orthodox life during studies and work - Once in the workforce, companies accommodate haredim by bringing in food of varying kashrut standards for varying needs, including when traveling abroad. Many companies will seat ultra-Orthodox employees next to individuals of the same gender if requested. At Rafael, Shmuel told the Post, haredi women are even able to work from other offices in the North.
“Rafael is a company that has a clear mission to [defend] the country and is not just a proper and valid business value,” he said.
In Binet’s group at Microsoft, she is not the only ultra-Orthodox woman and reports feeling “very supported” as a religious woman in tech, both by Microsoft and by others in her community who have positive notions of working “at big tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google.”
Haredim bring work ethic and open mindedness - Such inclusion of haredim in the tech space, posed Hershkowitz, has resulted in a higher work ethic and dedication in Israeli companies that employ ultra-Orthodox individuals. “Haredim are very diligent and hard-working,” he said, maintaining that they don’t “jump around jobs” as often as the general tech population, “gossip less at the water cooler” and take their responsibilities particularly seriously.
Inclusion in the workplace, Binet said, brings diverse thinking and open mindedness to tech companies, with non-haredi individuals who “only see really bad stuff in the news about haredim.” Normalization in the workspace, she said, combats the idea that ultra-Orthodox Jews have any singular characteristics, beliefs and experiences.
“They see that we are okay and are just like them,” she posed.
Shmuel, too, noted that the presence of haredim “breaks a lot of bad impressions [non-haredim] have [of] the haredi world.”
Hershkowitz recalled seeing an ultra-Orthodox woman who worked at Texas Instruments speaking to a secular man for the first time, which he said “takes away stigmas and misconceptions on both sides.”
“We are all human beings and live in the State of Israel,” he continued. “We all have families and we want to do the best for them. The fact that they are working together, that they appreciate and respect each other, has great potential for the social fiber of Israel.”
A continuing trend?
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A quiet but quick revolution where diversity wins the day.