Haredim and high-tech: Beyond the numbers

In the haredi community there is a real desire to break the cycle of poverty and integrate into the workforce. It is incumbent upon Israeli higher education to step up.

The Jerusalem offices of Intel, Nov. 14, 2009. Photo by Flash90.
The Jerusalem offices of Intel, Nov. 14, 2009. Photo by Flash90.
Stuart Hershkowitz
Stuart Hershkowitz

A report published late last month revealing a 52 percent increase in Torah-observant workers in Israel’s high tech sector since 2014 and a 90 percent surge in the number of haredi women employed in the sector provided a natural cause for optimism regarding the Jewish state’s longstanding tensions on the issue of haredi employment.

At the same time, the report found that haredim still account for only three percent of the Israeli high tech workforce—10 percent of the Israeli population self-identifies as “ultra-Orthodox”—and that haredi salaries remain less than half the country’s average high tech wage. Additionally, while the report doesn’t mention it, haredi men and women are almost nonexistent at the managerial level in the high tech sector.

These data points show that significant concerns persist for Israel’s haredi labor force, including in high tech.

Should the prevailing sentiment on these new figures be optimism or pessimism? The reality lies somewhere in between. It is important to go beyond the numbers and to avoid drawing conclusions and formulating action plans based on raw data alone. Haredi employment is a complex issue with weighty economic, social and cultural implications for Israel.

It is easy to rush to the conclusion that the wage disparity between haredim and other high tech workers indicate dual discrimination—both against haredim in general and against haredi women, who comprise 71 percent of the haredim employed in high tech. But a deeper examination of the cultural dynamics at play is essential.

Haredi women are often the primary breadwinners in their homes, while men largely focus on Torah study. In fact, less than 50 percent of haredi men are currently employed.

Accordingly, haredi women seek working conditions that suit their lifestyles, such as the remote-employment capability associated with many jobs in high tech and computer programming.

Haredi women also often prefer part-time employment, balancing their work with childcare.

Although high tech jobs are a natural fit for haredi women, the requirements of a family-oriented and religious lifestyle can mean that these women cannot attain employment at Israel’s leading high tech companies or rise to management-level positions at any company.

Another factor contributing to the wage disparity is the absence of suitable higher education options for haredi women in high tech. When haredi women pursue lower-level certification in a high tech specialty rather than a college degree, their initial employment comes at a lower average salary, and opportunities for professional advancement are delayed.

In the haredi community today, there is a genuine desire to improve the quality of life and break a longtime cycle of poverty which has worsened during the coronavirus crisis. Yet desire alone will not solve the problem. It is incumbent upon Israeli higher education to step in as the foundational piece of the solution.

As a pioneer in the integration of haredim in academia as well as the fields of engineering and computers, the Jerusalem College of Technology has during its 51 years of existence witnessed a number of attempts to promote solutions to Israel’s haredi employment dilemma which do not align with the haredi lifestyle. Consequently, many haredim continue to choose not to enroll in colleges and universities.

By offering haredi men and women specialized programs that allow them to balance Torah study and academics, while they live in religiously sensitive campus environments, JCT provides a path toward expanding the current and future haredi talent pipeline in high tech and other fields. We understand that first and foremost, the desire of every haredi student is to establish and maintain a home built on Torah values, and then gainful employment that supports that lifestyle.

This has proven to be a game-changing formula. Eighty-nine percent of JCT’s haredi students gain employment immediately after graduation, including 77 percent in their field of choice; 53 percent of the college’s computer science students are women, 18 percent higher than any other Israeli higher education institution; and 20 percent of Israel’s female computer science students are enrolled at JCT.

This results in the once-improbable success stories of haredi alumni like Tammy, who used to sew garments at a large factory in Bnei Brak but now works at Intel, where she examines computer code to determine if cyberattacks can breach it. Tammy graduated from Cyber Elite, a program that provides intensive cyber training to outstanding graduates of JCT’s degree programs in software engineering and computer science. Through Cyber Elite, the college has placed haredi students in cyber departments of multinational aerospace and defense companies as well as in cyber start-ups.

Amid the release of new data—and the IATI-KamaTech analysis certainly won’t be the last report we see on haredi employment in Israel—it is crucial to stay away from the blame game. Rather than drawing hasty conclusions, policymakers and the population at-large should engage with haredim in a process of mutual respect, dialogue and collaborative problem-solving in pursuit of a brighter socio-economic future for all Israelis.

Stuart Hershkowitz is the vice president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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