(March 19, 2020 / JNS) The American prison population and Israeli ultra-Orthodox may not seem to have much in common; however, a recently developed educational model ties the two together, each with the goal of integration into a wider population.
In 2010, a nonprofit called the Last Mile was established to educate the U.S. prison population in the field of technology. After learning development skills to build websites and software applications, incarcerated individuals are hired by business clients while still in prison, earning market comparable wages. Returned citizens, the organization says, leave prison prepared for success at top-tier tech companies.
Across the ocean in Israel, a software-development company and training program uses a similar model with the goal of integrating married haredi men into the nation’s workforce while allowing them to maintain their religious lifestyle. The initiative was begun in 2013 by Rav David Leybel—a French-Israeli philanthropist for whom Torah study is paramount—who saw the distress of many Kollel (full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature) students experiencing financial difficulties. And yet, many of them were ill-suited for full-time learning.
Having recognized the need to provide employment solutions that respect the haredi lifestyle, Leybel created RavTech: his own “startup” that provides 18 months of career-oriented training alongside Torah learning, followed by a guaranteed minimum of two years’ employment to jumpstart their careers before they engage in the wider workforce. Israeli software companies such as Mobileye, Checkpoint, AnyVision and even the Israeli government later employ graduates.
Seven years later, with branches in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, RavTech has more than 100 graduates who never previously studied math and English now working in high-tech, supporting their families and still studying Torah daily. According to Leybel (and RavTech), the primary measure of success lies in the fact that their students and graduates remain committed to daily Torah learning.
According to company vice president Aaron Fruchtman, the RavTech model allows the men—most of them between the ages of 25 to 35—to remain in what he calls a “Torah environment” during their studies. When they are eventually hired as computer programmers, they are often able to work just four hours a day and earn a decent enough salary to support their families.
During the program, which has two cohorts of 15 to 30 students a year, the men are taught math, English and computer programming, as most of their secular education was highly limited. The application process, Fruchtman told JNS, involves a four-hour logic and math examination with “interviews to determine their ambition.”
Financial considerations, Fruchtman told JNS, are the top reason why haredi men seek tech education and to enter the Israeli workforce. RavTech offers the men a $500 monthly stipend to help ease their burdens.
‘It was clear that I’d go’
Moshe Ahron Bisk, 33, was born and raised in Jerusalem to parents from New York. After “realizing it was time to increase the family income,” he began to work as a bookkeeper while studying in Kollel. But it wasn’t enough, and so he got approval from his rabbi to study and work with RavTech, where he has been the past year. Though maintaining that he only selectively “advertises” what he’s doing within the haredi community since working not is not fully accepted, Bisk told JNS that it is also a “Torah value” to put less stress on his wife and bring home a livable wage.
Dudi Roiter, 42, grew up in a haredi community in Jerusalem, where it “was obvious I was going to learn in Kollel all my life,” which he did for 14 years until he couldn’t support his family with his current salary. After receiving approval from his rabbi to work and seeing an advertisement for the program in a haredi newspaper, he told JNS that “for me, it wasn’t a question; it was clear that I’d go.”
Nearly six years ago, Roiter enrolled in RavTech and is still working there today. “I didn’t feel a big change in my life,” he said of his situation before and after RavTech. “I’m very happy. I have moved forward, and it’s fitting for me to be in a haredi place.”
Though his family “very much accepted” this life change, his children were at first concerned about what their friends would say and whether their home would change after their father began to work. Roiter reassured them; years later, his children told him that their fears were indeed misplaced, telling their father that “our home is a home of Torah, we are treated the same, we dress the same, and we are happy.”
Roiter’s community had similar trepidations, but has also been more supportive after seeing no change in one’s standard way of life. “They tell me it’s amazing that I’m working and still look like everyone else,” said Roiter. “They receive me as a total equal, and the gabbai (person who assists in running synagogue services) from shul even asked me to give a d’var Torah once a week.”
Though his community was supportive, Roiter noted that “there is a difference between support and recommending [secular learning] to everyone. Everyone says that it is better to learn Torah [exclusively], but if you need it, you can go down the work path.”
‘Uphold his responsibility’
Financial strife among haredi families is not only a personal reason to enroll in programs like RavTech, but also a nationwide challenge.
Israel’s 2019 Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that the haredi population will represent 29 percent of the country by 2059. Many of their children do not study the core curriculum of math and English, which they would need as a prerequisite to finding employment, and more than 45 percent live beneath the poverty line (compared with 11 percent among other Jewish Israelis). Moreover, 50 percent of haredi men are unemployed (compared with more than 80 percent among other Jewish Israelis).
Studies also show that a need exists in Israel’s high-tech industry for more workers. A 2019 study by the Israel Innovation Authority reported a continued human capital shortage as Israel’s high-tech scene grows. Including underrepresented populations in high-tech, the study concluded, is a major solution to the shortage.
Financial considerations are the top reason why haredi men seek tech education and to enter the Israeli workforce. RavTech offers the men a $500 monthly stipend to help ease their burdens.
The RavTech model works to address such challenges. Fruchtman envisions that every haredi community could have a similar model to further their economic integration and reverse growing unemployment among men.
According to Fruchtman, the educational model sees a 25 percent dropout rate, mainly due to those who don’t have the drive to keep up academically, which is much lower than the 76 percent of haredi men who drop out in other academic institutions.
Though haredi leadership stops short at vocally accepting the study of secular subjects, and there remains serious resistance within this community in Israel to the concept of providing for one’s family at the expense of full-time Torah study, Fruchtman maintained that rabbis agree with the economic reality. To that end, the RavTech model is gaining non-vocal acceptance with the growing record of successful graduates remaining B’nei Torah (“children of Torah”).
“Every Jewish husband signs a ketubah (legal marriage document) and has a responsibility to financially support his family,” said Fruchtman. “RavTech encourages him to uphold his responsibility.”
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