According to Stuart Hershkowitz, vice president of Jerusalem College of Technology, the haredi population in Israel stands at 11 percent of the total populace, representing the fastest-growing sector in the Jewish state. Experts estimate that in the next 20 to 30 years, that number will more than double to about 29 percent.

“With 60 percent of the haredi population living under the poverty line and less than 50 percent of the able-bodied men not working, this is not a sustainable model,” Hershkowitz told JNS. “The country can’t afford one-third of the population on welfare. If the haredim don’t learn a trade or profession, they will continue to be on welfare, and the 60 percent under the poverty line will continue to grow.

“The country cannot keep sustaining this level of assistance,” he stressed, “so this is a very serious existential problem for Israel, and we have to do something quick.”

Meanwhile, said Hershkowitz, Israel suffers from a shortage of high-tech workers.

The campus of the Jerusalem College of Technology. Credit: Jerusalem College of Technology.

“We call Israel the startup nation, but the haredim are not part of that,” he maintained. Out of all those in high-tech earning more than 17,000 NIS per month (the equivalent of $60,000 per year), only 0.3 percent are haredi men and 0.3 percent are haredi women. “We have an untapped market of haredi men and women who want to get into computer science and high tech in Israel, and they are important for the startup nation.”

That’s where the Jerusalem College of Technology comes in. Currently, it is spearheading the integration of observant young men and women into the Israeli workforce, training them for jobs in engineering and computer science. “The bulk of haredim study business and law, but that’s not what the country needs,” explained Hershkowitz. “In Israel and Jerusalem, there’s a real shortage of engineers and computer graduates. So instead of outsourcing engineers to countries like Ukraine, we are trying to provide a big bulk of it here.”

The school was established 50 years ago with the intention of providing an environment where students could study technology and continue their religious learning. After the men’s campus opened, a separate women’s campus was launched as well. Now, the college is 55 percent women—a large percentage when one considers that at most colleges, women studying tech make up between 28 percent and 29 percent of the field. A whopping 20 percent of women studying tech in Israel are studying at the Jerusalem College of Technology.

“This is an unprecedented number,” Hershkowitz told JNS, “especially because over 50 percent of the women are haredi. The fact that these women have a career choice that’s very different than traditional professions is quite unusual and changing the way things work in our society.”

Hopes of more money and greater stability

Even so, haredim face many challenges in the academic arena.

First, most of this population comes with little to background in English, math or science. “They were not brought up to finish high school, go to college and get a job. Their career track is to go to yeshivah [a Jewish institution that focuses on the study of religious texts, primarily for young and unmarried men], get married and go to kollel [an institute for full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature],” Hershkowitz told JNS.

They must therefore complete a yearlong mechina (preparatory course) before they begin their degree. The mechina alone has a 50 percent dropout rate, but once passed, virtually all students graduate.

Haredi women working on a mannequin. Credit: Jerusalem College of Technology.

Second, the price tag for studying at the Jerusalem College of Technology—or any other academic institution for that matter—is financially difficult and even prohibitive for most haredim. “Most come married, with kids, and it’s difficult financially,” said Hershkowitz. “It’s one of the real barriers to studying. If the money issue were taken care of, I believe there would be a whole lot more haredim in the program.”

Last, a stigma exists within the haredi community regarding men and women who want to study academically. Women who choose to study in academia risk their sisters’ chances of being accepted into haredi schools and even finding a potential husband. “There is virtually no haredi leader who has come out in support of academia. They don’t say that the Jerusalem College of Technology is OK. And we feel that,” Hershkowitz told JNS.

Aaron, a 26-year-old haredi man living in Beit Shemesh, takes courses at the college (he asked that his last name not be used for fear of being shunned by his community). Even with an English-speaking mother, he speaks very little English. After marriage at age 20, he learned Torah in kollel and started working in a factory for 12 to 14 hours per day.

But work didn’t fulfill his desire to do something he loves and contribute in a meaningful way to Israeli society. He decided, despite the naysaying of friends and family, to begin mechina studies.

He received the permission of his wife and two rabbis, and even though he only knew the alphabet and some basic math, he finished mechina with good grades and is now studying computer science.

“My parents and my wife’s parents are against it, and they said they won’t give us any more money because of it,” Aaron told JNS. “But I am proud to learn and not quit. I don’t want to go door to door to make money.”

In addition, he has made new friends—“good people who are beginning to understand haredim.” He said he can’t speak about his program with his existing friends and doesn’t get much support from his community.

And even though it is expensive and Aaron has to make financial sacrifices in order to attend the college, he hopes that when he finishes, he will start working in the computer industry and earn even more than before.

When asked if he has had to sacrifice his way of life as a haredi man in order to study such secular subjects, Aaron answered with a resounding “no.”

“Can you be haredi and also learn? Absolutely,” he told JNS.

A haredi man tests some computer equipment. Credit: Jerusalem College of Technology.

Hershkowitz agreed, saying, “we don’t want them to be any less [religious]. We do not in any way shape or form attack haredi leadership; that would be a big mistake. If that happens, this whole evolution will stop—no question about it.”

And so far, he noted, the model seems to be working: “We represent the quiet evolution going on in the haredi world. They are opening up more to academia.”

Just as haredi society has a long way to go before accepted the idea in full force, so, too, does the wider Israeli population have to become more accepting of haredi workers in their midst. Even though haredim have a strong work ethic and stay at a given company longer than others, some employers are hesitant to hire them due to stereotypes of their being uneducated and unable to fit in with the rest of a team.

But their growing numbers are edging inclusion into the general world of technology. “For many, this is the first time they had interaction with the secular community and [vice versa],” said Hershkowitz. “The fact that there is interaction between secular and religious people is important. It breaks stigmas on both sides.”

Hershkowitz acknowledged that the tech-based college is not “the only solution to the problem of Israeli employment, but we represent a career path that until now haredim weren’t aware of. The haredi public is watching carefully to see how the students perform. If this cohort is successful at staying haredi and getting good jobs, it will open the door for more to come.”