THE BLOG

Ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredi Jews) in the Israeli Startup Scene

02/03/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2015
Ariel Shapira

Israel 2015 is home to more than 5,000 startup companies encompassing a vast variety of fields: web, advertising, mobile applications, biomed, software, etc. to name just a few. In fact, wherever you look you will likely find, even if you should turn to relatively smaller niche fields, at least one startup, often more.

Israeli startups have gained international acclaim. In the past decade, more than 700 Israeli startups have made exits that yielded a total of approximately 40 billion dollars. In 2014 alone the total of business transactions yielded an astounding 21 billion dollars.

The past week has been remarkable for business: Appsflyer raised 20 million dollars, Earlysense 20 million and Taykey 15 million. Visualead raised 5 million dollars from Alibaba, Dropbox bought Cloudon, Amazon bought Annapurna for 375 million dollars and Harmans bought Redband for 170 million dollar. This was definitely a busy week and altogether an impressive feat for the Israeli startup scene.

If in the past most startup employees were graduates in Computer Science or had served in one of the IDF's acclaimed technological units, today, due to changes in Israel's financial and consequentially employment setups an increasing variety of people turn to entrepreneurship. As a result of a decreasing job security, where no one is safe from suddenly becoming unemployed, and where the older you are the harder it becomes to find new employment many embark on the independent employment path.

The challenges faced by those who choose this path are greater still for members of the ultra-Orthodox community, some of which are struggling to find their way in the general job market and particularly within the hi-tech and startup scenes.

A short introduction is due to employment status of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. Following political arrangements that have been maintained for decades, most ultra-Orthodox Jews receive full financial support from the state to pursue a life of religious studies. Consequentially, many members of the community are formally unemployed. In addition, the ultra-Orthodox are generally not drafted to Israel's mandatory military service.

This may sound like an odd account for outsiders to comprehend yet it is a reality that has existed since the establishment of the State of Israel, when David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister, had exempted a few hundreds of ultra-Orthodox from military service. Since then, the matter of their assimilation in Israeli society has been a source for criticism and conflict.

It is worth mentioning that the difficulty coped with by the ultra-Orthodox who wishes to enter the job market is double: on the one hand, he is expected by both family and community to dedicate his life solely to his religious vocation; and on the other hand, he faces antagonism from the secular community. The ultra-Orthodox community is generally perceived as a financial and social burden of the state; one that enjoys certain benefits without giving back in terms of standard civil contribution, e.g. military service and tax payments. However, in recent years we have seen an increase in the amount of ultra-Orthodox Jews actively participating in the job market and who also serve in designated military units, designed to accommodate their particular life-style.

The ultra-Orthodox are educated in a system that prevents their engagement in core subjects, such as math and English. This has created difficulty for them to advance in the technological world. The few who have succeeded to pass this obstacle usually encounter prejudiced employers that are not willing to accommodate their particular life-style. It should be mentioned that this situation is unique to Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jews in other places around the world succeeded in joining the job market since they have no other possible sources of income.

Israel has recently undergone some political developments that had undermined the status-quo between the State and its ultra-Orthodox community. Funding for Yeshiva (a formal Orthodox institution for religious studies) students will be reduced in order to encourage them to step into the job market. To achieve that, KamaTech, a fascinating new initiative, was established. KamaTech, which received a warm welcome from the hi-tech industry with over 140 applications, is a program currently in its early stages of recruitment, which offers ultra-Orthodox Jews a comfortable environment, financial support and advisors, instruction, etc. to make their first steps in the hi-tech industry.

KamaTech was founded by Moishi Friedman, an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur, together with Zika Abzuk, who is also Manager of Business Development at Cisco. Friedman, who had attempted some startup projects in the past, understands the unique difficulties coped with by members of the ultra-Orthodox community who want to join the job market, particularly the hi-tech industry. Therefore, he decided to establish an overall system to support members of the community who have chosen this path. As I have mentioned, this initiative is receiving a warm embrace from the Israeli hi-tech industry, by notables such as Yossi Vardi, Gigi Levy-Weiss, Professor Amnon Shashua founder and Chairman of MobilEye and Ariel Finkelstein, serial entrepreneur and investor.

Among the 140 applications one can find initiatives in the semiconductor and security area fields, a digital installation for vehicles designed to prevent accidents, a robotic feature that can be installed on sockets and is a docking station, and many more.

To summarize, establishing an efficient channel for ultra-Orthodox Jews to join the job market is critical for its stability. Furthermore, their involvement in the job market should result in a better civil composition for the state. Understanding of the 'other', the capacity to accept and accommodate, is require from both parties, the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. It is impossible to completely ignore the historical weight of this relationship; however, encouraging the ultra-Orthodox to sufficiently provide for themselves and their community should be declared a national goal.