Tech & Talmud: A winning combination for Haredi employment

For Shmuel Shotland, 29, the fifth of nine children born to a Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox family from Beit Shemesh, full-time Torah study in kollel was the natural extension of years of yeshiva learning.Like most of his devout peers, Shotland spends his mornings studying Talmudic tractates. Unlike them, however, he dedicates his afternoons to learning JavaScript, HTML and CSS.“My wife earns well, but still not enough,” he said. “Facing financial problems, I decided to do something different with my life. It is not forbidden to bring money home.”Shotland is a member of the seventh cohort of 30 talented haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men pursuing an intensive, 18-month computer-programming course at Avratech, an organization that combines Torah study and hi-tech training. With most students entirely lacking a secular education, they also undergo an accelerated course in English and mathematics.Like the more than 120 graduates before him, Shotland will then be guaranteed two years of employment at software-development company RavTech upon completing the course, either in its Bnei Brak or Jerusalem offices.The “winning combination,” he says, is the ability to maintain a Torah-based lifestyle and obtain a respectable livelihood, beyond the modest stipend offered to avreichim (full-time kollel scholars). The average salary of RavTech employees after entering the wider market, the company says, is NIS 19,000 per month – far more than the average wage of NIS 11,500.The initiative was founded in 2013 by Rabbi David Leybel, who sought to ensure that Torah study and a significant source of income were not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, many of those joining the course are motivated by financial need, and others by a desire to challenge themselves in the private sector but in a friendly environment for haredim.Though many hi-tech training programs have been established for ultra-Orthodox men and women, a lack of professional experience often proves a barrier to successful employment. By uniquely guaranteeing two years of employment to all training graduates, RavTech manages to bridge that gap.“The story is to help people – not to just give them money but to give them a livelihood,” said Avratech director Aaron Safrai, who also grew up in the ultra-Orthodox world. “There are a lot of haredi colleges and a lot of courses, but this is entirely different. Those studying and working here are from mainstream haredi society. They feel at home here, want to sit and learn in the morning and want to earn a livelihood. They want to feel good about bringing money home and still feel haredi.”Individuals proceeding to work at RavTech may have an “unorthodox” background for the hi-tech industry, but its customers are far from interested in philanthropy. The company, which currently employs about 80 Avratech graduates, has Check Point Software Technologies, Intel and Elbit Systems among dozens of high-end customers.In a strong statement of intent, RavTech recently raised $4 million in investment from backers seeking to make a significant return. NICE Systems co-founder Benny Levin serves as chairman of the company.“The story is a great door-opener but nothing more. Business is business,” said RavTech CEO Miki Segal, who admits to knowing little about the ultra-Orthodox world prior to joining the company.“It is challenging because a ‘normal’ business advances the business first and then recruits the appropriate employees,” he said. “We work the other way around. We recruit the employees and then advance the business. We’re providing a high-end premium service with people that, just a few years ago, knew nothing about the world of hi-tech.”While the platform has already enjoyed significant success, those behind the platform are eager to see competitors emerging around them based on the same model. Ideally, the government will embrace and implement the model nationwide.Even within ultra-Orthodox society, awareness of the need for an effective model is acute. According to a report published by the Labor Ministry last year, only 50.2% of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are currently employed.The launch of the initiative certainly proved controversial at first, with protests against the idea of individuals leaving full-time study. Seven years later, however, a list of major rabbis are keen advocates for the program.“It says in the Torah that a person should support his family, and Rabbi Leybel is coming from a Torah perspective,” Avratech vice president Aaron Fruchtman said. “For the community, it was definitely the trailblazer. But it set a standard for what a successful employment model for the traditional haredi society looks like.”Key to the success of the model, Safrai said, is that the new approach emerged from within ultra-Orthodox society. As a sign of its success, more than 900 resumes have been submitted to join Avratech’s latest training course.“I believe in change from the mainstream and not something new or marginal,” Safrai said. “One of the rabbis spoke to me. He said bringing money home is a mitzvah. This is about making a respectable livelihood, maintaining their values and remaining in the community.”

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