Sarah, 24, is her family's main breadwinner. Each morning at 8 she goes to work as a programmer at Matrix's new development center in Modi'in Ilit (Kiryat Sefer), a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) town in the hills, located smack in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Her daily commute is a pleasant 10-minute walk. Her husband, a yeshiva student, picks the kids up from school and takes care of them until Sarah (not her real name) returns at 4 P.M. Then her husband returns to his yeshiva for evening studies and Sarah starts the housework.

Sarah and the other women who work at the center earn minimum wage - NIS 3,300 a month, plus a NIS 400 monthly travel allowance. Next year, they expect a raise to NIS 5,000 a month. Sara knows perfectly well that if she plied her trade in the free market, she could earn double that amount and perhaps even get a company car. But that doesn't bother her.

She is fully aware that Matrix's center for Haredi women was designed to exploit a cheap source of quality high-tech labor - a rather original response to the new competition from India. The whole world has been opening centers for R&D and other work in India to take advantage of its highly educated, English-speaking, low-cost workforce. Sarah cares about none of this.

"What I care about is having a good, interesting job near my home, that accepts our conditions," she said. "I feel I'm doing well with it. A lot of women living here commute to Jerusalem every day and work longer hours as secretaries to earn NIS 3,000 a month. They can call me `Indian'; that's fine with me. So many stigmas are attached to the Haredi community - now we're surrogate Indians. That's fine with me."

Indeed, it was the Asian competition that inspired CEO Mordechai Gutman to start Matrix, a 2,000-employee, half-a-billion-shekel company listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

A new idea is born

It all began a year ago when Norman Rafalowitz of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox man who used to be Amdocs' marketing manager, came to visit. Establishing a programming center staffed by Haredi women was his idea, CEO Gutman relates. He didn't have far to go for feedback: For years Matrix had a Haredi computer expert, a woman named Libi Afin, and he asked her to look into it.

Afin lives in Modi'in Ilit and her husband runs the kollel (yeshiva for married men) in that community. The location was chosen based on Modi'in's relative proximity to Matrix's center in Jerusalem's Har Hahotzvim industrial area.

So Matrix leased 500 square meters of offices in Modi'in Ilit and chose the name Talpiot, which is associated with the highest-quality Israeli army program for gifted young people. The name was no coincidence: Matrix wanted to convey the message that it was hiring the best of the best among the Haredi female community.

It is a little-known fact, but today's colleges for Haredi women offer engineering courses. Matrix hired 50 Haredi engineers and gave them with a six-month programming course at its subsidiary John Bryce, a training school. They formally started work in May.

Matrix financed the first course, during which each participant received a NIS 2,000 monthly stipend. The rabbi of Modi'in Ilit, a town with 12,000 inhabitants, gave the project his crucial blessing and undertook to see that halakha (Jewish law) was being observed.

"There are two problems with employing Haredim," Gutman says. "One is their special needs, and the second is their deficient loyalty. We solved both problems by being considerate of their special needs, providing a room where women can pump breast milk for their babies and limiting employment hours from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., instead of till 5 P.M. We also create loyalty by giving them a workplace near their homes."

The pumping room

The Matrix women giggle uncomfortably when Gutman mentions the milk room, and that is not the end of the list. The company also offers segregated kitchens, one for women and one for men. On occasion Gutman has received an urgent phone call and unthinkingly entered the women's kitchen. The workers there waited patiently for him to leave, understanding his confusion. The mood has remained positive: They all acknowledge that compared with secular workplaces, Matrix goes the extra mile.

"It is harder for a Haredi woman at a secular workplace. The dining room is mixed [with men], men sit in the same work rooms, there are company outings of an inappropriate nature," Afin explains. "Here it is easier."

The team leaders are veteran Matrix workers and most are men. They sit in separate areas and have been trained in dealing with the Haredi women.

Dreams of 1,000 women

Gutman dreams of employing 1,000 women at the Modi'in center within three years, and not only for Matrix. "I can assure work for 200 women here," he says, "but why shouldn't other high-tech companies follow our example?"

The company's customers don't care who does the programming; they care about cost. An Indian programmer costs $16-$18 per hour, and the turnover rate is high.

"With us," says Gutman, "a customer pays $18-20 for a programmer, without high worker turnover. In Tel Aviv the cost for the same programmer starts at $40 an hour for exactly the same work."

When employing Indians, the customers have to factor in costs for travel and time for teams to supervise the work. Here they get the same work at a fraction of the ultimate cost, without language barriers or long flights, he adds. It is this saving that is important. The women do not feel exploited either, as their living and child care expenses are much lower than in the big cities.

The Haredi community does not like the word "revolution," but it appreciates the value of the new vocational direction for its women. Training centers have long been trying to give the yeshiva students a trade, but this project for the community's women is unique.

"Career is not a goal in the Haredi community, it's just a living," explains one of the Haredim training the students for work. "The Haredi community is used to living on nothing, so making a little means a lot to them."

Maximizing potential

Even though the women are happy to work near their homes for less money than elsewhere, the type of work is also important to them. Some of the women are very bright and are not suited to secretarial work. For them, the intellectual challenge, although not the career track, is what counts.

About 180 additional women have passed screening tests and are waiting for the next Matrix course. Gutman, who has invested some NIS 2 million of the company's money in the project, has asked Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert to recognize these courses as professional retraining programs of the Labor Ministry, in order to be eligible for state funding.

The ministry has so far approved a training course for 35 Haredi women, and NIS 460,000 from state coffers to cover the costs. Matrix has committed to hiring the graduates.

The operative question remains whether this is the start of a new era for Haredi society and high-tech - or a one-time initiative that will fizzle out.