Can a Yeshiva Education Prepare You for Life in Startup Nation?

Two founders of KamaTech, which helps the ultra-Orthodox find work in high tech, give TheMarker an unequivocal yes. Tech companies just have to get over their prejudices, they say.

Moshe Friedman and Zika Abzuk.
Nimrod Kilgman

Israel’s high-tech industry is desperately short of engineers and its rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community needs jobs. Bringing the two together, however, is a challenge: Haredim lack formal educational qualifications and high tech is a people industry where “fitting in” is an important job qualification.

With the backing of 35 Israeli and multinational tech companies, KamaTech was formed as a gateway for Haredim with high-tech aspirations. Moshe Friedman, its CEO and cofounder, was inspired by his own experience.

“I was destined to be a rabbi – that’s what I and everyone else wanted. And then I decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But very soon I realized that there are no Haredim in the field,” he recalls. “When I started to go outside I met lots of people – entrepreneurs, investors, CEOs, accountants, lawyers – and discovered the gap, the tremendous rift, between Haredi society and Israel It started to preoccupy me.”

Together with Zika Abzuk, business development manager at Cisco Israel and a Kamatech cofounder, Friedman talks to TheMarker about the challenges facing Haredim like himself.

What’s the problem of high tech and the Haredim?

“Gaps in knowledge and a lack of understanding,”says Friedman. “I visited a huge company that employs 5,000 people, and they told me that they don’t believe there’s a Haredi person who would fit in with their company.”

Really? What did you answer?

“That not only is there one, but I can show them a database of 3,000 such Haredim. They simply didn’t believe it exists.”

Haredim at branch of Ono College in Israel.
David Bachar

So were they reassured?

“Not so fast. At this point come questions about religious coercion, changing the organization, women’s modesty and koshering the kitchen. To a secular person, a Haredi person is like an alien.”

Are we prejudiced?

“You’re afraid of us. ‘Keep the religious coercion in [Jerusalem’s] Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, and don’t bring it to high-tech companies,’ they tell me.”

“They think that if Haredim come to work in a high-tech company eventually they won’t let the female employees come with short sleeves and that the whole atmosphere will change, or that they have to be closed up in a special place and that will spoil all the fun,” says Abzuk. “They don’t understand the ability, especially of Haredi men, to join a business without making demands. So once a year there’s a fun day when the staff will go to the beach, and they won’t come. So what? There are also secular people who won’t come. The connection is much easier, and can be much more beneficial than people think.”

What do you mean?

“I look from the point of view of the industry, what Cisco, where I work, is looking for in an ideal candidate, and suddenly you see that the Haredim suit the image very well. It’s true that we want graduates of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology or a university, but they also have a degree, they’re entrepreneurs, they take responsibility, know how to study alone or with a partner, and they have natural curiosity. They have all the 21st-century qualifications. That was an amazing discovery for me.”

Paving an alternative path

They study in a yeshiva. How can that be suitable for high-tech?

“The industry lacks engineers, and here there’s a group of people with abilities and qualifications that could make them suitable if they undergo training. They lack knowledge, but that can be acquired. There’s a lot of talk about the immigration from the former Soviet Union that enriched industry, so think what potential there is in the Haredi population.”

You talk about qualifications and abilities, but they don’t learn math, science or English.

“Israeli society is stuck in a path, which says the high road to entering the industry is studying the core curriculum in high school and then going to Unit 8200 in the army and to university. Haredi pioneers are paving an alternative path, which isn’t necessarily inferior, of Talmud study, which develops thinking, the ability to abstract, study with a partner, creativity, the ability to ask and doubt, and to examine something from various points of view.

Two ultra-Orthodox workers in front of computers in an office in 2014.
Eyal Toueg

“This is the right kind of background for high tech, too, because it develops the skills that we’re looking for. After they marry they study math, physics and English – and they manage. I think that’s a legitimate and equally good path.”

So what are you actually doing in KamaTech?

“Our biggest task is helping Haredim to find work in high tech, so that they will be in the heart of the industry, in good positions and with a respectable salary,” says Friedman. “That’s the vision. The conventional views is that the Haredim lack education, so we have to find them simple jobs like plumbers, welders, drivers. We’re against that.”

“Even when the CEO says, ‘I agree,’ that’s not enough,” says Abzuk. “You have to make it happen. People are afraid to work together or even to drink together. We want them to see that a Haredi person isn’t so terrible.

“Often the leadership or people of vision understand that, but that doesn’t percolate down to the recruitment managers, the manpower department, the team leaders. The problem is that the Haredim are totally cut off from the industry ecosystem from the whole business of army buddies, which is the main gateway to Israeli society. It excludes not only them, but the Arabs as well, and it leaves Haredi women in lesser jobs in the industry. We have to open more doors to Israeli society, so that everyone will become a part of it.”

Is it harder integrate Arabs or Haredim?

“Haredim arouse more opposition,” says Friedman. “I once participated in an event at which someone was invited to talk about integrating Arabs, there was someone who spoke about women and I spoke about Haredim. They were roundly applauded, but when I spoke the audience was furious. There were hundreds of students who said, ‘First go to the army and then come to work.’ The issue of military service makes people angry. They tell me: ‘We don’t want you if you don’t go to the army.’ I understand the anger.”

But do Haredim even want to become integrated?

“It depends. My neighbor, who’s 39 years old, the scion of a respected family, came to me. His grandfather is a member of the Council of Torah Sages. He started studying computers in the evening at home with the Open University and Android software. He had an idea for a startup. He said that he wanted to find a good job. I said, ‘Google would take a guy like you,’”

Did Google take him?

“After they saw his grades and skills they wanted to recruit him. Suddenly the guy disappeared. He didn’t answer phone calls or emails. A few days later he showed up. ‘I decided that I don’t want to. I have a 17-year-old daughter, in another two years she’ll be ready for a shidduch [a match for marriage]. If I’m a Google employee, who will want to marry into my family? Now I’m a Torah scholar. For me it’s better economically, socially and in terms of status to stay where I am.’ He feels that as a Google employee he’d be a second-class citizen.”

Have to work

That’s a little sad.

“Yes, and when it comes to his studies I can understand him. When I speak to the rabbis – and I have a good relationship with them – they tell me, ‘Take the second-class ones, leave the good ones with us.’”

Second class?

“You have to understand that to Haredim, second-class men go to work because they don’t have the strength to study Torah. A Haredi man who works, no matter what he does and how successful he is, in his opinion and those around him he’s second class. The best thing is to study Torah. There’s much more honor in the family if the man studies. But there are also many who do want to become integrated instead of studying. As far as the rabbis are concerned, compared to the other main issues such as education and military service, it creates less opposition. Everyone understands that you have to work, and that doesn’t contradict Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations Jews worked very well.”

For how many people have you found work so far?

“To date we’ve had applications from 4,500 people with technology training,” says Abzuk. “We found work for about 400. They’re good employees. Companies fight over them. They’re strong, daring, trailblazers.”

Only men?

“Half the people who come to us are men, half are women,” says Friedman, “but we have more successes with men – about 80% men and 20% women.

What’s the reason?

“We saw that Haredi women are usually less willing to work in large secular companies. They prefer someone who will protect them. On the other hand, a Haredi man who has already given up the dream of being a Torah scholar wants to go all the way, to work for the biggest. Someone even told me that he wants to be either the CEO of Google or the head of a yeshiva.”

Haredi soldiers who come home often are rejected by their neighbors. How are working Haredim treated?

“I have a trick that I learned from a Chabad rabbi,” says Friedman. “The effort will be a success if Haredim become integrated and succeed, but remain ultra-Orthodox. That will show them that there’s no reason to worry, that it’s possible. When I speak to them I say that they’re emissaries, the only Haredi person among 1,000 secular people in Microsoft. So be aware that you have a task. Instead of becoming assimilated you feel that you have a task, that you’re on a mission.”

What? To bring the secular people back to religion?

“I don’t say that at all. Meanwhile, no Haredi man has become secular either. They really love them. They’re great guys.”

Are they satisfied? Do they become emissaries of secular society in Bnei Brak?

“Many of them say that they’ve discovered that secular people aren’t as bad as they thought,” says Friedman.

“One of the things I hear is that they’re amazed at how secular people have values and ethics,” says Abzuk. “They think of secular people as lacking them.”