Israeli ultra-Orthodox Women Target the Job Market

Haredi women are encountering a glass ceiling unique to their world. Even so, opportunities in business are expanding for them, too.

Haaretz Archive / David Bachar

“It’s not pleasant,” says one woman. “It’s uncomfortable,” says another. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m being critical,” adds a third. But they're severely critical anyway, albeit politely.

Without bitterness, ultra-Orthodox women have told TheMarker what is required of them on the job. The key: the right social connections and being born to the right parents.

They say important qualities for women in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community are being Ashkenazi, born in Jerusalem and a graduate with good grades from the new seminary run by Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman. Most important is being the daughter of a highly regarded family.

Discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox job market is pernicious because most families rely on women as the main breadwinner. Ideally, Haredi men concentrate on studying religious texts, leaving their wives to provide for the family.

“Nepotism also exists in general society, but in our community it’s mandatory," says one of the women. All the women interviewed for this article requested anonymity.

"Most of the public knows that family ties determine who a woman marries, but they also determine what your level of education will be, so they also determine what kind of salary you get in the job market,” she says.

Haredi women who don’t have high qualifications have to show particular gumption  if they want to get ahead. An academic education may make the difference.

At the top of the ladder are women from the so-called Lithuanian, non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi community.

“All the studies show that the Lithuanian-Ashkenazi public has more options for advancement and success,” says A., an ultra-Orthodox woman who has done well with her career. “This happens in part because Lithuanian women are more consciousness about the importance of top-notch professional studies.”

In the past, the women’s seminaries, which start in the ninth grade and offer classes extending two years beyond the 12th grade, only prepared women to be teachers. That's usually still the case, but in recent years there has been a growing understanding that the community doesn't have room for so many teachers and preschool instructors, so the seminaries are branching out.

Lithuanian pioneers

“The Lithuanian seminaries were the first to introduce professions such as practical engineering, graphics and architecture,” A. says, but adds that Mizrahi women, whose families came to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa, have little access to such schools.

”The Lithuanian seminaries as a rule accept Ashkenazi women. The quota for Mizrahi women is small,” A. says. “As a result, Mizrahi women are usually pushed into the less good seminaries, so their value in the labor market isn’t as high. If you were born into the right family — Ashkenazi, with a rabbinical background or other connections — your personal and professional future is clearer.”

The prospects for a successful career for a Haredi woman living in the country's outskirts are likewise small, similar to those of a non-Ashkenazi Haredi woman. “In outlying parts of the country there are no prestigious seminaries,” says another ultra-Orthodox working woman.

“You don’t come from Tiberias to study at the most prestigious seminary like Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman’s new seminary in Jerusalem. Since in our community seminaries start in the ninth grade, and it determines what you do in the job market, in ninth grade you’re actually starting your career.”

In addition, all the good seminaries are in the major metropolitan areas, mostly in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

“The fight over every seminary spot is so tough they'll always give preference to local girls,” says B. “If you come from far away, you just don’t have a chance.”

“Acceptance at a good seminary involves detective work that would impress the Shin Bet [security service],” says a woman who graduated from a prestigious seminary.

“They want the best candidates. Grades are important — Haredi girls are educated to excel all the time and it’s easier for those who excel — but that's only part of the picture. You need to be from a good family,” she says, noting that this includes devotion to religious tradition.

“That’s the reason they always prefer to take sisters of students who have already attended the seminary, because it spares them the trouble of investigating the family. As a result, entire classrooms have been made up of sisters of former students," she says.

"Since the good seminaries are small, it’s very hard for the oldest sister to get in. On the other hand, if your sister was an outstanding student at a prestigious seminary, your way in is more or less assured.”

In addition to school, there are other useful activities for anyone trying to boost her prospects. Batya, the Haredi girls’ youth movement, is thought to be the third-largest youth movement in Israel with about 70,000 students. Rabbi Lieberman founded this movement, too.

“It’s good to be in the movement starting in the fourth grade, but the girls who are really highly regarded are the ones who become counselors," says Y., another ultra-Orthodox woman. "Connections are made there that are not necessarily made at the seminary, and the fact that you were a counselor gives you additional points on your CV.”

A girl’s career choice is made in the last two years at the seminary, after years of study of secular core subjects, which isn't the case in many Haredi schools. Traditionally, the most talented students go into teaching, but with demand for posts exceeding supply the competition has become intense.

“It’s competition through secular eyes,” says Y. “In our community, it’s very clear who gets teaching positions and who doesn’t. The profession is limited to those with connections and pull. A teacher doesn’t have to be an outstanding student, but she will be from the right family.”

The high-tech option

A newer option is to enter the world of high-tech. Let’s say a young woman has been accepted to the right seminary and in the last two years studied practical engineering. An ambitious ultra-Orthodox young woman can continue her studies at a Haredi extension program that many institutions of higher learning have opened in recent years. Others will apply to a high-tech incubator such as Matrix’s project in the settlement of Modi’in Ilit.

There are also a number of ultra-Orthodox women entrepreneurs. If in the past they worked mostly from home or in family businesses making wigs or selling clothes, now their options are much greater. What they badly need is networking, the chance to meet other businesswomen.

The nonprofit group Temech, which does job placement for ultra-Orthodox women, recently set up the Jerusalem Hub, which provides a home for Haredi women who need advice or seek to rent space in the complex.

G. praises such initiatives. “These are places that were built for ultra-Orthodox women,” she says. “They provide not only a good salary, but also good conditions. A Haredi woman will forgo money for the chance for multiple maternity leaves or a schedule that accommodates the holidays and a kitchen appropriate to her needs.”

So are connections necessary in this setting too? Yes, but since it involves professional work, the first thing is the right diploma. “As with secular people, in our community the system in which one friend brings in another is well known,” says G.

“Still, the professional requirements act as a filter and enable more women to enter the professional network. But remember that the women who fill these jobs are from those same good seminaries, so we're again seeing that same well-connected group.”

T., who is Mizrahi but looks Ashkenazi, says she detects less discrimination than in the past. “Nowadays there's less emphasis on a woman’s background, because there are more women with bachelor’s degrees,” she says, adding that higher education is encouraging professional mobility. “It can't just be relying on ‘she's the daughter-in-law of a well-connected person.”

As T. puts it, “Now everyone is more wary of links to well-connected people. But a lot of women are still being pushed aside, and anyone who doesn’t push herself ahead will be left behind.

"Personally, if I hadn’t elbowed my way in, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today. If you’re not a rottweiler, if you don’t show that people can’t mess with you, they'll easily push you aside. Be a rottweiler, and preferably one with a higher education. Graduating from a seminary isn’t enough.”