Working Against the Clock

Most of the ultra-Orthodox women employed at Citybook, an outsourcing company in Modi'in Ilit, take off around lunchtime. True, their salaries are low - but the convenient working hours ensure they're home before their kids

Nehama Berent feels tremendous satisfaction when she shuts off her computer at 2:30 P.M. "Satisfaction and responsibility," she says. She is a team manager at Citybook, a company based in Modi'in Ilit that provides real-estate insurance services to the American market. Her workday is over. Her desk is clear and within just 10 minutes - a bus ride away - she'll be back at home, which also happens to be in Modi'in Ilit.

No one at the office makes a face when Berent, a mother of seven, hurries home in the early afternoon. It is nothing out of the ordinary: Citybook exclusively employs ultra-Orthodox women. All of them, from the top manager to the lowliest secretary, finish working at that hour. One minute they're seated, rows of women in front of computer screens, reading complex legal contracts, reviewing ownership rights and carefully analyzing wills. The next minute, they are rising simultaneously to rush home, cook and do laundry.

This sharp contrast illustrates the employment revolution that is slowly underway in the world of young, ultra-Orthodox women. They must maneuver carefully between motherhood and a career in a world that still relies heavily on tradition and conservatism, but which is gradually being drawn toward progress and modernity.

At Citybook, an English translation of Kiryat Sefer, Modi'in Ilit's original name, they accept as a matter of course, ultra-Orthodox women's need for delicate balances. A short workday is of key importance, as it allows them to return to the role of mother in a near-full-time capacity.

The small industrial zone at the entrance to Modi'in Ilit, where Citybook's offices are located, houses several companies that employ ultra-Orthodox women in outsourced projects, such as Matrix and Imagestore. Unlike at the customer-service centers, the women at Citybook, all of whom are native English speakers, are required to demonstrate outstanding capabilities. These include the expert study of legal documents, as well as creative thinking and an urge to explore.

According to American law, a real-estate asset must be insured against unexpected surprises related its ownership before it can be purchased. Insurance companies, including Madison Title, Citybook's American parent company, have their agents conduct a complex and precise investigation of the property rights that are for sale. In effect, this is risk assessment. The bottom line is a recommendation to the insurance company as to whether it should insure all of the asset or only part of it. The investigation and analysis are conducted by Citybook in Israel, usually using Internet databases or with the help of U.S. agents, who inspect the property.

Citybook employs 150 women at its two branches - in Modi'in Ilit and Beitar Ilit. The company was founded around four years ago by an ultra-Orthodox American entrepreneur, Joseph (Joe) Rosenbaum, the owner of Madison Title of Lakewood, New Jersey. Rosenbaum realized that thanks to the time difference between Israel and the U.S. and the fact that the work was essentially done at night, according to U.S. time, he could provide the company's services to clients within a few hours of their order and obtain an edge in this competitive market.

In a phone conversation from the U.S., Rosenbaum says his interest is first and foremost ideological.

"But it also had to be financially feasible. Otherwise, it wouldn't work," he said.

Rosenbaum says the idea came to him after child allowances in Israel were cut, and he wanted to help financially-strapped families. "I could have taken the work to India, and that would have substantially reduced my costs, but I wouldn't have gotten the same quality of work and ability to learn," he says.

The women employed at the company undergo six months of training while working, and later attend supplementary training courses. Eli Kashdan, CEO of the company in Israel, says Rosenbaum used to donate money to families whereby the husband attended a kollel, a place of religious study. He later decided instead to develop employment opportunities for the ultra-Orthodox community.

In response to a question about encouraging ultra-Orthodox men to leave the kollel after a few years of learning to enter the working world, Rosenbaum, a former student of the Ponevez Yeshiva, said he "respected the ideal of Torah study and the choice of women to support their husbands." However, he says, Citybook is responsible for new nighttime employment opportunities in Jerusalem, which would allow the men to study during the day. According to Rosenbaum, employers in Israel will see his company as a successful model and will agree to come and set up business in ultra-Orthodox cities.

Meanwhile the present arrangement suits the women at Citybook, certainly as far as maternal pangs of guilt are concerned. Perhaps that is why they are willing to earn the low wage of NIS 28 per hour, at least during their first two years on the job. Rosenbaum feels that the average wage of the women here is generous compared to other companies in Modi'in Ilit. "They don't work a full day," he says, "and we invest almost two years in the training." After two years, he says, the worker is evaluated and the salary rises to NIS 30-35 an hour and then, evaluations are done every six months and the salary can rise accordingly.

Even though Berent is one of the few women at Citybook who worked in high-tech and is familiar with the salary spectrum, she says that good work conditions and job satisfaction are more important than any salary. The proof is in the fact that after being torn between her obligations as a mother and the need to earn a living, she gave up a generous salary to quit.

"I had a baby at the time and I had to breastfeed in secret, under pressure," she says. "Here, you don't have to explain yourself. Not when you go on maternity leave every year and not when you miss a day because your child is ill. You don't have a bad feeling every time it happens. Unconnected to ultra-Orthodoxy, there is understanding and acceptance here of the needs of women and mothers."

Kashdan, whom Berent addresses as Mr. Kashdan (who, in turn, addresses her as Mrs. Berent), uses a multi-colored board to show who is working and who is currently on maternity leave. "We employ at least 10 percent more women than we need, because of maternity leaves," he says.

Like Berent, Dina Phillips has seven children at home and believes the convenient working conditions at Citybook are a must. She has worked for the company for two years and has already been appointed to oversee a group of workers who specialize in contracts. Before this, she was a homemaker and managed a small business selling pearls.

"When I was a girl, we had a computer at home, because my dad used it for work and I knew my way around a bit," she says. "But after I got married, I didn't touch a computer. I had a huge gap to close when I arrived here."

Most of the women's stories are similar to hers. They studied to be teachers, but because there are few jobs in teaching, they earned a living doing odd jobs and by setting up small businesses in their homes. Were it not for Citybook, they say, they are nearly certain they would not be realizing their potential. Still, the need to earn a livelihood outweighs everything else.

Is the fact that they acquired skills in a semi-legal profession likely to pave the way for them to study other fields, such as law, for example? Will they, after demonstrating such high-level abilities, experience the urge to advance and develop themselves? The energetic Brent cools off all at once upon hearing the suggestion. She reiterates that the work is convenient for her and the she is not interested in pursuing additional paths to development. But the suggestion does bring a smile to Phillip's serious countenance, and she says that she would not rule out the possibility.