“The people demand social justice!” was the cry heard throughout Israel during the summer of 2011. Israelis took to the streets, placards in hand, and protested the injustice that they believed was present in Israeli society. From the price of cottage cheese through to inflated governmental taxes, Israel was angry.
Following the dismantling of the protesters’ “tent city,” which lined Rothschild Boulevard, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government convened the Trajtenberg committee to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s perceived socioeconomic problems.
Professor Manuel Trajtenberg concluded that discontent among the Israeli population stemmed both from economic distress and a profound sense of injustice that sectors of Israeli society were simply not pulling their weight. Not only were they not shouldering the burden incumbent on all citizens to serve in the army, work and pay taxes, they also were receiving governmental aid to do so. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population was under attack.
Trajtenberg wrote that “the great challenge is how to enable and encourage a widespread entry into the world of employment while respecting the unique character of this sector.”
With Israel’s growing haredi population now numbering around 800,000, and just 40 percent of its men of working age employed, the need for a solution has never been more pressing.
Think tanks, journalists and even average Israelis discuss the “haredi problem.” Very few organizations have actually developed solutions that both respect and empower this community … until 2007.
In that year, three wealthy philanthropists decided to tackle the problem, and, with the help of a determined team of directors who themselves come from the haredi community, they formed the Kemach Foundation. Their vision was to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the job market using their “insider knowledge” of the community. By providing career-appropriate education, they would enable community members to work in long-term, decently paying jobs, which would reverse the cycle of poverty.
“The only feasible solution to this problem needed to come from within the community,” explained Moti Feldstein, director general of Kemach. “We understand the nuances and sensitivities of the various divisions of the ultra-Orthodox community and have a better understanding of where the problem lies.”
For a start, the difference in ultra-Orthodox and general rates of employment was even starker when considering working patterns. In 2010, while just 16 percent of working Israelis were employed in part-time positions, 35 percent of haredim had part-time jobs. In 2010, the average monthly income of an Israeli was just under $4,000. A haredi brought in around $2,000.
The fervently Orthodox have lower rates of employment, but their employment was found also to be “unpredictable,” leaving them in abject poverty. Low earning potential, cou- pled with declining government support once one is employed, leave them with little desire to enter the workforce.
“We needed to find a way to empower the ultra-Orthodox to strive for better earning potential, and, in this day and age, it comes through knowledge and training,” said Feldstein.
And so Kemach — “Promoting Haredi Employment” — began a process of assessment, career advice and funding of courses for the haredi community.
Up until two years ago, Moshe Shechter’s life path did not diverge from the traditional route of an ultra-Orthodox male.
Born in Haifa 39 years ago, he went to cheder, to yeshiva and finally to kollel. He married within the community and bore seven children.
Two years ago, Shechter was devastated to realize he could not provide for his family.
“I didn’t know what path to take other than the familiar. I didn’t want to waste time in a dead-end job,” explained Shechter. “I turned to Kemach, having seen their logo on an advertisement for a course for haredi men being offered in conjunction with the Technion,” he said.
Kemach put Shechter through int-ensive testing to determine suitability, and after a day-long battery of tests, they put his name forward for acceptance.
In late 2011, Shechter was accepted to study Geographical Information Systems and Mapping in a new Bnei Brak branch of the Technion, a branch geared to religious students.
“There is a severe lack of trained professionals in every field of civil and environmental engineering,” said the dean of the faculty at the Technion, Arnon Bentur. “We will help haredi students in Bnei Brak acquire a profession that guarantees them a respectable career combining income with a broad vista for advancing in the public and private sectors.”
The decision for Shechter to attend the course was not simple — he had never studied physics or mathematics, and certainly not English. Not deterred by these challenges, he was, however, daunted by the cost. Although his wife worked in between maternity leaves, her sales’ salary was in no way sufficient to support him through school. On top of living expenses and providing for seven children, it seemed unlikely they would be able to afford four years of tuition. Kemach agreed to provide a loan to cover tuition fees and living expenses. When Shechter completes his studies, the loan will turn into a scholarship. Kemach has an exceptional completion rate of more than 95 percent for all their vocational and academic courses.
“I am now approaching the end of the initial year and a half of preliminary studies,” said Shechter. “It hasn’t been easy, and it is a very different environment to the beit midrash (religious study hall), but Kemach ensured that the course was respectful of the requirements of an ultra-Orthodox community and that the student body was serious and motivated to succeed.”
Social work student Mendy Zilbershlag has also seen firsthand how crucial the whole package offered by Kemach is.
“Kemach is a wonderful organization and one that goes a lot further than simply handing out scholarships,” said Zilbershlag. “If they simply handed out money without advice, the money ultimately would become worthless. With Kemach, I went through evaluations, psychological assessments and received a wealth of career advice before deciding to become a social worker.”
Zilbershlag attends the Haredi College of Jerusalem, which acts as a campus for courses from a range of Israel’s top universities. Zilbershlag’s course is provided by Bar Ilan University and is taught separately for men and women. Despite the adjustments made for the needs of the haredi community, including alternative course materials, Zilbershlag says that without the additional support of Kemach he would not have succeeded.
“Many families are against academic study and exert immense pressure on students to return to kollel. Additionally, the financial commitments involved in supporting a large family while studying, even part time, is too great a strain on many students,” said Zilbershlag, noting that Kemach answers both of those concerns.
Beginning academic study for the first time is nerve wracking for most new students, but for Zilbershlag and Shechter, being the first university students in their families, they encountered many unexpected challenges. Silent lecture halls are a world away from the hubbub of the beit midrash. Academic papers, based on sources, are a far cry from presenting one’s own opinions. And, especially in Zilbershlag’s case, there are times he encounters professional ethical dilemmas that contradict Jewish law. But these problems can be overcome, and, true to their promise, Kemach is succeeding in overturning the downward trend of employment afflicting the haredi community. Upward of 80 percent of Kemach’s 2,000 graduates are employed; 70 percent state that they have seen a significant increase in earnings.
Following his damming report on the state of the ultra-Orthodox community, Trajtenberg visited Kemach last year to witness firsthand this dramatic shift.
“The Kemach Foundation is … providing the tools for haredi Jews who want to contribute their share,” said Trajtenberg, after his visit.
The road to advancing meaningful employment is long and ongoing. But Kemach leaders say the organization is committed for the long haul. With 13,000 applicants waiting for a chance, the organization is hopeful it can expand its infrastructure and slowly change the face of poverty that ails many of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.