"I never worked with anyone before who wore a kapota [the long black coat worn by some very Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews], and I certainly never shared a bag of bisli with anyone like that. Though we live in the same city, we live in two different worlds," says Jeremy G., a long-time employee at a major Jerusalem high-tech company, about a co-worker.
"But since Moshe and I started working together on this Internet project, we both discovered that we can like and respect each other without dressing the same way or having the same worldview."
Jerusalem is the center of the world, yet her population comes from the four corners of the earth -- a sure recipe for divisiveness and dissension. The pressure cooker of life in the holy city too often builds walls instead of bridges between people. But the workplace is often a happy exception.
"When our third child was born, I decided I didn't want my wife to continue working full-time while I studied in a postgraduate yeshiva," says Jeremy's co-worker, Moshe C., a 26-year-old graduate at Jerusalem's Haredi Center for Technological Studies. "But getting a good-paying job wasn't easy, because I lacked a formal degree."
Though highly educated in religious texts and proficient in intellectual exercises, most of Israel's ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community lacks prerequisites necessary to gain entrance into professional training programs. Few programs exist that meet the unique religious requirements of a strictly traditional lifestyle, like separate men and women's classes and a class schedule that can accommodate family obligations and religious requirements for prayer and study.
Even in economically challenged times, the high-tech sector accounts for two-thirds of Israel's industrial output and 80% of industrial exports. The Haredi community is known for its large families, high unemployment rate (due to postgraduate yeshiva studies) -- and, increasingly, its natural aptitude for working with computers.
Thus the Haredi Center was founded, to train and facilitate members of the community's entry into Israel's high-tech workforce. Offering courses in computer programming, multimedia, software engineering, architecture and interior design, the Center has become a supplier of motivated, competent and highly skilled employees.
The Center's Director General, Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, finds the school's motto in Maimonides' statement that the highest form of charity is helping someone become independent of others.
"Though my years in Yeshiva trained me in analytical thinking," comments Chaim L., a systems networking student at the school, "I wasn't accepted into standard degree programs because I lacked the necessary entrance requirements. Without a degree, no menial job I could get would bring in enough money to pay my bills. It was a no-win situation."
"We make it possible for young men and women who could never get a decent paying job to train in an environment compatible with their religious needs, and be able to support their families in a respectable manner," says Rabbi Fogel.
Which is what happened to David L.
"At The Haredi Center," he says, "I utilized my abilities without compromising my religious beliefs. I attended evening classes, studying in Yeshiva during the day. After receiving my degree, I got a good-paying job. In this wide and modern world, it is nice to see that there is room for my religious lifestyle too."
"The teachers offer the kind of direction and learning I was looking for when I decided to switch careers from an unemployed school teacher to interior designer," said Channie T., another Haredi Center student. "And I enjoy the mix of post high school girls and grandmothers in the classes."
For Orthodox women working as teachers, secretaries and store clerks, the Haredi Center offers a way to upgrade to better paying jobs by studying in the morning. Their increased salaries, ironically, mean less hours at work and more time for their children.
From 35 students in 1996, The Haredi Center has expanded to over 1400 students in five branches throughout Israel. Approved by Israel's Ministry of Labor, and affiliated with academic institutions like Bar Ilan University, two-three year courses of study are offered in a variety of fields.
"We bring together all types of people: Chassidim, 'Modern' and Haredi Orthodox, Ashkenazim, Sefardim, everyone," comments Arieh Sharvit, Jerusalem Branch Director. "We make it possible for every interested and capable person to attend. We even designed preparatory classes to give students who have never studied Advanced Math, English or Hebrew composition the tools needed for advanced professional studies."
But the Haredi Center doesn't stop there. By keeping abreast of industry's changing needs and maintaining a Job Placement Center, it has helped 80% of its graduates find positions in their careers of choice.
"We've reached the point where major Israeli corporations actually call us to see which students will be graduating," says Academic Affairs Director Michael Winett. "Our students have proven themselves to be well-qualified and reliable employees who, because of their family responsibilities, are also highly motivated."
It seems that the high tech corporations agree. "I'd be happy to employ more Haredi programmers," says David Schindler, Vice President at Jerusalem's MALAM Systems Ltd. "They're older and more mature, and they have a tremendous drive to succeed. [and] they're used to sitting for many hours without taking a break, or getting up to chat and drink coffee. They are very focused."
Sounds like the perfect employee.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein lives in Jerusalem and writes for newspapers in Israel, the USA, and England. Author of "A Children's Treasury of Sephardic Tales", "Happy Hints for a Successful Aliyah ", and "On Bus Drivers, Dreidels and Orange Juice", she has edited several books including "Salt, Pepper and Eternity" and "To Dwell in the Palace" an anthology of life in Israel.]