“Are you Haredi?” asked the interviewer. I stammered. I hadn’t thought about that before, let alone asked myself the question. “I’m not sure, how would you define a Haredi?” I answered. The interviewer was somewhat confused herself. Nobody had ever asked her that before either.
I had just finished my MBA at Bar Ilan University and this was my first job interview. Originally from Toronto and recently married, my wife and I had moved to Jerusalem to get our lives started. Working in Israel was an exciting prospect for me, as I had recently become more interested in technology, and was excited about Israel’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.
During the interview, the company HR representative and I got into a deeper discussion. I was aware of the classical Haredi stereotypes (which in many cases stem from factual reality), but I’d never imagined I would find myself caught between it all.
She asked me how I thought I might integrate into the workforce — as a “possible” Haredi. “My family has been working for generations,” I answered. Luckily, I had the sensitivity to empathize with the confusion. Otherwise the line of questioning could easily have been considered offensive. (Side note: I got the job.)
This experience eventually led to the founding of KamaTech, a unique program established to facilitate the successful integration of Haredim into the Israeli high-tech workforce.
The co-founding team came together after we identified about 2,000 Haredi men who had obtained hardware and software engineering degrees, but were not finding commensurate jobs for their education. Our mission was to bridge the gap between being academically qualified and practically employable.
Just a few years later, KamaTech is a massive success story, with over 80, coalition partners, many of whom are Fortune 500 companies including our founding partners — Cisco, Google, IBM and Intel. Today, under the leadership of Executive Director Moshe Friedman, the program has driven opportunity for thousands of Haredim looking for a livelihood across Israel.
To date, KamaTech has facilitated over 700 Haredi placements totaling over 35 million dollars in annual recurring salaries. Our technical code and training courses have been completed by over 650 Haredi men and women, and we run one of Israel’s highest rated accelerators. Now in our third cohort, KamaTech has supported 32 founders of start-ups with zero dollars in initial investment, who are employing more than 140 people and receiving over $20 million in combined investments.
As thousands of ultra-Orthodox professionals integrate into the high-tech industry, the national product will increase by billions. This means that for each dollar invested in the program, the State of Israel can expect dozens more in return. Since the tech sector is such an important contributor to the economy, the success of Haredim will have a positive impact on the community including employment opportunities.
According to Stuart Hershkowitz, vice president of Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), an important KamaTech partner, the Haredi population in Israel stands at 11 percent of the total populace with great potential. It is the fastest-growing sector in the Jewish state with experts estimating it could reach almost 30% by 2050.
At present, 60% of the Haredi population live under the poverty line and less than 50% of the able-bodied men within this sector work. If the country has to support a third of the population living on welfare, it is on an economic collision course.
Thanks to the efforts of KamaTech, JCT and many others, change is underway.
Many Israelis probably never thought there would be a day when Haredim could, and would, work. Yet, workforce participation is rising, and we are edging towards hitting a critical mass. Sure, new issues will always arise, but the days of not working are over.
Israel has faced its challenges head on with a commitment to hard work and, as a result, a new generation of Haredim are creating new, and better opportunities for their community and country.
Now back in Toronto, I continually ask myself how we can bring these lessons back home. We too face significant challenges whether politically, socioeconomically or otherwise. There is no silver bullet but there is a silver lining for us to derive from our Israeli counterparts.
Our challenges may seem insurmountable, but nothing is insurmountable. Israel has done the impossible and so can we. We too must face challenges with similar innovation and willingness to disrupt the status quo. Only one question remains. Will we rise up to the occasion?
Robert Reichmann is the co-founder of Kamatech, Principal at RRG and Founder of Visr (acq). He lives in Toronto with his wife and four daughters. On June 13, he will be awarded with the Entrepreneurship Award by the Canadian Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology gala dinner. To purchase tickets visit https://cfjctgala.org.