To get to this software company you have to wend your way though the bustling streets of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.
As you press the intercom, you hear the chatter of children with their mothers on the sunny street outside overlaying the singsong of men’s voices raised in prayer or study.
After climbing the stairs, you enter the foyer of an apartment. A kitchen with a coffee machine is off to one side and straight ahead there is a coat rack on which dark black coats hang, along with black hats neatly perched above.
To the left are bookshelves filled with volumes of rabbinical writings. On some of the shelves are boxes with etrogs — citron fruit — and lulavs – palm branches – to be used ceremonially in the upcoming festival of Succot.
Young bearded men walk into the apartment, some holding pink plastic bags with sandwiches, others with black backpacks on their shoulders. They wear black trousers and white shirts, skullcaps on their heads, tassels hanging out from below their shirts. They take their seats behind their computers. One of them puts on huge headphones, his curly sidelocks incongruously flattened below, as he concentrates hard on the task before him. They all have smartphones too, which they will leave in the office at the end of the day and revert to their “kosher” phones, without internet, when they go home.
These are the offices of Ravtech, a software company that outsources its services to the likes of Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. and Citibank, and which is staffed by Jewish ultra-Orthodox married men aged 25 to 35 who underwent rigorous training in English, computer studies, coding and math to make them suitable for the job.
Without prior knowledge in any of these subjects, and having previously studied only the religious textual studies of Torah and Talmud, they were chosen out of hundreds of candidates to undergo 12 months of intensive training in secular subjects — while continuing their religious studies — and promised a job with Ravtech for two and a half years after graduation.
“There are three things that prevent men in the ultra-Orthodox population from going out to work,” said Aharon Safrai, the CEO of Avratech, which runs the training program. “They feel a need to continue studying the Torah; they need an income while they study; and they need to be sure they have a job awaiting them once they finish the studies. We provide them with all of these three things.”
The ultra-Orthodox population, the fastest-growing Jewish community in Israel, makes up an estimated 11 percent of the Israel’s 8.5 million citizens, with the majority living below the poverty line as they abide by a strictly religious and traditional lifestyle, in which the men study religious texts full time. It is the wives who generally go out to work to support the family.
The Avratech-Ravtech initiative was set up in 2013 by French-born David Charles Leybel, a rabbi and graduate of the highly respected Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, who today heads other yeshivas and study rooms.
The aim of the initiative is to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to continue their religious studies but also empower them by giving them the ability to earn salaries to provide for their families in a work environment that suits their lifestyle.
Within the program they study Torah and Talmud in the mornings from 9 to 12, and then secular studies in the afternoon. During the course they get paid a basic salary and have the promise of a job at Ravtech once they graduate. While working at Ravtech they earn what they would earn in the secular world, Safrai said, a salary of around NIS 17,000 ($4,450) a month prorated for the six and a half hours of work they put in daily. At the end of their contract with Ravtech they are able to leave for other jobs armed with their skills, or can continue to work at Ravtech if they choose.
When the first course started in 2013, 100 people applied, of whom 30 were selected. In subsequent rounds, including the upcoming one which will be held in Avratech’s new branch in Jerusalem, some 700 people bid for spots. The majority of the students complete their training, with just a 30 percent dropout rate, said Safrai.
“We are not competing with other programs, like those at universities, that train the ultra-Orthodox populations,” Safrai said. “We reach out to people who tend to shy away from those organizations. We reach out to those who want to continue studying and wouldn’t leave [the study hall], if not for us. Our students come from the hardcore of the ultra-Orthodox population.”
“In the beginning there was criticism and distrust for what we are doing,” said Safrai. “But the huge demand we are witnessing today shows that there is a need. The ones who joined the project also stayed respected in their community.”
Ultra-Orthodox men, with their strong background in the rabbinic teachings of the Talmud, are perfect candidates to learn software programming, Safrai said. “When they study Talmud, the students brainstorm together to solve problems and can sit for hours pondering issues alone,” said Safrai. “Thus the methods of study – in which a high level of logic is required – can very nicely be applied to resolving software problems.”
Avratech and Ravtech are funded by private donors, with some government and municipality assistance. Ravtech, as a business, is also expected to break even in the coming months, said Safrai. But more support is needed.
“In order to grow, we need to attract more funders, both government and private donors. We should be able to provide training to thousands of students. The State of Israel understands the importance of what we do, but they still don’t know how exactly to classify us, to be able to help us in a more comprehensive way.”