There is a buzz as the food arrives at Ampersand, a co-working space on the 21st floor of a high-rise Bnei Brak, a city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It is almost 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, time for happy hour, something many co-working spaces organize to celebrate the end of the week.
At this happy hour, though, instead of wine and cheese and sandwiches, there is piping hot cholent — a stew of beans and meat that is traditionally eaten on the Jewish Sabbath — along with freshly baked challah bread, beers and cold drinks.
It’s kind of like a kiddush after synagogue services on Saturday.
The women, many of them wearing wigs or other head coverings, flock to one of the tables, while men, some with sidelocks, huddle together at others. There are two sinks in the kitchen: one to wash plates and cutlery for dairy food, and another for meat, in adherence to Jewish dietary rules. Similarly, there are three microwaves: one to warm up meat or chicken, one for milk-based products and a third for items whose kosher status is in question.
Ampersand was set up last year by KamaTech, a nonprofit organization that seeks to integrate Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population into the country’s booming high-tech industry.
The co-working space caters to the needs of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, entrepreneurs and tech workers by providing separate work spaces for women and men, a kosher kitchen, and a space for prayer.
The workspace initiative has been so successful, said Moshe Friedman, the CEO of KamaTech, that he is now planning to double its size by taking an additional floor above the original space. Moreover, KamaTech has been getting requests from Orthodox communities in the US to set up similar workspaces locally, he said. The first step out of the primarily Orthodox Bnei Brak, however, will be Jerusalem followed by Beit Shemesh.
Riki Gutman, 40, a marketing adviser and copywriter who manages content for websites and social media pages, was tapping on her laptop in the woman-only section of Ampersand. Most of her customers are from the Haredi community, she said, her head covered for modesty in accordance with the strict religious dictate for married women. She comes to the office every day — a 40-minute commute from her home in the religious city of Elad, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of Tel Aviv. She needs the peace to work, she said with a laugh; she has eight children at home.
“The work environment here is supportive,” she said. “You can find collaborations, make work contacts; it is a place to hold meetings.”
KamaTech’s mission is to train Haredi men and women and place them in high-level tech jobs. To do this the firm has enrolled tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Mobileye, and VC firms operating in Israel, pushing them to diversify their workforce with candidates from a sector that has been sidelined by the tech boom.
Since its founding in 2013, KamaTech has helped place some 1,000 Haredim at some of the biggest technology firms operating in Israel, Friedman said. The organization has now a database of some 1,300 Haredi entrepreneurs who are trying to set up startups, from almost zero just five or six years ago, he said.
“We created this market,” Friedman said. “Ninety-five percent of Haredi entrepreneurs are doing it via us.”
In addition to its job placement activities, KamaTech has set up a startup accelerator to speed up the development of Haredi-led startups. “Every year we choose 10 startups that we believe in,” Friedman said. KamaTech provides them mentorships, training and advice from large tech firms including Wix, Taboola and Outbrain; helps them gain access to funds from investors and government entities; and assists them build their growth strategy.
The accelerator is now starting its fifth year. It has fostered 40 startups that have raised some $150 million in total and employ some 600 workers, he said.
Ampersand was set up to provide these fledgling new entrepreneurs with a place to work, connect, network and attend workshops and talks. And participate in a tailor-made happy hour. The center is supported financially by a number of sponsors, chief among them Prof. Amnon Shashua, co-founder of Mobileye, an Israeli maker of self-driving technologies that was acquired by Intel Corp. in 2017.
Friedman stood on the sun-drenched terrace of the workspace and warmed to his theme. Just as the building lies on the border between Bnei Brak, one of the poorest cities in Israel, populated mainly by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Tel Aviv, the nation’s secular high-tech mecca — so can KamaTech build a bridge between these two worlds, he declared, waving his arms in the directions of their respective rooftops.
Israel’s booming tech industry, a growth engine for the economy, has a shortfall of some 12,000 to 15,000 skilled workers a year. Tapping into populations that have been largely sidelined by the industry — Arabs, Haredim and women – is seen as a key way to keep the tech momentum going.
The ultra-Orthodox community is among the poorest in the nation, as men tend to study Torah and eschew the workforce, while the women traditionally bring in the family’s livelihood. In 2017, the ultra-Orthodox accounted for 9% of Israel’s population, according to Central Bureau of Statistics data, but are seen growing to 29% by 2059 thanks to a high birthrate.
Meanwhile, according to government data from 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, the ultra-Orthodox represented just 0.7% of the tech workforce.
Adi Weitz, 42, was working on her website, Easy Kosher Travel, which points Jews who follow religious dietary restrictions to kosher eateries, synagogues and Jewish heritage sites around the world. The site also has a list of kosher products that can be found in stores locally, Weitz, who preferred not to be photographed, explained that she was in touch with local Jewish communities that help her get the information she needs.
Ysrael Gurt, who also works out of Ampersand, was included last year in the Forbes “30 under 30” list of leading figures for his cybersecurity and hacking abilities. Gurt today works as chief technology officer and co-founder of cybersecurity startup Reflectiz, which has developed technology to monitor and analyze websites for information, activities and behavior.
Another Ampersand tenant, 30-year old Yehuda Bloy, set up the Menivim.net website, an online marketplace for commercial real estate, a year ago.
Eli Maman rents a few offices from the workspace for the startup he co-founded, the 10-employee Tranzit, which wants to be a service like the ridesharing app Gett or Uber for moving services.
His colleague, Hezi Nager, worked in the transportation industry for 13 years, and the startup’s 21-year old chief technology officer, Shraga Kazatchkov, has been a full stack developer since the age of 15, which he learned on his own in the US while studying in yeshiva.
“The amount of talent, energy and opportunity in the Haredi world is enormous,” Friedman said. “But we need to connect them to mentors, investors, employers. We are just at the beginning.”