With rabbis’ blessing, women-for-tech program creates ‘ripples’ in Haredi world

A pilot program backed by top tech firms and university profs is teaching ultra-Orthodox young women the skills needed to land well-paid software engineering jobs

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A class of Adva students at the Seminar Yashan of Beis Yaacov in Jerusalem; July 2019 (Courtesy)
A class of Adva students at the Seminar Yashan of Beis Yaacov in Jerusalem; July 2019 (Courtesy)

Nineteen-year-old ZF is getting a break from her chores this year. As the eldest daughter of a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family of 10 children — she prefers to remain anonymous for reasons of modesty — she maintained a daily routine that included babysitting, dish-washing, house cleaning and grocery shopping, along with studying.

Now, however, her parents have told her she should focus solely on her studies. ZF, along with 30 other girls from her seminary in Jerusalem, was selected to take part in a pilot project called Adva, Hebrew for “ripple,” that has been operating under the radar for the past year. Adva aims to teach young ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, women the skills needed to get a high-paying job in the booming tech sector. Boosting its chances of success, the program has received the blessing of senior Haredi rabbinical figures.

After high school, most Haredi girls don’t serve in the army or perform national service as their secular or Modern Orthodox counterparts generally do, nor do they go to universities or colleges, as these would have them mingle with men and expose them to material deemed potentially damaging to their beliefs and way of life.

Instead, these young women go on to study in one of 32 women-only seminaries run by the Beis Yaakov educational movement, where the rules of their insular community are upheld and where they are trained to become teachers, accountants, computer graphic artists, medical secretaries or computer scientists.

According to data provided by Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit founded and funded by The Paul E. Singer Foundation, each year around 750 female ultra-Orthodox computer science students graduate from these seminaries. In the next five years, this number is expected to grow to 1,000-1,200.

Still, these graduates are largely unable to land a well-paying job in the tech sector — or a job at all — and have been found to suffer from a lack of math and science skills.

Nineteen-year old ZF, center in blue sweater and pixelated face, talks to donors of the Adva program in Jerusalem, July 2019; to her right is Anat Greemland from Start-Up Nation Central (Courtesy)

The new Adva project aims to educate young women pursuing computer studies inside the framework of the Beis Yaakov seminaries at a higher standard than before and with a syllabus developed together with top tech firms. It aims to teach them university-level math and computer science and thus produce a crop of software engineers who will bring much-needed income into the largely impoverished ultra-Orthodox community, at the same time helping to ease the acute shortage of skilled employees in the local tech sector.

A pilot that started in September 2018 is being led by Start-Up Nation Central and a coalition of partners including three Beis Yaakov seminaries — two in Jerusalem and one in Bnei Brak — and tech giants Google, IBM, Western Digital, and Mobileye, a maker of autonomous car technologies that was acquired by Intel in 2017 for a massive $15.3 billion.

It’s also supported by the Jerusalem Development Authority along with philanthropic organizations such as the William Davidson Foundation and the Paley Family Foundation.

Anat Greemland, of Start-Up Nation Central, who runs the Adva program to train talented Haredi young woman for tech jobs, July 23, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“The students will be able to get the education they need to meet what the industry wants,” said Anat Greemland, who runs the program for SNC.

In the two-year project, in addition to bachelors-degree-level math and computer sciences, students get hands-on projects from the industry, and learn soft skills like how to apply for a job, how to interview, how to communicate with managers and peers from other cultures, and how to present a project.

They will also learn how to “build a bridge between the community they’ve been living in for years” and the high-tech community in Israel, said Greemland.

For the first cohort, in which ZF is one of 93 students, a total of some 300 girls from Seminar Yashan and Seminar Hadash in Jerusalem and Seminar Wolf in Bnei Brak were screened. They were tested not for knowledge but for their ability to deal with math problems, Greemland explained.

Adva operators found “very, very talented girls, that in a regular world, could have attended university and probably gone to law school, medical school or whatever,” Greemland said.

Underpinning the Adva program is cooperation between the tech sector, academia and the religious figures in charge of the Beis Yaakov seminaries.

According to Israel Tik, who runs development and outreach for the Beis Yaakov seminaries, key rabbis in charge of the seminaries saw that many of the young women who had studied computer science and technology according to the syllabus prepared by the government’s National Institute for Technological Education, or MAHAT, were not finding jobs, and those who did were poorly paid.

“They understood that the study program is not up to date with what is needed in the industry,” said Tik.

So the Beis Yaakov leaders met with top R&D officials from Google, Mobileye. IBM and Western Digital, who joined an advisory committee that set out the educational prerequisites needed for graduates to be employed by them and others in the industry.

With these requirements in hand, Adva asked professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University to prepare a tailor-made curriculum for these students. These professors are now acting as academic facilitators of the program, writing and grading exams and weekly exercises and generally setting the standards, while seminary teachers conduct the actual classes with their guidance.

If the Adva program manages “to create 500 new software engineers for the State of Israel a year, it is a very interesting proposition and a significant event for the Haredi society — a real drama,” Tik said.

The ultra-Orthodox community is one of the poorest in the nation, as many of its men study Torah full-time and eschew the workforce while the women traditionally bring in a salary. In 2017, the ultra-Orthodox accounted for 9 percent of the population, according to Central Bureau of Statistics data. By 2030, they are expected to account for 16% of the total population, and by 2065 will make up one-third of the overall population and 40% of the Jewish population, according to a 2017 report on the ultra-Orthodox community by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Thus, the nation is making an effort to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce through training initiatives. Meanwhile, the so-called Start-Up Nation is facing a shortage of some 12,000 to 15,000 skilled employees. This is considered a direct threat to the tech sector, which has been the main driver of the economy.

Ultra-Orthodox men taking an analytical skills exam to enter the Pardes program that will train them to work with Israeli security agencies, including the Mossad (Courtesy)

Unlike the high-paying fields of medicine or law, a university degree is not required to be a success in high tech, said Eugene Kandel, the CEO of Start-Up Nation Central, in a phone interview. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he noted, made it to the top without the benefit of a degree. In tech, “the only standards you need are ability,” he said. And then “the sky is the limit.”

Eugene Kandel (Courtesy)

Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard two years into his college education to start Microsoft Corp.; in 2007, at the age of 51, the billionaire was granted an honorary law degree by the university. Jobs attended Reed College, in Portland, Oregon for about a semester and dropped out.

Adva wants to “create this connection with the tech sector,” Kandel said. “But to do this we have to ensure that the training is at a very high level, so they can compete equally with students that have taken the academic track.”

For their part, the tech firms taking part in the program assured the rabbis that they were willing to meet the graduates’ needs by providing, for instance, separate women-only workspaces and kosher kitchen facilities.

Adva is raising the “the next generation of candidates” for the tech industry from sectors that have excluded till now, said Michal Rosen-Zvi, director of health informatics at IBM Research, who is coordinating IBM’s participation in Adva.

IBM already employs religious workers, both Jewish and Arab, “and respects their needs, ” Rosen-Zvi noted.

Gaby Hayon in charge of R&D at Mobileye (Courtesy)

For tech firms, “the rarest resource is talent,” said Gaby Hayon, VP R&D at Mobileye, in a phone interview. “You need to find as many sources as possible for very good people.”

“We seek excellence,” he said, assessing that with just a “small investment from our part,” the Adva women “can bring significant benefit.”

Most of the work is done alone in front of a computer, so it’s not hard to give the women room to preserve their segregated lifestyle, he said.

“These are people with high level of self-discipline, and this is their opportunity to make sure that their families will be able to live comfortably without changing their way of life.”

ZF, the 19-year old Adva student, described her computer programming studies as “very hard.” The students study 40-45 hours a week, often staying till 10 p.m. to do coursework together, ZF said in fluent English, as she is the daughter of immigrants from the United States.

Many of her fellow seminary students outside the Adva program say she is crazy, she said. “The whole school talks about how hard we study; some say we study too hard. But we try to enjoy our hard work.”

“My dream job,” ZF said, is a good job with a good salary that will allow her to raise a family.

She had just taken an exam in linear algebra that was “very very hard,” she said, adding, “I hope I passed.” Calculus was up next.

Adva’s success, said SNC’s Kandel, will be measured by how many women win high-quality placements at a top firm. But meanwhile, the program’s benefits are already trickling down in the seminaries where it is being implemented.

“The ripple effect is amazing,” said SNC’s Greemland.

The seminary teachers get the opportunity to learn from the university professors and then can impart their knowledge to their other students in addition to the Adva  participants.

Furthermore, a few months into the program it became apparent how poor the seminary girls’ math background was. So, starting this September this year, all of the students in the Beis Yaacov high schools that feed the three Adva seminaries, and possibly one or two other high schools, will be studying the highest level of math for the matriculation exams starting from 10th grade, said Greemland. “This is amazing,” she said. “This is a change of attitude, a game changer.”

Adva is also gaining popularity in the community, said Greemland, with parents asking for their daughters to be accepted to the program. There are already candidates for the second cohort of the program, which will start in September.

And the mothers of young Haredi men are calling up the seminaries and SNC to see if any of the girls in the program are ready for shidduchim, or arranged marriages.

Greemland is optimistic about the chances of these students meeting success in their chosen careers. “I’m sure they will, at least they are going to try,” she said. “This is the first cohort; they have to forge the way, and everybody’s looking at them.”

“Every day is a new day,” she added. There is an understanding from both sides — the Haredi and the tech industry — that the pilot program is a learning process.

“We said in advance sorry and asked for forgiveness” for any mistakes the program makes vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox community, she said. “And that opened the door to their hearts, because they realized that nobody is trying to force anything on anyone… we’re trying to find a way to work together. And it’s for the best of everyone. And since everyone is really trying, it shows.”

read more: