The first-ever accelerator specifically geared to the needs of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish (haredi) community is up and running, taking applications for a program that is set to begin next month. “It really is the first of its kind anywhere,” said Ben Weiner of Jumpspeed Ventures, a VC firm that, along with a group of partners, is helping the Jerusalem College of Technology train haredi entrepreneurs who have great ideas but need assistance with turning them into reality.
While haredi entrepreneurs have been members of other accelerator programs, and several institutions, including JCT, have created tech training programs specifically for the haredi population, the new program – called “Yazam BaLev” (“an entrepreneur at heart”) is the first full-fledged accelerator that will provide a total “accelerator experience” to haredi entrepreneurs, said Weiner. “Other programs provided bits and pieces of the experience, but Yazam BaLev will be exactly like the accelerators in Tel Aviv – except all participants will be haredi males.” A program for females may come later on, said Weiner, but for now, Yazam BaLev is concentrating on the men.
The role of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society has become a lightning rod for social protests in recent years. Non-haredi Israelis, including secular and modern Orthodox Jews, complain that most haredi men do not serve in the military or work for a living — meaning that the non-haredi sectors have to support them. Some haredi leaders have become convinced that they need to change the focus of their community from full-time religious studies to earning a living, at least for some.
“The curriculum in this accelerator will be very focused on content,” said Weiner. “Participants will have to fulfill specific milestones and assignments throughout the 24 weeks of the program.” Entrepreneurs will work with mentors and experts, and they’ll be required to come up with tech and business presentations, learning how to hone their pitches and make them suitable for presentation to investors – whom they will meet during the course of the program, said Weiner.
Started in 1968, when it was called Machon Lev, or the Lev Institute, its name was changed to Jerusalem College of Technology several years ago. JCT today has about 4,000 students in five programs, geared towards modern Orthodox and haredi students. Starting with high school, JCT trains students in hard sciences — physics, chemistry, advanced math — and offers a fast track to top IDF tech programs, like Unit 8200, the army’s advanced tech development unit.
The program begins in November and lasts four months, with sessions to be held twice a week at JCT in the evenings. Attendance at all the sessions is mandatory. Each week will highlight another important element in building a start-up, with challenging assignments, interesting presenters from the high-tech industry, and plenty of investor pitch training and practice, said Weiner. The highlight of the program will be a public “Demo Day,” where the graduating entrepreneurs pitch their ventures to investors, the press and the high-tech community.
According to Weiner, the program has the blessing of leaders of the haredi community – in both its Hasidic and Lithuanian yeshiva segments – among them rabbis and lay leaders who realize that community members need to support themselves. “We made certain adjustments to ensure that as many people as possible would be aboard, such as limiting the program to males, and ensuring that all mentors and instructors would be male as well.” Utra-Orthodox Jews reject casual mixing of the sexes.
Entrepreneurs who have applied come from all segments of the haredi community – from the more liberal Habad side, which has “exported” numerous entrepreneurs to the high-tech world, to the “tougher” candidates, some from neighborhoods like Geula and Sanhedria in Jerusalem, home to the more insular Hasidic communities, like Gur and Satmar. “Many of those who have applied are swimming against the tide, and it’s our job to help them acclimate in the tech world,” said Weiner.
“I think this is going to be a flagship program for the country,” said Weiner. “Ten years ago the tech world wasn’t talking about haredi programs, and now they are looking for assistance to get into the tech industry. It’s definitely a historic moment.”