Haredim as the next wave of tech entrepreneurs?

A tech forum by, of, and for ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs aims to provide the skills they need to make it in business

Itzik Crombie (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Itzik Crombie (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In the minds of many people, the terms “ultra-Orthodox” and “high-tech entrepreneur” are two that don’t match up. The former are open to new ideas, experiment with advanced technologies, show independent spirit, and are at home on the Internet — quite the opposite of the average ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi Jew, according to the image many Israelis have.

But is that an accurate image? To hear Haredi entrepreneur Itzik Crombie tell it, it is not. Crombie, a Habad (Lubavitch) hassid who could be called a “serial entrepreneur,” has started several business, the latest of which, iSale Global, won an award last year for an app it developed to help salespeople sell more. Crombie doesn’t see himself as an exception, but as a pioneer.

“Haredim are just as creative and imaginative, and as willing to succeed, as are secular Israelis. In fact, from what I have seen among those in the high-tech world, they are even more ambitious,” Crombie told The Times of Israel. “The problem is that they don’t have role models to show them how to navigate the business world and get to the point where they can build their own businesses.”

To that end, Crombie organized, along with venture capital fund Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), the first Haredi Hi-Tech Forum, in which ultra-Orthodox businesspeople, industry leaders, and business experts will present ideas on how to take a high-tech idea and run with it, getting financing and backing, and achieving business success. The event will be held at JVP’s Jerusalem headquarters on Tuesday.

While most Israelis don’t realize it, ultra-Orthodox Jews are already well-entrenched in the business world, especially the high-tech world. But the vast majority are working at low-level programming and data entry jobs, said Crombie. “Today there are many courses that teach basic computer skills that are attended by Haredi women, and increasingly by men.”

But those kinds of jobs are not going to lead to business success, said Crombie. “Even if they have the knowledge and skills, they are not going to be able to open their own start-ups without the kind of training we are going to be introducing in the forum.”

Speaking at the event will be a number of ultra-Orthodox businesspeople who have made it in the high-tech world, including Crombie himself. In fact, he says, his story is typical of many other Haredim who could succeed, but have found themselves up against a glass ceiling that prevents them from getting ahead. “I was a typical Haredi, having finished yeshiva without learning English or the other core subjects,” such as math, literature, and the other subjects that are required study in most of Israel’s state schools.

Crombie worked in rabbinic-related posts for a number of years before he decided to go in a different direction. “I took a course and learned computers, worked in some companies, and eventually went out on my own,” he said.

Unfortunately for him, there was no Itzik Crombie to teach him how to approach investors and potential partners, and, there were many tense, if not farcical, moments in which he had to deal with ignorant or unsympathetic people, the entrepreneur said. In the end, though, his business acumen won out, to the point that he rose to become number two in a large sales organization, in which he dealt with many foreign customers, before striking out on his own.

One of the things an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur needs to succeed is an ecosystem that fits his or her lifestyle, said Crombie, and that is one of the reasons he brought his start-up idea to JVP. Operating in Jerusalem, it has a good sense of how Haredim can fit into the business world, said JVP director Erel Margalit. “As a town with many religious and Haredi residents, we see how they fit in at some of the biggest companies, like Matrix and NDS,” Margalit told The Times of Israel. “We believe that there are a lot of untapped talents in the community, and in fact we see this in action. When they get the proper training and have been working for a few years, we see that they are very innovative, and make themselves a very important part of the business they’re involved in.”

Those are exactly the skills needed for entrepreneurial success, Margalit said, and a main reason why JVP got involved in the forum.

Of course, if becoming a business tycoon was easy, everybody would do it. There are challenges galore for any start-up entrepreneur, and even more for the ultra-Orthodox. “One problem is that many of the connections in the high-tech world are made informally,” said Crombie. “In Tel Aviv, the ‘chevre’ get together at coffee shops and bars, places where Haredim don’t really fit in. In addition, it’s hard for Haredim to approach investors, or employers for that matter, because of the ‘social baggage’ that goes with their image.”

The more the ultra-Orthodox get into the business world, Crombie believes, the less of a challenge these issues will be, as they build their own ecosystem for high-tech success.

What is not a problem at all, Crombie said, is the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and religious strictures. In meetings with international clients, no one has ever pressed him, for example, to shake the hand of a woman, something that would violate his religious sensibilities.

“Today the business world is very multicultural, with clients, workers, and bosses hailing from cultures all over the world that have widely different customs,” said Crombie. “Nobody looks twice today at someone who does or doesn’t do something for religious reasons,” whether it’s not eating or even meeting at a restaurant, or shaking a woman’s (or man’s, in the case of female entrepreneurs) hand.

There is a great deal of support for high-tech entrepreneurship even among ultra-Orthodox leaders, Crombie said. “They realize that the community is restless and is seeking a way out of their shell. It’s a matter of developing a sanctioned way for them to do so.”

The ultra-Orthodox movement into the high-level tech world is still in its infancy, and already there is a stampede to learn and succeed. A good example, said Crombie, is the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), one of the most prestigious technology institutions in Israel. Designed originally for top grads from national religious high schools, the student body of 4,000 includes some 1,500 Haredim.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the rabbinical ban on Internet use. Whether it’s seen as a source of pornography or a medium that wastes valuable time that should be used for Torah study, Haredi rabbinical leaders have emphatically told followers that avoiding the Internet is “do or die” and must be avoided at all costs. That, one assumes, would include choice of career — adding another element to the reluctance of Haredim to enter the tech world.

But even this may be changing, said Margalit. “I’ve discussed the issue of Haredim and the Internet with some of the top rabbinical leaders in Jerusalem, and they have asked me some difficult questions. I told them that I have three teenage daughters (who are a built older now), and that I, too, am very uncomfortable with much of the content on the Internet, even though I am from a secular background. We had some interesting conversations,” Margalit added, “and I think they were impressed with some of things we are doing with Haredim in the companies we sponsor. They understand that parnassa, earning an income, is a very important issue for Haredi families, and they understand that the Internet today is a part of that.”

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