School helps haredim move from old tradition to high-tech

"My bosses saw that I didn't know too much so they put me to work in quality assurance," says the haredi (fervently religious) mother of five.

Prevented by haredi rules from studying in a mixed-sex classroom, Rafaelo might have been headed for a lifetime of checking products on an assembly line. But then she found out about a new school that provides technical training to fervently religious men and women.

Tucked into a quiet corner of Mea She'arim, Jerusalem's famous fervently religious quarter, the Haredi Center for Technological Studies is the first technical school geared to residents' needs. Since it opened in 1997, the school's student body has risen from 35 to 1,200.

In part, that's due to the enormous success and wealth of Israel's high-tech economy, which stands in stark contrast to the crushing poverty many fervently religious Jews experience.

According to a 1997 study by the Jerusalem Institute, 51 percent of haredim live below the poverty line — as compared to 24 percent of Arab Israelis and 15 percent of new immigrants to Israel.

Haredi men, who enter a yeshiva between fourth and eighth grade, are typically supported by community funds and by wives who often work menial jobs. Since families tend to be large, there's often a shortfall between a family's income and its needs.

It's a gulf that has given some in the community pause for thought — and has motivated others to take action.

"We wanted to provide job placement and reduce the number of families living on welfare — but also to foster tolerance in Israeli society," says Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, the school's director and founder.

"There was a big need in Israel to fill jobs in the high-tech community, and people were coming from China, India, wherever," Fogel continues. "But we had a big pool of people here we could train."

As it sends more and more haredim out into the general workforce, the school is providing a vital link between the fervently religious and the general population.

Female students, who attend school during the day, and their male counterparts, who study at night, come to learn everything from basic computer maintenance to advanced programming.

Upon graduating, they go to work as networking technicians, systems administrators, graphic artists and programmers. For the first time, haredim are sitting alongside their non-Orthodox counterparts in high-tech companies.

"In the three years that our graduates have been out in the workforce, there have been impacts," says Fogel. "Where our graduates are employed, people have learned to have mutual tolerance and respect."

That's good news for a society where opposition between religious and secular groups has often led to violent clashes.

Politics, however, isn't uppermost in the minds of Chaya Miller, Tsipi Rose and Rachel Halperin, students in Ariela Schindler's technical English class. The three 19-year-olds are mostly concerned about getting a good job.

"We want to be software engineers," says Rose. "This school was good for us because we're religious."

"It's a very good place," says Miller, who adds that her parents are delighted she's attending the school. "They see me working hard at home, and they think it's great."

For the school's male students, who have less secular education than their female counterparts, it usually takes longer to come up to speed on technical subjects.

Before taking computer courses, students are required to spend three months studying in a general course, which is designed to fill the gaps in their knowledge of algebra, geometry and English. Then they start computer classes.

"We tell employers that our graduates are not quite the same as college graduates but they're well prepared and can prove themselves on the job," says Fogel.

If the proof's in the paycheck, Fogel's right. Many graduates "have reported back to us that their salaries were doubled within a year."

All of that is undoubtedly shaking up a community traditionally geared more toward Torah than technology.

The high-tech revolution has created a dilemma for fervently religious rabbis, who recognize its potential benefits as well as its drawbacks. In January, a coalition of haredi leaders issued a ruling that for the most part banned followers from using the Internet, proclaiming that it could lead to "sin" and "destruction." Previous rulings have been issued against cars and televisions.

And yet, Fogel and his co-founders discovered that leading Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Chassidic rabbis in the community were prepared to give the school their blessing. "They recognize that many people are having difficulty living off support from the yeshiva," says Fogel, who adds with a sigh, "Normally, it's unusual that they'd agree on anything."

Says Professor Yehiel Weinberger, the school's academic director, "Three years ago, we were very afraid that we were upsetting the haredi community, upsetting mores." But in fact, Weinberger points out, the school represents a return to traditional Jewish values rather than a repudiation of them.

In the past, religious scholars such as Maimonides, the famous medieval doctor-scholar, "were present and known in the sciences," Weinberger says. It was only after the Holocaust that fears of annihilation led fervently religious rabbis to encourage lifelong Torah study. "We've established a clergy in Israel, which isn't really a Jewish tradition.

"But we've also established that we can return to a society based on real and true involvement in the community at large."

Nevertheless, Fogel wanted to make sure the school upheld the highest religious values. Since the Torah reveres experts — whose advice can sometimes supersede written law — it made sense to seek an affiliation with the Technion, Israel's premier scientific university based in Haifa.

"If a doctor tells you to do something against the halachah, you can do it because he's a professional," says Fogel.

The Technion supervises all the school's courses, and graduates get a Technion diploma, which is "very meaningful to employers," says Fogel.

For Technion Professor Daniel Hershkowitz, who helped forge a connection between the two institutions, there were many reasons to be excited about the collaboration. "In my opinion, this is one of the most important missions in Israel today," he says. "It has the potential to integrate the haredi sector into Israeli society."

Though it may not be easy to make the transition from Torah to high-tech, haredi programmers have a lot to offer their new employers, says Fogel.

For Rafaelo, the Haredi Center is a blessing indeed. Eyes shining, fingers fidgeting on the keyboard of her computer, she looks up.

"I love to program," she says.