Israeli nonprofit helps haredi women get jobs

Nava Gabai, an Israeli mother of six from a haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, family, designs delicate gold-fill necklaces interspersed with colored crystals. Until a few months ago, she worked at home, making her jewelry and selling mostly to friends and acquaintances.

Then she rented an office at the hub, an incubator of sorts for women’s businesses near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Her “office” is a room where she can come anytime she wants to work on her jewelry.

Ultra-Orthodox women learn job skills at Temech in Jerusalem. photo/the media line

“When you go out to work, you don’t do laundry in the middle of working, or cooking in the middle, and your neighbors can’t knock on the door,” she said. “When I need quiet to work, I come here.”

The hub gives her more than office space. Along the main hallway are showcases where the artists can exhibit, and hopefully sell, their work.

Gabai says that until she came to the hub she felt very much alone in her work. Since joining the hub, her sales have gone up 30 to 50 percent, she said. “Most artists aren’t very good at marketing,” she explained. “Here I was able to get tools that I need.”

The hub is part of Temech, a nonprofit organization funded by ultra-Orthodox American donors to encourage more haredi women to succeed in the Israeli labor market.

“Since 2008, we’ve placed almost 4,500 women in jobs ranging from call centers, to high tech, to finance, to exercise teachers, to dental hygienists,” said Temech CEO Shaindy Babad.

Ultra-Orthodox women face some unique challenges, according to Babad. They are often uncomfortable talking about themselves and come across as very shy. Many of the women have large families (10 or even 12 children is not uncommon) and employers worry that the women’s attendance will suffer. Some are uneasy working in close proximity to men who are not family members. Many of the women do not have Internet access at home, concerned that their children will browse sites that are not compatible with their lifestyle.

Government statistics show that 68 percent of haredi women are part of Israel’s labor force, as opposed to 76 percent of all Israeli women. But, Babad said, many work in part-time or low-wage jobs. A recent survey found that 27 percent of employers would prefer not to hire haredi mothers, while the number who would prefer not to hire haredi men was 37 percent.

Some of the women are re-entering the work force after many years of raising children. Ani Lorber grew up secular, and has a degree in computer science from the Technion in Haifa. But she has spent the past 20 years out of the workforce.

“I had my children and I made a choice to be with my family first,” she said. “But now my children are out of the house.”

Lorber is currently finishing an eight-month Temech course in medical coding. The 19 women finishing the course are guaranteed full-time employment.

 So far, Temech seems to be giving their clients the leg up they need. At the Israel Electric Corporation, for example, an average of four in 10 applicants pass the initial screening process, Babad said. Before Temech entered the picture, fewer than one in 10 haredi women made it through. Now some eight of 10 succeed, and the Electric Corporation has asked Temech to send more workers.

In some cases, haredi women are the sole breadwinners in their family. Many ultra-Orthodox men engage in religious study full-time, while their wives work.

Such is the case with Nava Gabai, the jewelry maker.

“This is our way of life; this is what we were born for,” Gabai says. “I don’t see it as a choice. This is simply how it is.”

She says her husband is supportive of her efforts to expand her business.

“He is very happy about everything that makes me feel good,” she said. “Since I started coming here I’m happy and I feel like I’m advancing professionally.”