Ahuva Mori, nine months pregnant and the mother of two toddlers, wakes up at 5:45 a.m. to get to work, making it possible for her husband to spend his days studying Jewish religious texts.
Mori, one of about 800 ultra-orthodox Israeli women employed by a Matrix IT Ltd. unit in Modiin Illit, outside Tel Aviv, says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is my choice,” said Mori, 24, a software developer for Matrix Global since 2007. “I see Torah study as the supreme value. I would only want him to work as a last resort.”
Ultra-orthodox, or haredi, women are joining the Israeli labor force in increasing numbers and many are choosing to work in technology, attracted in part by the industry’s willingness to accommodate their religious lifestyle. While that has helped keep jobs that might otherwise have gone offshore, their husbands’ joblessness is a drag on economic growth, according to the Bank of Israel and the International Monetary Fund.
“A continued increase in the share of the population which does not participate in the workforce cannot continue forever, and so will have to stop,” Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said earlier this year. The imbalance has to be corrected for the health of the economy, he added. The central bank predicts growth will slow to 3.1 percent this year from 4.8 percent in 2010 and 2011.
While the ultra-Orthodox make up about 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, they will represent 17 percent of working-age Israelis in 20 years because of their high birth rate, according to the bank. By the late 2050s they will account for a quarter of the population, a March 9 IMF report found.
The ultra-orthodox, along with Arab-Israelis, have the lowest labor participation and highest poverty rates in Israel.
“The haredi and Arab participation problem has already caused poverty,” according to the IMF report. “If not addressed, this will also cause growth to slow sharply.”
The ultra-orthodox are increasing the most, based on information available on fertility minus mortality, according to Jon Anson, a sociologist at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
“This is a community that is large and growing quickly and the broader public is losing patience,” said Omer Moav, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K., and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Dedication to Torah study isn’t what keeps all ultra-orthodox men from taking jobs, he said. They don’t receive an education to prepare them for the labor force, and many choose to let their wives earn paychecks because Israel requires men to serve in the military when they turn 18, before taking full-time jobs, Moav said. By Israeli law, yeshiva students are exempt from the mandatory draft as long as they remain in seminary.
“We should simply allow the ultra-orthodox to work,” he said.
The haredim, as they’re called in Hebrew, often live in segregated communities and maintain strict separation of the sexes outside the home. Men dress in white shirts, black trousers, black coats and black hats, while women are modestly clothed in long-sleeve dresses or skirts that fall well below the knee. Married women cover their hair with wigs or scarves.
In a twist on the American term “breadwomen,” who support their families while their husbands stay home, haredi women are educated in religious schools with an eye toward the job market.
Girls have 12 years of religious and secular education, and then two years of job training at seminaries that began about eight years ago adding classes in software engineering, graphics and architecture. Boys aren’t offered secular courses after primary levels, the IMF said in its March 9 report.
Most male students between the ages of 17 and 20 don’t see a future in the work force and plan to continue full-time religious studies, according to a survey released May 14 by Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. The majority spend as many as 10 hours a day in seminaries known as yeshivas.
“We believe that God said that if we don’t study Torah we have no reason to exist,” said Yerach Tucker, a spokesman for Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, a member of parliament from the United Torah Judaism party. “You can laugh at it or not, but this is our belief.”
Tucker said seminary students get monthly stipends from the government of about 800 shekels ($200) in addition to as much as 1,200 shekels a month distributed by seminaries to married students from money raised through donations. The families also benefit from government child subsidies of as much as 300 shekels per child.
“They make do with very little,” Tucker said.
About 61 percent of haredi women work compared with 45 percent of the community’s men, according to the Bank of Israel. Among other Jews, the proportion of men in labor force is about 80 percent, with more males employed than women. In the case of Arab-Israelis, men also are more likely to work than women.
In 2009, only 25 percent of Arab-Israeli women of working age were employed, compared with 71 percent of the men in the community, according to a report by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem.
While more haredi women are working, many have part-time jobs because they’re in charge of raising children and generally have large families, said Ruben Gorbatt, director of programs for haredi employment at JDC Israel-Tevet. “I’m not saying it’s not good,” Gorbatt said. “It is appropriate to their way of life. What is unfortunate is that it raises the chance that a working haredi woman will still be poor.”
The government has set a goal of bringing employment rates for both haredi men and women to about 63 percent by 2020; the rate among the general Jewish population is 78 percent. Employers get state subsidies for each haredi employee for as many as five years. The government also subsidizes courses from on-the-job training to academic studies, and is creating ultra-orthodox employment centers.
The IMF called on the government in February to tie benefits such as child care to employment, saying the country’s long-term stability will “remain in question” unless more haredi men and Arab-Israeli women work.
There are costs to women carrying the burden of supporting the family, said Menachem Friedman, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
“It disturbs the bonds between husband and wife in the family and creates a lot of problems,” he said, citing a rise in ultra-orthodox divorce rates. Where divorce used to be “really very rare,” it is now “more frequent,” while lower than in the general population, he said.
“Women have more power in the family and that power speaks for itself,” Friedman said. “It is significant that there are more divorces.”
In Matrix’s Modiin Illit, an ultra-orthodox enclave in the West Bank built to provide low-cost housing for those who couldn’t afford apartments in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, about 70 percent of the population was unemployed when Yaakov Guterman, the bearded mayor, took office 12 years ago.
“I saw young women sitting in the sun with their baby carriages,” he said. “They built housing for them here, but no one had thought about what they would do.”
Guterman successfully lobbied the government to subsidize haredi employment, as well as daycare for their children. He obtained government funding for as many as 200 daycare centers and courted investors and companies with promises of recruitment aid and savings in the form of the state subsidies.
Matrix Global, a software company, opened an office in 2005, with separate kitchenettes and eating areas for men and women. While male clients can meet one-on-one with female employees, office doors are fitted with large clear glass panels. A rabbi is available to answer religious questions from both staff and management.
The workday is eight hours instead of the standard nine for Israeli technology companies, allowing women to get home in time for daycare pickup. Employees may get transportation to and from work if they don’t own a car or don’t know how to drive.
Even with the costs associated with the arrangements, Matrix Global is profitable, according to Ram Yonish, vice-president for marketing and business development.
“Haredi women in high tech has caught on so well that lots of companies want to try to do it too,” said Yonish.
Ultra-orthodox female technology experts are willing to work for less pay than the average employee in exchange for more flexible hours and what they consider an appropriate workplace, said Libi Affen, chief operating officer of Matrix Global and an ultra-orthodox mother of six.
The company benefits as the attrition rate is very low and the women are the “cream of the crop” in terms of intelligence and motivation, she said.
At least 2,000 ultra-orthodox women work in technology companies in Israel and the numbers are increasing, said Shaindy Babad, director of Temech, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that promotes their employment. She said the technology industry views the ultra-orthodox as chief “talent pools” that can be tapped to fill the shortage of engineers in the country.
Some ultra-Orthodox women have gone as far as to start their own company. Racheli Ganot, 35, a haredi mother of three, is the founder and chief executive officer of Rachip Ltd., which provides design and software services for the semiconductor industry. Customers include Tower Semiconductor Ltd.
Located in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Rachip has a workforce of 70 software designers, all of them haredi women. Most of her employees’ husbands study Torah fulltime, she said.
“It was an opportunity to create more jobs for the haredi world, keep design from going offshore -- it was good for everyone,” Ganot said. Employees with two or three years of experience earn about 12,000 shekels a month, she said, compared with the average Israeli salary of 9,121 shekels.
The positive experience for ultra-orthodox women in the workforce may also affect the community’s men, Affen said: “The whole family unit is being much more exposed to the general culture and understanding that you can get out and work and still continue with your beliefs.”