Ultra-Orthodox Code Writers Help Israel Ease Tech Labor Shortageby
Software shop Ravtech teaches devout Jews high-tech skills
Nudging isolated community into nation's economic mainstream
Itzik Friedland, an ultra-Orthodox father of three from Tel Aviv, had an audacious request for the rabbis he respected. Would it be OK if he learned computer coding and started work as a software developer?
It was an unusual ask because devout Israeli Jews like Friedland are expected to eschew the modern, secular world for the study of ancient Talmudic texts. In this case, however, Friedland was proposing to join an experimental vocational program that offers men like him high-tech skills and jobs, while allowing them to continue their religious studies. The rabbis assented and Friedland, 28, is about to graduate.
The program is run by a software shop called Ravtech. Though still small, the concept could take hold elsewhere and eventually play a critical role in helping Israel plug a 10,000-person shortage of software developers and nudge the isolated ultra-Orthodox community into the economic mainstream. Friedland, who has always loved computers and dabbled as a graphic artist at home, sought and won his family’s approval.
“There are those from my community who view such projects with a jaundiced eye,” he says. “I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I received.”
The program is the brainchild of French-born David Charles Leybel, a rabbi-businessman who set up Ravtech expressly to provide training and work experience for ultra-Orthodox men, also known as haredim.
The firm is located in a nondescript building in the mostly ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak. On a recent afternoon, a group of men, all wearing traditional black suits and white shirts, were toiling on a mobile app. They’d started their day with three hours of prayer and study of Jewish texts before climbing a flight of stairs to either study or work.
Here they learn basic English, math and coding languages such as Java and Python -- a radical departure for a group taught from childhood to shun the corrupting influences of the Internet, social media and television (Web access at Ravtech is supervised to screen out inappropriate content).
“People who never used Facebook or a smartphone are building applications for both,” said Greg Zaoui, a Ravtech instructor who oversees newly trained developers. He says his team of computer rookies is top-notch.
When Ravtech opened two years ago, 100 people applied and some neighborhood elders feared a slippery slope toward a secular lifestyle. This year, 700 are bidding for spots in the next course, hoping to join graduates developing mobile and Web applications and tools for quality analysis. A Jerusalem training facility could be next.
“Today everything is smooth,” says Ahron Safrai, who runs Ravtech’s training program. “They see that the people working here didn’t change the way they dress or do anything bad. Ravtech is a solution for good Torah scholars who want to be able to support their families.”
This is no small concern. Only about 45 percent of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox men work, pushing down the country’s employment rate. The haredi population is expected to balloon to 18 percent from 11 percent of the total in the next 15 years, and policy makers increasingly see joblessness among the ultra-Orthodox as a threat to growth. Coders from programs like Ravtech’s could help alleviate the shortage of programmers, says Michal Tzuk, a senior official at the Ministry of Economy, and lift the tech sector, long Israel’s economic engine.
“Every step to bring the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce is welcome, especially into high tech,” Tzuk says.
The government plans to launch a number of programs designed to encourage the haredim to work as coders, including offering multinationals like Intel Corp. incentives to outsource through such companies as Ravtech.
Graduates of Ravtech’s yearlong training program are guaranteed 30 months of employment there. The men earn about $18,000 a year, the approximate market rate for junior programmers. After completing the Ravtech stint, they’re free to stay on, work for other companies or set up their own firms.
The experience isn’t for everyone. Vered Mor, Ravtech’s chief executive officer, says 30 percent of those accepted to the program leave during the training period. Mor, who is secular, attributes the drop-out rate to long hours away from home and difficulties meeting high standards. The haredim, accustomed to debate and argue a point until one is done, also initially find deadlines, exams and working on a schedule difficult, others working with the community say.
Itzik Friedland, however, thrived and has inspired friends and family to take the plunge.
Before Ravtech, he says, “I couldn’t see my future in technology. An ultra-Orthodox man didn’t have the opportunity to work in an environment suitable to his life.”