Tech + Israeli Society I

As the fires are being contained in Israel and after spending Thanksgiving with friends and family I decided to write next about groups of disadvantaged people who have less than I do but who are using technology to create wealth and level the playing field. During my “10,000 hours of coffee meetings” in Israel over the summer I met with the top 1% of the Israeli success story. Those who were living the Startup Nation dream; the subset of venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs, and residents of the Tel Aviv area bubble. While the success of the Startup Nation over the last twenty years has helped propel many Israelis’ standard of living to levels comparable to those of Western Europeans, the bulk of wealth (as is the case in tech globally) has not reached those populations most at risk.

Thankfully however, Israel has rich traditions based on ideas such as Tikkun Olam; it’s citizens (and government) have helped in bringing up those in society who have less, and the tech community has been on the forefront of working to find solutions to the most pressing challenges. In many cases it has been the age old adage of teaching a man (or woman) to fish.

In the following posts I’m going address how technology is positively impacting and influencing communities such as the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs (Israeli and Palestinians) the disabled (and elderly) and women minorities as well as what that means for Israel. Most importantly, I’d like to address what are the key takeaways as well as what we can learn from these groups’ challenges.

I’ll start with the ultra-Orthodox as they are the fasting growing population in Israel making up eleven percent of the population (and are rapidly growing) with a birthrate more than double the national average. They’re also a demographic which is now wielding a significant amount of political power in Israel’s multi-party coalition political system because of their rising numbers. Despite attempts of the rabbis heading theses communities to hold on to power and insulate the community from outside influences, there have been significant culture changes in Haredi society because of the proliferation of technology, namely smartphones. While many members of the Haredi community use kosher smartphones (namely Internet filters that are designed to keep out objectionable content) there is a major influx of regular smartphones which have access to the outside world. Imagine someone growing up their entire life with a set of rigid beliefs dictated and enforced by society only to see that there is another world accessed by a small device using Google which they can conceal in their pocket. Nero’s decision to take the red pill in the Matrix comes to mind.

In addition to (and to a degree because of it) Haredi have began entering the workforce, particularly in the field of tech. If in the past it was shameful for a young student to want to work and support his (or her family) in 2016 Israeli society it is acceptable for a young Haredi to work alongside studying Torah. While there is general enthusiasm for the desire of the Haredi to enter the workforce, years of imposed isolation from the world at large has put many Haredim at a disadvantage in trying to break into the field.

As Moshe Friedman, KamaTech’s CEO, who himself comes from a Haredi family points out “if I want to be a rabbi, I have a lot of friends who can find me a very good job, but if I want to be an engineer in Microsoft or Cisco, I don’t know anybody in those companies.” As the next section will illustrate, social entrepreneurs have emerged from the Haredi community to tackle these challenges:

Kamatech

The organization which is the vanguard in leading the revolution of the Haredi entering the workforce is Kamatech, an accelerator based in Jerusalem which as quoted on their website is “a unique program established to facilitate the successful integration of Haredim into the Israeli high-tech workforce”. Kamatech is an organization which successfully integrates Haredi into the Israeli workforce; specifically the tech sector. It’s funding sources range from the tech giants, Intel, IBM, Google to New York philanthropic organizations such as UJA-Federation. The program’s goal is to accelerate Haredi entrepreneurs start-ups which will ultimately compete not just on the Israeli market but on the global one.

I’d like to highlight one startup in particular which graduated from Kamatech called BrilliaNetor; an artificial intelligence platform which can be applied in cyber defense, cloud computing and military. This startup was founded by Dr. Meirav Hadad who is an ultra-Orthodox woman with a PhD in computer science. Here we have a case of a startup utilizing the advanced technologies in some of the most technologically forward industries This would not have been possible five or ten years ago.

Kamatech is progressing with the launch of their first venture capital fund called 12 Angels in collaboration with the women led equity crowdfunding site iAngels focusing on education technology, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and fintech. Capital naturally flows to great ideas and initiatives, regardless of age, sex, or religion.

Avratech: Tech Wise Academy

Avratech is where the motivation to enter the workforce meets the skills needed to compete in the competitive tech industry. Avratech is a platform which could eventually train and employ thousands of Haredi men with it’s twelve month course in software programming (as well guaranteeing employment in its programming business). The program is divided into two six month parts; the first focusing on the basics of math, English, and computer science; the second on the programming languages themselves (PHP, Python, and Java). This all takes places in the context of daily Torah study, and with the consent of many of the rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community :

Alongside with integrating ultra-Orthodox men into mainstream of Israeli society Avratech also works to help to ease the labor shortage in the tech industry. In fact, the same skill and the years studying text have prepared the ultra-Orthodox to work in this field. Moshe Slaven, a 26-year-old Haredi man from Jerusalem on learning how to code states that “learning the Talmud involves wrapping our minds around a certain problem and looking at it from different approaches and trying to find different solutions…programming is very similar, especially the way of thinking.”

After finishing the course, the graduates are guaranteed at least thirty months work in Avratech’s business arm, RavTech, where they provide software programming and development services to a range of clients from financial service companies to content providers and Haredi media companies.

Shahar

The IDF has traditionally served as the first incubator in Israeli culture, integrating and socializing new populations upon entering mandatory military service. Despite the current controversy around women in combat units the IDF still plays a major part in Israeli society. Similar to how technology and skills developed in the IDF helped bring about the creation of the Startup Nation, the IDF has been ahead of the trend in civilian life in it’s efforts to integrate the ultra-Orthodox. An example is the Nahal Haredi program which deploys ultra-Orthodox soldiers in field combat duty and is a few years short of its twenty year anniversary.

The IDF efforts to utilize the Ultra-Orthodox in technical roles have been lead by Shahar, a program part of the IDF’s C4I Directorate. Shahar, (translated as sunrise, the word is also a Hebrew acronym for “integrating Haredim”) is similar to Avratech but condensed into a six month program where the soldiers learn the technical skills. (As someone who personally took courses during my time in the IDF I can attest to the accelerated range of learning). As a lieutenant who commands the program states “there is a lot of Zionism in many segments of the Haredi community, a lot more than people realize, but what drives them to take the leap and join the army is the prospect of learning skills that will be worth something in the workplace.”

Another program which is similar and lesser known is taking place in the IDF’s intelligence branch with a program called “Green Intelligence”. “Green Intelligence” is designed as indicated by its website for “teachings of his faith” who want to leave the labor market and have not yet served compulsory military service. Similar to Shahar the program is geared towards more mature Haredi men who want to learn skill sets which will help them on the job market (and while not openly stated have the approval of some of the rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox community). Manpower has never been a problem for the IDF, and the soldiers enrolled in these programs are a small number, but it is a start. The IDF has become a more egalitarian army and it understands the importance of integrating populations like the ultra-Orthodox into the service.

Takeaway

The programs and trends I covered give me optimism. Just a few years ago there it was common for your average secular Israeli to harbor a lot of animosity towards the ultra-Orthodox because of their reluctance to work (and live off government subsidies) as well as not enlist in the IDF. That is just not the case today, and the constant stream of both ultra-Orthodox men (and women) into the workforce is helping to continue to propel the Israeli GDP’s growth.

Here in the United States we can learn from how Israel has used a variety of institutions; military, community leaders, and educational programs (usually all at once) to accelerate this trend. We cannot however discount the introduction of technology (smartphones) as a possibly catalyst for change.