Given economic realities, haredi businesswomen are breaking down stereotypes and taking their places in the workforce.
Jerusalem — When “Rivky,” a fervently Orthodox woman with “a very large family” — she declined to provide numbers, fearful of tempting fate — opened a woman’s clothing shop in the basement of her Jerusalem home 40 years ago, and the need to advertise came up, “there was only one newspaper serving the ‘frum oylom’” she recalled, referring to the “religious world” in Yiddish-accented English. Today, the grandmother said, the growing haredi community “is fragmented.”
“There are four daily papers and 15 100-page circulars published every week, and you get the feeling you have to advertise everywhere. You’re spending all your money on advertising, even before you’re earning anything.”
Eager to discuss the situation with others, Rivky, who like many haredi women declined to share her real name or be photographed for reasons of religious modesty, decided to attend the third annual Kishor Conference for religious businesswomen. From the modest way the participants dressed, the strollers several pushed, and the types of seminars being offered, it was clear this was no ordinary business conference.
Although the 400 attendees, who ranged from Modern Orthodox to haredi, were treated to the kinds of networking and entrepreneurial pep talks any business conference would offer, the event earlier this month also featured remarks (and some warnings) by a prominent rabbi and a workshop entitled “Eshet Chayil – Not Superwoman, Keeping Our Priorities Straight.” There was also a seminar on Internet marketing, despite the admonitions of some haredi rabbis to stay off-line.
The conference’s theme, “Homemaker, Business Builder,” reflected the attendees’ feelings of responsibility to their families, and the belief that, with the proper training and guidance, the same skills they utilize to smoothly run a home with 6 to 15 children can be utilized in the business world.
The conference was an outgrowth of the Kishor Women’s Professional Network established in 2008 (under a different name) to provide a monthly forum for meeting, educating and supporting religious businesswomen or those aspiring to be one.
The gathering took place at a time when a few thousand haredim, both male and female, are pursuing advanced degrees or intensive job training, many in programs tailored to them. Thanks to the secular subjects they study in school, haredi young women are more prepared for a career than their male counterparts, who study only religious subjects in the higher grades. Earlier this month, the Bank of Israel released a survey conducted by the Israeli Bureau of Statistics showing that employment rate in the haredi sector increased from 38 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2011.
While haredi women have always held down jobs as teachers or worked in shops, the need to be the breadwinner while their husbands learn in kollel, the reduction in government child allowances and greater contact with mainstream society, is motivating them to reach farther.
There has been some pushback, though. Kimmy Caplan, an expert in haredi society at Bar-Ilan University, said the desire to impose rigid haredi standards on the wider world stems largely from fear. “There is a battle by certain people in the community, who see women working and what men are being exposed to” in secular society, “and are trying to put up barriers to defend the community. That’s what’s happening in the public sphere.”
Yet, many haredi rabbis do not object to the community’s women establishing their own businesses — if it enables their husbands to learn full-time, and as long as the women work according to the precepts of Jewish law. The rabbis understand that their insular lifestyle is under threat as a growing number of Israelis demand that haredim, who have the most children and lowest workplace participation, earn a living and serve in the army.
Founded by Sarah Lipman, a haredi high-tech entrepreneur, the Kishor network is a way to provide haredi women with the tools and support non-haredi businesspeople usually take for granted – in a religious framework.
Lipman noted that advertisements for mainstream business events “are posted in media that are not seen by the haredi community,” and that networking events “are mixed (men and women) and therefore uncomfortable socially.” Business programs and events “are costly” or “held at hours that children are home from school.”
As in previous years, the conference was sponsored by Temech, an organization that promotes religious women’s participation in the workforce. Signaling greater society’s determination to help haredi families escape the cycle of poverty, it was co-sponsored by Bituach Leumi (Israel’s National Insurance Institute), the Jerusalem Development Authority and the MATI Jerusalem Business Development, with assistance from private companies.
The conference is especially important, some of the participants said, because women aren’t welcome at the annual Management Forum, the premiere, all-male haredi economic conference in Israel.
Among the Kishor participants were store owners, accountants, architects, high-tech entrepreneurs, a doula, graphic designers, a massage therapist, the manufacturer of a line of modest swimwear and a farmer who welcomes people in search of a simcha venue and tourists wishing to spend a day in nature.
Exactly how many haredi women run businesses in Israel isn’t clear, presumably because the community is so insular and also because many enterprises are run off the books. But one of the conference organizers put the figure, unofficially, at about 6,000.
“This hidden economy makes it difficult for the government and NGOs to reach this population and accelerate their economic growth with the kinds of educational and capital support extended in general,” Lipman said.
Temech director Shaindy Babad noted that her organization, which is funded by American philanthropists, offers basic computer training courses in cooperation with the Joint Distribution and Microsoft; another program, facilitated by Temech and Bituach Leumi, offers workplace readiness and one-on-one mentoring.
“One of our goals is to reduce social gaps through work integration of at-risk populations,” Brenda Morginstin, a Bituach Leumi office, said of the haredi population which, along with the Arab sector, has the lowest workplace participation in Israel.
“We want them to reach their potential, despite their shortage of work skills, large families and family attitudes,” Morginstin said.
The successful haredi mentors who spoke during the conference’s final event shared their experiences and know-how to a roomful of eager participants.
“If I’m sitting here, anyone can,” said Elisheva Kligsberg, who related how she came up with the idea to open a school to train event planners during the year-and-a-half she was bedridden following a car accident.
Devorah Zaks, whose company employs 20 other haredi women, said that when her children were small, “I worked mornings and nights” in order to be with the kids when they arrived home from school. When teenagers arrived home just before dinnertime, she shifted her schedule accordingly.
While the speakers talked business fundamentals, they also emphasized their community’s values. “It’s important that the time you spend on your businesses won’t hurt your husband’s or sons’ studies,” Landau told the audience.
While advice like this may sound old-fashioned to non-religious women, “it’s what I needed to hear,” said one participant.
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