Shalom Life | August 07, 2015

Empowering Haredim and Uniting Israel Through Technology Education

We need to ensure that Orthodox Jews who wanted to break the cycle of poverty have the resources to do so

By: Avi Rosenfeld

Published: August 5th, 2015 in Business » Israel

Photo: Haredim studying technology

Credit: Haaretz


Call me a nerd, but I'm hooked on technology. I am especially fascinated by artificial intelligence, namely bioinformatics, robotics, and human-computer interaction. For this reason, I have made technology my life’s work.

After earning my PhD in computer science, I became a researcher and a professor in order to teach the next generation of scholars about coding, information systems, and business management, among other things. I believe that an education in technology is the key to the future, and I want to give my students the best head start possible.

That said, what continuously surprises me is that a relatively small percentage of Israelis are taking advantage of the country's robust technology landscape. This is particularly interesting (or disheartening) when you realize just how many Israelis are out of work. And then there are those, predominantly from Israel's Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) population, who refuse to even seek employment.

Haredim typically marry and have more children at a younger age than the average Israeli citizen and, therefore, have a harder time finishing school. This, coupled with their general inclination to steer clear of secular life and education to focus on religious studies, and you are left with a situation that leads to an entire segment of the population that is virtually unemployable, and thus living below the poverty line and heavily reliant on government funds.

Though this reality is a point of contention in Israeli society, I sincerely believe that it doesn’t have to be (neither a reality nor a point of contention). We have the ability to press the reset button on this issue and all we would have to do is sign on to two (rather major) societal adjustments.

First, we would need to ensure that Haredim who wanted to break the cycle of poverty have the ability to do so. That would mean providing them with the resources necessary to complete school, including both educational tutoring and moral support. If Haredim could successfully earn high school and college degrees and enter the workforce, they could become fully self-sufficient. Though this sounds obvious and simplistic, it is important to realize that we are actually talking about rebooting an entire way of life for thousands of individuals. As such, even this "simplest" of plans needs to be implemented with great care and increased support.

Second, we must introduce an educational framework that is specifically designed for the Haredi community. A perfect example is the programming developed for the Haredi community at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), where I teach. As a vocationally-minded school that caters to the Haredi sector, JCT created a special educational track that includes gender-separated classes, a Mechina program, and a mix of religious and vocational classes in order to provide a welcoming environment for Haredim who wouldn't enroll in higher education otherwise.

These two monumental shifts would result in a wholly employable Haredi community, significantly impacting their status in society. In addition to granting them independence from government subsidies, gainful employment would allow them to remain well above them above the poverty line. And once one generation of Haredim is educated, the cycle of achievement would extend to the following generations, potentially resolving the issue for good.

Educating Israel's Haredi population appropriately will also solve other hidden societal issues. In addition to easing the tensions between Haredim and secular Israelis, who currently feel as though they are carrying too much of the societal burden, having Haredim in the workplace will finally allow these two groups to interact. Once Haredim are equipped with the skills to work alongside their fellow Israeli citizens, they will be able to develop relationships with individuals who were previously very critical of their way of life, allowing for better understanding and mutual respect across the board.

So, by empowering the Haredi community with strong technology education we would not only establish Haredi self-sufficiency but also strengthen the national economy, lower the unemployment rate, and create of mutual respect between the Haredi and secular communities. It's a lofty goal, but a wholly attainable one.

Though it is sure to have its detractors, my two-point plan for Haredi education is only "over-simplified" or "unfeasible" if we view it as such. The truth is that the proposed societal shifts are entirely workable and the dream scenario described above is truly within our reach. If we want to see Israel at its strongest, we need to start extending ourselves toward the achievement of this goal.

Dr. Avi Rosenfeld, PhD is a professor of Bioinformatics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and is involved in many cutting-edge research projects relating to data science and human computer interactions, including a project to predict cancer and other initiatives with industry partners at Samsung Communications, General Motors (GM), and Elbit Systems. He resides with his wife and four children in Yad Binyamin, Israel.

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