At exactly 7:55 each morning Yonah finishes preparing the children for heder. Yonah, wife of the head of Modi’in Illit’s yeshiva, gives her kids a goodbye kiss and a glatt kosher sandwich, and goes to work in the high tech company near her home in the ultra-Orthodox silicon valley.
Yonath took a four-month course, and now she has a job finding online information about New York state real estate which she reports to her American customers. All the workers here are women except for the boss, and all the women in Yonah’s row of cubicles wear the head covering of married Orthodox women. And every day at exactly 2:30 p.m., they all go home to their children.
In just two years Modiin Illit has undergone a high tech revolution that has changed the once-impoverished town to a place where high tech companies are standing in line to open offices.
While ultra-Orthodox Knesset members were complaining of budget cuts and getting nowhere, Mayor Ya’akov Guterman, realizing that his town was facing economic disaster, led the revolution. Now, no less than 800 of the town’s 6,500 families have women working in the local high tech industry.
“I was a housewife for several years and an office worker in an HMO for a few years. Before I came here I was unemployed and I wasn’t looking for work,” says Yonah. “The atmosphere here is appropriate, I’m treated well, and the hours are convenient.”
800 responses in one day
Modiin Ilit was founded 10 years ago in the wake of a real estate crisis in the ultra-Orthodox world. The inability of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to accommodate all the newly-married couples gave rise to projects involving new cities outside the traditional ultra-Orthodox areas.
Betar Illit was built near Jerusalem, and the late Rabbi Shach ordered some of his students to found a new city near Modi’in, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They bought private lands and began to sell low-cost apartments. In 1996 Modi’in Illit was officially recognized by the government.
The town’s families have an average of 5.8 children, and only 11 percent have a car, so working in another city was nearly impossible. And as if this weren’t enough, 70 percent of the men study in yeshiva and government child allowances had been drastically cut, which meant that another generation was being raised in poverty.
The first signs of change began in 2002 when Guterman, who entered office a year and a half earlier, started to wonder what the women were doing with themselves all day, and why they didn’t contribute to the family income.
“When I got here I walked around the streets and saw young women wearing housecoats and scarves on their heads, with young children in strollers, sitting in the gardens in the afternoon and soaking in the sun. These were educated young women with post-high school education, going around doing nothing.
“I went to the government offices and told anyone who was prepared to listen that we had to do something, that this was a time bomb that had to be dealt with.”
Guterman argued that the correct economic model for a town like his was men studying in yeshiva - no point in arguing about that - and women working in high tech and supporting the family.
With the support of then Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor Ehud Olmert, Guterman raised the necessary funds, and in May 2004 the government decided to include Modiin Illit in a call center project that granted benefits to businesses that hired unemployed women.
When the local government published an ad in a local paper, in one day they received 800 resumes of young women with education equivalent to a BA.
Says Guterman, “I made one of my secretaries into the employment coordinator, we prepared an exact segmentation of the women, and we started convincing the companies to get involved. We explained that we had high-quality women who just needed a small bit of training to get into high tech.”
Thou shall not waste time
The first company to arrive was Citybook, owned by American businessman Joe Rosenbaum, a real estate magnate and former yeshiva student. Guterman convinced Rosenbaum that a high tech industry would be built there and Rosenbaum decided to risk it, figuring that even if he didn’t make money he’d be giving charity.
"I could never understand why haredim weren't succeeding in the Israeli workforce," says Rosenbaum today, "and realized that they need an environment attuned to their religious sensitivities, as they definitely want to work, have a very high work ethic, and are fantastic employees."
Citybook works on two fronts: the first is "lease abstracting" – summarizing multi-hundred-page commercial real estate leases to 3-4 page executive summaries; the second is performing on-line title insurance searches required for purchases. 150 Haredi women, each of whom went through a rigorous four-and-a-half month long training course, are employed in the company.
The Citybook workday ends at 2:30 p.m. to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox women. "Even so," says Eli Kazhdan, Citybook's project manager, "it was a worthwhile investment.
“The quality of the young women is great. You can’t compare the quality here with India in terms of work ethic, quality of the work, and commitment. If you walk around here you won’t hear one cell phone ringing. When they photocopy two-three pages for personal use they ask how much they have to pay. If someone makes a phone call to her family she stays a few minutes longer on her own initiative to make up the time that she wasn’t working.
"The ultra-Orthodox women know what wasting time is. When I worked for the government it was a commandment to waste time. Here it’s the opposite.”
Other companies have followed the example of Citybook and set up offices in Modiin Illit. Chaim Arbel, who wears a hat and suit on Shabbat and Tommy Hilfiger shirts on weekdays, manages the local offices of Image Store, which offers electronic archiving, scanning, and document digitization services.