Then she rented an office at the hub, an incubator of sorts for women’s businesses near Jerusalem’s central bus station. Her "office" is a room where she can come anytime she wants to work on her jewelry.
"When you go out to work, you don’t do laundry in the middle of working, or cooking in the middle, and your neighbors can’t knock on the door," she told The Media Line with a smile. "When I need quiet to work, I come here."
The hub gives her much more than office space, however. Along the main hallway are showcases where the artists can exhibit, and hopefully sell, their work. Gabai apologizes that her jewelry is not there right now, because it’s being sold at a large crafts fair for haredi women nearby.
Gabai says that until she came to the hub she felt very much alone in her work. Since joining the hub, her sales have gone up "between 30% and 50%."
"Most artists aren’t very good at marketing," explained Gabai. "Here I was able to get tools that I really need. Recently, I started showcasing my jewelry in a store. People here helped me devise a legal contract since I’m giving them my jewelry."
The hub is part of Temech, a non-profit organization funded by ultra-Orthodox American donors to encourage more haredi women to succeed in the Israeli labor market. Last year’s budget was $1.7 million, while this year’s jumped to reach $2.8 million.
"Since 2008, we’ve placed almost 4,500 women with different companies, across the map geographically, in jobs ranging from call centers, to high tech, to finance, to exercise teachers to dental hygienists," Temech CEO Shaindy Babad told The Media Line.
Ultra-Orthodox women face some unique challenges, according to Babad. They are often uncomfortable talking about themselves and come across as very shy. Many of the women have large families (10 or even 12 children is not uncommon) and employers worry that the women’s attendance will suffer. Some are uneasy working in close proximity to men who are not family members. Many of the women do not have access to Internet at home, concerned that their children will browse sites that are not compatible with their lifestyle.
Many ultra-Orthodox women need a little coaching to succeed in the job market in Israel. At the Israel Electric Corporation, for example, an average of four in 10 applicants pass the initial screening process, Babad said. But before Temech entered the picture, less than one in 10 women from the haredi community made it through. Now some eight of 10 succeed, and the Electric Corporation has asked Temech to send it more workers.
"We want this to make market sense – it’s got to be a win for the company," Babad said. "We believe the market forces are stronger than us. If we can tap into that, they’ll drive themselves."
Government statistics indicate that 68% of the haredi women are part of Israel’s labor force, as opposed to 76% of all Israeli women. But, says Babad, many of the women are working in part-time or low wage jobs. There is also discrimination against haredim. A survey released this week found that 27% of employers would prefer not to hire haredi mothers, while the number who would prefer not to higher haredi men was 37%.
Unique life mission
Temech also encourages women to start their own businesses and offers training and workshops to help them do so. Most of the professional literature on entrepreneurship is in English, which many of the women did not study in school. The idea of women business owners in the ultra-Orthodox world is still relatively new.
"Entrepreneurship is a lonely profession – you’re on your own, you make all the decisions, there’s nobody to blame and nobody to share information with," Leah Aharoni, who runs a business coaching business, told The Media Line.
"For haredi women, it’s a nascent concept. When they go down to the playground, if they’re teachers they can talk about school and grades. With entrepreneurs, nobody shares their dilemmas and problems and there is nobody to bounce things off of."
Aharoni’s current business grew out of her experience as a mentor for younger women who are starting their first business. She encourages the women to find a unique business niche.
"According to Judaism, every person comes into the world with a unique life mission that’s only your own," she said. "I help women understand what they are uniquely capable of offering the world. I tell them, 'Let's see how your career and your business can support that mission in the world.'"
Temech’s hub is on the ninth floor of a modern building. Several dozen desks with new computers and comfortable purple desk chairs can be rented by the hour or by the day. The offices are rented by the month. Classes and workshops are heavily subsidized but the women do pay something.
Some of the women are re-entering the work force after many years of raising their children. Ani Lorber grew up secular, and has a degree in computer science from the Technion in Haifa. But she has spent the past 20 years out of the workforce.
"I had my children and I made a choice to be with my family first," she told The Media Line. "But now my children are out of the house. I tried to go back to work, but it’s a man’s world with very demanding hours. I found myself alone in a group of men and it was not comfortable for me."
Lorber is currently finishing an eight-month course offered by Temech in conjunction with HRS, a medical coding firm based in Baltimore. The 19 women finishing the course are guaranteed full-time employment. She says the course has been an excellent learning experience.
"The medical field is so interesting," she said enthusiastically. "We really went through every body system, every disease, every cure, alternative cures, conventional cures and only after all that did we learn how it’s being coded. It is a profession that is interesting and a chance to do something important."
In some of these cases, the women are the sole breadwinners in their family. Many ultra-Orthodox men engage in religious study full-time, while their wives are employed.
Such is the case with Nava Gabai, the jewelry maker.
"This is our way of life this is what we were born for," Gabai says. "I don’t see it as a choice. This is simply how it is."
She says her husband is supportive of her efforts to expand her business.
"He is very happy about everything that makes me feel good," she said. "Since I started coming here I’m happy and I feel like I'm advancing professionally."
Article written by Linda Gradstein
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line