Empowering Change

Mendy Zilbershlag at his workplace with at risk single parent families

How Kemach is tackling Israel’s socioeconomic problems head on.

 As the social justice protests of 2010 demonstrated, Israel’s citizens have long felt aggravated by certain sectors of society who they believe are not pulling their weight.    With Israel’s growing Ultra-Orthodox population now numbering around 800,000, and just 40% of working age Ultra-Orthodox men employed, the need for a solution has never been more pressing.

But the challenge is not an easy one. Think-tanks, journalists, and regular Israelis discuss the “Hareidi problem,” but very few organizations have actually developed solutions which both respect and empower this fragile community. The Ultra-Orthodox believe that the preservation of Jewish heritage and deep rooted tradition can only occur through continued Torah study, and this is coupled with a deep-seated fear of the secular workplace. Meanwhile, the extreme attitudes from the opposite end of the spectrum, demanding a complete integration into Israeli society, further compound the problem and do nothing to allay these fears.

While the average monthly household income in Israel is a little under $4,000, for the Ultra-Orthodox, this amounts to a little over $2,000. The Ultra-Orthodox have lower rates of employment, unpredictable patterns of work which can leave them in abject poverty. Low earning potential, coupled with government support declining dramatically as soon as employment begins produces an incredibly low incentive to work.

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“We needed to find a way to empower the Ultra-Orthodox to strive for better earning potential and, in this day and age, it comes through knowledge and training,” said Moti Feldstein, director of Kemach. Kemach, (whose Hebrew acronym stands for ‘Promoting Hareidi Employment,) was established in 2007 to provide career-appropriate education, enabling community members to work in long-term, decently paid jobs to reverse the cycle of poverty.

Up until 2 years ago, Moshe Shechter’s life path did not diverge from the traditional route of an Ultra-Orthodox male. Born in Haifa 39 years ago, he went to cheider, to yeshivah, and finally to Kollel. He married within the community and together raised seven children. Two years ago, Moshe was devastated to realize he could not provide for his family. “I turned to Kemach, having seen their logo on an advertisement for a course for Hareidi men being offered in conjunction with the Technion,” explained Shechter. Kemach put him through intensive testing to determine suitability and after a day-long battery of tests, they put his name forward for acceptance.

In late 2011, Shechter was accepted to study Geographical Information Systems and Mapping in a brand new Bnei Brak branch of the Technion for religious students. “There is a severe lack of trained professionals in every field of civil and environmental engineering,” said the dean of the faculty at the Technion, Prof. Arnon Bentur. “We will help Haredi students in Bnei Brak acquire a profession that guarantees them a respectable career combining income with a broad vista for advancing in the public and private sectors.”

The decision for Shechter to attend the course was not simple – he had never studied physics or mathematics, and certainly not English. Not deterred by these challenges, he was, however, daunted by the cost. Although his wife worked in between maternity leaves, her saleswomen’s salary was in no way sufficient to support him through school. Kemach agreed to provide a loan to cover tuition fees and living expenses which, upon completion of the course, will turn into a scholarship (Kemach has an exceptional completion rate of over 95% for all their vocational and academic courses).

“I am now approaching the end of the initial year and a half of preliminary studies,” proudly remarked Shechter. “It hasn’t been easy and it is a very different environment to the Beit Midrash [religious study hall], but Kemach ensured that the course was respectful of the requirements of an Ultra-Orthodox community and that the student body was serious and motivated to succeed.”

Social work student Mendy Zilbershlag has also seen first-hand how crucial the whole package offered by Kemach is. “Kemach is a wonderful organization and one that goes a lot further than simply handing out scholarships,” said Zilbershlag. “If they simply handed out money without advice, the money ultimately becomes worthless. With Kemach, I went through evaluations, psychological assessments and received a wealth of career advice before deciding to become a social worker.”

Zilbershlag attends the Hareidi College of Jerusalem, which acts as a campus for courses from a range of Israel’s top Universities. Zilbershlag’s course is provided by Bar Ilan University, and is taught separately for men and women. Despite the adjustments made for the needs of the Ultra-Orthodox community, including alternative course materials, Zilbershlag says that without the additional support of Kemach he would not have succeeded. His course began with 40 students, now just 10 remain.

“Many families are against academic study and exert immense pressure on students to return to Kollel [full time religious study]. Additionally the financial commitments involved in supporting a large family while studying, even part-time, is too great a strain on many students.” Kemach provides both financial and emotional support to all students enrolled on its courses.

The road to advancing meaningful employment in the Ultra-Orthodox community is not simple or one that can be hastened. Change must occur at a steady pace and, as is evident by the 13,000 applicants who have thus far turned to Kemach, it appears change is welcome. Kemach is succeeding in overturning the downward trend of employment afflicting the Ultra-Orthodox community. Upwards of 80% of Kemach’s 2,000 graduates are employed, and 70% state that they have seen a significant increase in earnings. Now, the challenge is how to expand the infrastructure to accommodate this increased demand.

By Anna Harwood




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