An Accelerator for Ultra-Orthodox Women and a New Brand of Feminism
By Frayda Leibtag
On a typical morning, the bus stop outside Modiin Illit, an ultra-Orthodox city in Israel, is crowded with bright, energetic women headed off to work to support their large families. One of the many challenges facing the State of Israel is the issue of employment for Israel’s ever-expanding ultra-Orthodox communities. This year, Temech, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to help advance employment for ultra-Orthodox women, partnered with PresenTense Israel to create “Yazamiot,” the first-ever entrepreneurship accelerator for ultra-Orthodox women. Twelve women aged 24 to 60 participated in the accelerator, traveling on public transportation to Jerusalem from locations including Beit Shemesh, Modiin Illit and Ashdod. Most of the program’s fellows were also mothers, with average family sizes of six children.
While the younger generation of ultra-Orthodox is considered to be braver, with many women aspiring to have careers, the idea of an accelerator is still very foreign to the audience that Temech and PresenTense are trying to reach. Yael Zaltz, Director of Temech’s Hub for Entrepreneurs and the Yazamiot accelerator explained, “When we began recruiting, it was very hard to explain to our haredi (ultra-Orthodox) audience what an accelerator is. It was hard work to explain the concept and how people could benefit from it.”
Before properly advertising, Temech and PresenTense began letting people know about the new accelerator, which was funded by the Levi Lassen Foundation, by personally calling small business owners and spreading the news through word of mouth. Only then did they begin advertising in local ultra-Orthodox print newspapers and magazines. The word ‘accelerator’ did not appear in the ads. Yazamiot was simply referred to as a “program.”
Following a flood of interest and phone calls, 12 fellows were selected from an overwhelming 70 applicants. Temech made the decision to accept individuals with initiatives that had some type of impact on the community and room for growth and development. PresenTense has extensive experience working with local partners to create social impact vehicles that meet the needs of communities. Working with Temech, an organization that has the backing and support of ultra-Orthodox leaders and rabbis, PresenTense needed to adapt certain components of their traditional programming to suit the needs of the ultra-Orthodox community. All the content needed to be “kosher,” which meant that no materials could be viewed online. PresenTense transferred all of their online Prezi presentations to PowerPoint format and printed lots of hand-outs for the group. English-language materials were also problematic, as most of the women do not speak any English. The staff of teachers, mentors and coaches was exclusively female and there were no men present at Launch Night, the program finale where the fellows pitched their ventures to a crowd of 160 women.
When meeting with the Yazamiot fellows, Bar Pereg, PresenTense’s Director of Programs and Network Development, wore a skirt and blouse not because they told her to, but to be respectful and build trust. “All of the adaptations that we made were technical and not related to the essence of the program,” noted Pereg. According to Pereg, the level of gratitude was another component that differed with the Yazamiot group: “The women were so grateful. I never had such an appreciative and attentive group. When I spoke, there was a different level of concentration and listening than I am used to. These women were here to grow and develop.”
Most of the ventures selected for Yazamiot were small businesses in the creative fields of music and art, education and coaching. Odelya Ish learned of Yazamiot through an ad in a local magazine and applied to the accelerator to help develop Twilling, her beading business that offers jewelry workshops and sells beading kits with online tutorials. Commenting on the program, Ish said, “I love learning and teaching others how to bead. Participating in Yazamiot was like a gift – a golden opportunity. I learned that I am capable of achieving goals and accomplishments. I learned that I can succeed and empower and inspire other women with the knowledge that I can share.”
Riki (who asked that her last name not be used in this article) is the director of the Supplemental Step Center in Ashdod, a center for mothers and children that provides games that families and local daycares can borrow. In ultra-Orthodox communities where most families cannot afford to invest in high-quality games, there are many who make use of the services that Riki’s organization provides. Riki, a 26-year-old organizational consultant and mother of three, traveled all the way from Ashdod using public transportation to participate in the accelerator. She aspires to open up Supplemental Step centers all over Israel.
“The haredi world is very entrepreneurial. People have lots of ideas and they think they can just hit the ground running. Our job is to help them implement these ideas in a professional way. The accelerator forces you to think hard and organize your vision, business plan, figure out if there is demand, and who the target audience is. It forces you into a corner,” explained Zaltz, who lives in Kiryat Sefer and is a mother of eight.
What future lies in store for the world of ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurship? Zaltz projected that “The world of entrepreneurs will develop better networks across the globe. This will start through family connections. At present, the huge global network of ultra-Orthodox families is not leveraged for entrepreneurship. It’s a question of numbers – as the needs of the community grow, the family networks will become business networks. There is tremendous potential that we have not yet tapped into.”
Yazamiot is part of a process that will invigorate ultra-Orthodox communities and their relationship to Israeli society. Since 2008, Temech has placed 4,500 ultra-Orthodox women in jobs across Israel and 6,000 women have participated in their professional training programs. In addition, over 200 women utilize Temech’s hub on a monthly basis. The opportunities and possibilities are far-reaching and while PresenTense certainly provided significant added value to the accelerator, at the conclusion of the program, Pereg felt that she was the one who had learned the most. “Working with the Yazamiot women really reshaped my definition of feminism. I came in trying to be respectful and tolerant, but it was so easy to respect these women and be fascinated by their stories.”