Creating a Digitally Literate Nation
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries are a reservoir of untapped talent for the country’s booming hi-tech economy, but the community is only just getting started. Israel is often called the ‘Start-Up Nation’, but it’s really a start-up bubble of a certain demographic in Tel Aviv, which has left other population groups trailing behind. I founded Kamatech, a non-profit start-up accelerator, as a vehicle to help ultra-Orthodox society integrate into the hi-tech world–and propel that industry forward by tapping into the community’s vast, unrealised potential.
The ultra-Orthodox are surprisingly well-suited to join the hi-tech economy. Technology is developing so quickly that what one knows is less important than one’s ability to acquire new skills and adapt. And that’s where the ultra-Orthodox community’s traditional weakness is actually its biggest advantage. Ultra-Orthodox boys don’t study core subjects at school–even basic maths and English. But they don’t sit idle either: they spend all day questioning the logic behind ancient texts, sharpening their critical faculties by constantly analysing and debating. So despite lacking a basic education, when ultra-Orthodox men set their minds to learning computer science, they adapt extraordinarily quickly. They have remarkable learning ability.
At Kamatech, we work to connect the hi-tech world with the ultra-Orthodox world, giving ultra-Orthodox Jews an entry point into the digital economy for the first time. We have three core strategies. First, we run training programmes for ultra-Orthodox Jews inside leading technology companies. Second, we help ultra-Orthodox Jews get work at those companies, encouraging them to drop preconceptions about this community and diversify their workforce. And third, we provide entrepreneurship training so ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs can build companies of their own. We’ve brought the finest Israeli entrepreneurs, including Amnon Shashua of Mobileye, to teach ultra-Orthodox communities how to establish hi-tech start-ups. We have also founded an accelerator, taking promising Haredi entrepreneurs and helping them to rapidly expand their business, including by having them ‘adopted’ by a secular-led start-up to give them advice.
It’s true that many rabbis prohibit followers from owning smartphones, but I estimate 30% of ultra-Orthodox Jews own smartphones anyway. Mainstream rabbis understand that the internet is necessary for work nowaday; they are happy for their followers to earn a living with dignity, as long as it doesn’t threaten ultra-Orthodox society and its values. One rabbi, for example, told us it is forbidden to use Facebook, but one may still work there!
In five years, we have already seen incredible growth. When we started, we could only find five ultra-Orthodox-run start-ups, which struggled to raise funding; now we have a database of over 1,100 companies, which have raised tens of millions of dollars. In the next stage, we’re going to duplicate this model across the Israeli periphery, drawing in Druze, Ethiopian, and Arab society. I have no doubt that soon the digital economy will generate prosperity for them as well.