Israel’s newest cyberwarriors: ultra-Orthodox Jews

A new program blending seminary study with cyber training is part of a broader Israeli effort to integrate its burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population into the army and workforce.

On a hillside campus in Jerusalem, 16 young ultra-Orthodox men come together every evening for intensive training to defend Israel’s newest battlefront: the cyber domain.

These men are more accustomed to being hunched over the Talmud, the tome of Jewish law that is the center of their life, than computers. But amid efforts to get Israel's burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population to help "share the burden" of protecting the country and helping it prosper, they are being prepared for two-year stints as cyberdefenders in the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the most advanced cybersecurity forces in the world. 

Through a program known as a hesder yeshiva, the men spend their daytime hours poring over religious texts and engaging in vigorous theological debates – the bedrock of a Haredi man's often lifelong education. But in the evenings, they apply those critical thinking skills to the 1,000 hours of cyber training required as preparation for their military service. 

This is the first such initiative for ultra-Orthodox men, who have traditionally eschewed both army service and traditional employment in favor of religious learning. While modest, the program is growing quickly and parallels broader efforts to integrate Israel’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, population into the army and workplace – many of them into hi-tech positions, one of Israel's biggest areas of growth and an easier way to support a large family than low-skilled labor. 

“This year, after massive efforts … we started with eight boys,” says Rabbi Karmi Gross, who worked with the army to establish the program, located at Jerusalem’s Machon Lev campus.

He says his dream was to grow the program to 12 students by the end of this year, and 20 in the second year. But he is already up to 16, and total enrollment is on track to reach as high as 50 students next year. (Their participation is still highly sensitive within their community, however, so the Monitor was not permitted to speak with the students.) 

Haredi participation is also on the rise in academic programs, including at top technological schools like the Technion; in the military, where 90 percent of Haredim in the Air Force serve in hi-tech jobs; and in the start-up scene, where the government recently announced a new program to provide Haredi entrepreneurs with 85 percent funding for hi-tech ventures. 

Many see the integration of Haredim as a win-win both for the quickly growing community and for Israel as a whole, which needs their manpower.

“This is not only a social calling, this is an economic opportunity,” says Erel Margalit, founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), one of Israel’s most successful venture capitalist firms, and member of the Israeli parliament, where he chairs the lobby for Haredi integration in the workforce. 

6-percent rise in male Haredi employment

Mr. Margalit says it was actually Haredi women who first entered Israel’s hi-tech world. The field is ideal for Haredi women, who often have as many as seven to 10 children and serve as the family breadwinners while their husbands study. High wages allow them to earn more for fewer hours, and the ease of working remotely from a laptop allows mothers flexibility.

Take Racheli Ganot. In 2007, she founded her own semiconductor company, Rachip, and today employs 100 engineers, all women. Demand is high – in the past two months Mrs. Ganot says she hired eight new engineers from about 100 applicants.

Now, the dramatic change is coming from men entering the sector, says Margalit. Over the past five years, overall employment among Haredi men has jumped from 38 to 44.5 percent; the mainstream Israeli population's employment rate is 81 percent.

That uptick has been made possible in part by the introduction of new academic programs for Haredim. They help fill in educational gaps in math, science, and English, which take a backseat to religious learning in most ultra-Orthodox schools, and also provide technological training.

The Technion, Israel’s premier technological university, has established a pre-university center for Haredim that has about 120 students. They expect to reach 200 next year. Dan Zilberstein, dean of the pre-university center, emphasizes that the cultivation of Haredi students is a critical part of both the university and country's future. 

By 2025, an estimated 45 percent of Jewish high school students will be Haredim, and by 2050 some 40 percent of Israel’s entire population is expected to be Haredi.

“I don’t have to tell you what it means for the country,” especially its military and tech sector, says Prof. Zilberstein. “We have to make sure that we have enough students on one hand, and that we contribute as we have done throughout 66 years of Israel’s existence to provide high-level engineers.”

Air Force: 90 percent of Haredi work in hi-tech

By staying out of the military, the ultra-Orthodox, who as a tiny minority in Israel’s early days were granted an exemption from the draft, have not benefited from the practical job experience and the Ivy League-like networks that military service offers.

But nascent efforts to integrate them have steadily grown. In the elite Air Force, which took the lead six years ago, Haredi enlistment has nearly tripled, from 120 to 300. Some 90 percent of them serve in hi-tech jobs, which are popular in part because they can accommodate their need for certain conditions, such as gender segregation.

“There is a high demand for these ultra-Orthodox soldiers,” says Capt. Natan Hanina, one of the program’s founders, who says they bring a unique maturity and dedication to service.

Increasingly, the Israeli government is looking to harness hi-tech Haredi talent to fuel what has been dubbed the “Start-Up Nation” – Israel’s outsized ability to create new tech companies, many of which are acquired by multinationals.

Earlier this month, Avi Hasson, chief scientist for the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, announced two new programs designed to boost Haredi and Israeli Arab entrepreneurs. The first helps prospective entrepreneurs develop a business plan, by funding 75 percent of 200 consulting hours, as well as 75 percent of the cost of market surveys. The second provides 85 percent of research and development costs – well above the usual 50 percent bar – up to 2 million shekels ($575,000), for new entrepreneurs that meet the state’s criteria.

“We now need to look – what are the next challenges of the Start-up Nation? And this is one of the major ones: how do you bring those two sectors into the hi-tech community?” said Mr. Hasson in an interview, emphasizing both the social and economic benefits. “If you can do well and do good at the same time … I think, for me, it’s very simple – that’s what we should be doing.”

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