‘A big shock’: the Israeli startup helping ultra-Orthodox Jews enter world of hi-tech work

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian  /  September 4, 2023

Entrepreneurs want Haredi men, many of whom live in poverty, to have access to the opportunities of Tel Aviv.

Entering Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood just a few kilometres away from the gleaming towers that testify to Tel Aviv’s prowess as a global hi-tech hub, feels like stepping into a different world.

Despite the startups and advanced technology initiatives on their doorstep, much of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, population still shuns modern inventions such as television and smartphones, which are viewed as a threat to their way of life.

And while the Haredim now make up 13% of the country, and one in four Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox by 2050, the divides between secular and religious Israelis are wide. Half of the ultra-Orthodox live in poverty and there have long been political clashes over the role of religion in public life and the fact that most Haredi men do not work or do military service, instead devoting their lives to Torah study.

But in a run-down office block on the outskirts of Tel Aviv’s diamond district, a small group of entrepreneurs have launched the Mego program, a 14-month-long vocational training program preparing ultra-Orthodox men with little knowledge of the modern world for careers in the lucrative hi-tech sector.

“People think we’re nuts to do this, but I believe that a spiritual way of life and economic success are not incompatible,” said Yitzik Crombie, Mego’s founder, an entrepreneur who also launched BizMax, a Haredi startup accelerator in Jerusalem, in 2017.

“There are about 300,000 people working in the hi-tech industry, but only 3% are Haredim. We are building programs and tools to show the community what is possible.”

On a hot summer morning, about two dozen Haredi men, some in their 20s up to their 40s, were bent over books and laptops in one of Mego’s classrooms, asking a teacher questions. But rather than listening to a rabbi in the yeshiva, or Orthodox seminary, the students were learning about programming languages.

“I like to study, and I like the challenge, but it is difficult,” said 32-year-old Yoshua Rottenberg, a father of four. “Ultra-Orthodox schools do not teach Stem subjects at all. For a lot of the class it is a big shock.”

The Mego bootcamp, jointly funded by the Haredi-focused Kemach Foundation and the Israeli government, enrolled its first 100 students last September, and 150 in the second intake in the spring. Another 150 students are expected to start this October. The program is already wildly popular: there were 1,000 applications in the first round, and 1,700 in the second.

All potential students undergo tests and a psychological screening process to ensure they are able to cope with the intense maths and English classes, as well as getting used to working in a secular environment alongside women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Crombie says that taking applicants to visit hi-tech company offices as an introduction to workplace culture before they enroll has helped to keep the dropout rate low.

Mego aims to scale up and train 7,000 students in total over a three-year pilot: if it is sustainable, it is hoped best practices can be incorporated into existing Haredi educational institutes. So far, teachers have found that it is not the academic workload that students struggle with, but the soft skills associated with higher learning and the office.

“We can’t close the knowledge gap in 14 months, obviously, but everyone is a fast learner. It’s the soft things that are harder to impart,” said Tomer Shor, a Mego teacher who co-founded an audio software startup after serving in Unit 8200, the Israeli army’s elite cyber-intelligence arm.

“It’s stuff like how to learn independently, how to problem solve, how to handle tests and deadlines. Some students have never done those things before and it’s stressful trying to adapt. The genius at the yeshiva has to start again from the beginning.”

Despite the challenges, the energy and drive at Mego is palpable – much like a startup environment. The first class will graduate in October, and with the help of the program’s leaders, many of the cohort are already lining up internships and entry-level job interviews at companies across Tel Aviv.

During The Guardian’s visit, Aziz Solomon, a 34-year-old father of two, was preparing for an interview. “I am very nervous because I am a shy person, and this is a big step,” he said. “The world is changing, and we have to keep up.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Bnei Brak