At first glance, Alaa Kana’aan has little in common with Shachar Ariel. She’s a 25-year-old Arab Israeli woman, and he’s a 34-year-old haredi father of four.
But both are beneficiaries of Bay Area Jewish largesse, studying for well-paying jobs in Israel’s high-tech sector in programs funded by the S.F.–based Jewish Community Federation.
I met Alaa and Shachar in July when I visited the organizations that run their study programs: Tsofen, a nonprofit with a branch in the Arab city of Tira, north of Tel Aviv, that trains Arab Israelis for high-tech jobs, and RavTech, a private company that does the same for haredi men in Bnei Brak.
The S.F.-based federation has earmarked $3.63 million for 38 grantees in Israel this year, including Tsofen, and an additional $272,000 for investment in eight “social businesses,” including RavTech. I decided to take a day trip and find out where some of that money is going.
First on my itinerary was Tsofen, specifically its project that trains Arab Israeli women for tech-support jobs and is receiving $70,000 this year from San Francisco. As we drove into Tira, Barak Loozon, director of the federation’s Israel office, told me that Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but contribute less than 8 percent to the GNP. Not only does that mean endemic poverty for the Arab population, but it represents about $10 billion in lost income for the country as a whole — a gap that would be closed if Arab Israelis were employed in the same proportions as Jews.
Getting more Arab Israelis into the workforce is therefore “very Zionist,” Loozon told me.
Arab women in particular are severely underemployed — just 30 percent work, compared with 80 percent of secular Jewish women. That number is down from a generation ago, as Israel’s textile industry, traditionally a big employer of Arab women, largely moved overseas.
High-tech is a natural fit, Loozon said. It’s well paid, and companies can be set up in Arab towns, allowing the women to remain at or close to home — a cultural preference. But even when they’re trained, getting hired isn’t easy, he said. Jewish employers look askance at Arab applicants, and many high-tech companies do work in security, which doubles the hiring barriers.
“As an Arab it’s hard to get a high-tech job, and as an Arab woman it’s even harder,” Alaa told me. That’s where Tsofen can help. Not only does it train Arab women for good jobs, it uses its contacts in the high-tech Jewish world to help them land interviews. “What strengthens my desire to learn here is that Tsofen takes responsibility for job placement,” Alaa said.
From Tira we drove to Bnei Brak, a largely haredi city outside Tel Aviv that is also the poorest place in the country. Many haredi men study Torah full time, leaving their wives to support the family. Those who want or need to work rarely have the skills or education to land good jobs, and they often face the same discrimination from secular Jewish employers — and similar social pressure from within their own culture — as do Arab Israelis.
RavTech understands that, and the company has built a unique work schedule that permits the men to study Torah for a full day while still working in the high-tech factory.
Shachar is a typical student-employee, with little secular education and no background in computers. Like the other men at RavTech, he needed to bring home a paycheck but didn’t want to abandon the haredi lifestyle. “This place is suited to me,” he told me. “If it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be working.”
At the beginning he didn’t tell people in his tight-knit community that he was coming to RavTech. “It’s outside the usual framework,” he said with a shrug. “High-tech is considered dangerous — it’s a window to the outside world.”
Eventually he told his relatives, who surprised him by taking the news quite well. “They’re family, after all,” he said.
I was impressed with what I saw and heard on my visits that day, and proud to be part of a federation that understands the value of education and employment for all Israelis. That’s how you help create a just, equitable and democratic society in Israel — which just happens to be the federation’s mission.
Sue Fishkoff is editor of J. Reach her at email@example.com.