Kemach Tackles Socioeconomic Problems

By Anna Harwood

“The people demand social justice!” was the cry heard throughout Israel during the summer of 2011. Regular Israelis took to the streets, placards in hand, and protested the injustice that they believed was present in Israeli society. From the price of cottage cheese to inflated governmental taxes, Israel was angry about the economic situation.

Following the dismantling of the protesters’ “tent city” that lined Rothschild Boulevard, Netanyahu’s government convened the Trajtenberg Committee to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s perceived socioeconomic problems.

Professor Manuel Trajtenberg concluded that discontent amongst the Israeli population stemmed from both economic distress and a profound sense of injustice that sectors of Israeli society were simply not pulling their weight. Not only were they not shouldering the burden incumbent on all citizens to serve in the army, work, and pay taxes, but furthermore they were receiving governmental aid to enable their choices. Israel’s chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) population was under attack.

Trajtenberg wrote, “The great challenge is how to enable and encourage a widespread entry into the world of employment while respecting the unique character of this sector.” With Israel’s growing chareidi population now numbering around 800,000, and just 40% of working-age chareidi men employed, the need for a solution has never been more pressing.

But the challenge is not an easy one. Think tanks, journalists, and regular Israelis discuss the “chareidi problem,” but very few organizations have actually developed solutions that both respect and empower this fragile community. The chareidi believe that the preservation of Jewish heritage and deep-rooted tradition can only occur through continued Torah study, and this is coupled with a deep-seated fear of the secular workplace. Meanwhile, the extreme attitudes from the opposite end of the spectrum, demanding a complete integration into Israeli society, further compound the problem and do nothing to allay these fears.

In 2007, a trio of wealthy philanthropists decided to tackle the problem and, with the help of a determined team of directors who themselves come from the chareidi community, they formed the Kemach Foundation. Their vision was to integrate the chareidim into the job market using their “insider knowledge” of the community and provide career-appropriate education, enabling community members to work in long-term, decently paid jobs to reverse the cycle of poverty.

“The only feasible solution to this problem needed to come from within the community,” explained Moti Feldstein, director of Kemach. “We understand the nuances and sensitivities of the various divisions of the chareidi community and have a better understanding of where the problem lies.”

For a start, the difference in chareidi and general rates of employment was even starker when considering working patterns. In 2010, while just 16% of those working from the general Israeli population were in part-time positions, a whopping 35% of the working chareidi were in part-time positions. And while the average monthly household income in Israel was a little under $4,000, for the chareidim, the amount was a little over $2,000. Not only did the chareidim have lower rates of employment, but their employment was unpredictable and left them in abject poverty. Low earning potential, coupled with a dramatic decline in government support as soon as employment begins, produces an incredibly low incentive to work.

“We needed to find a way to empower the chareidim to strive for better earning potential and, in this day and age, it comes through knowledge and training,” said Feldstein. And so Kemach (whose Hebrew acronym stands for “Promoting Chareidi Employment”) began a process of assessment, career advice, and funding of courses for the chareidi community.

Up until two years ago, Moshe Shechter’s life path did not diverge from the traditional route of a chareidi male. Born in Haifa 39 years ago, he went to cheder, to yeshiva, and finally to kollel. He married within the community and together raised seven children. Two years ago, Moshe was devastated to realize he could not provide for his family. “I didn’t know what path to take other than the familiar. I didn’t want to waste time in a dead-end job,” explained Shechter. “I turned to Kemach, having seen their logo on an advertisement for a course for chareidi men being offered in conjunction with the Technion.” Kemach put Shechter through intensive testing to determine suitability, and after a daylong battery of tests, they put his name forward for acceptance.

In late 2011, Shechter was accepted to study geographical information systems and mapping in a brand-new Bnei Brak branch of the Technion for religious students. “There is a severe lack of trained professionals in every field of civil and environmental engineering,” said the dean of the faculty at the Technion, Professor Arnon Bentur. “We will help chareidi students in Bnei Brak acquire a profession that guarantees them a respectable career combining income with a broad vista for advancing in the public and private sectors.”

The decision for Shechter to attend the course was not simple; he had never studied physics or mathematics, and certainly not English. Not deterred by these challenges, he was, however, daunted by the cost. Although his wife worked in between maternity leaves, her saleswomen’s salary was in no way sufficient to support him through school. On top of living expenses and providing for seven children, it seemed unlikely they would be able to afford four years of tuition. Kemach agreed to provide a loan to cover tuition fees and living expenses, which, upon completion of the course, will turn into a scholarship. Kemach has an exceptional completion rate of over 95% for all their vocational and academic courses.

“I am now approaching the end of the initial year and a half of preliminary studies,” proudly remarked Shechter. “It hasn’t been easy and it is a very different environment to the beit midrash, but Kemach ensured that the course was respectful of the requirements of a chareidi community and that the student body was serious and motivated to succeed.”

Social-work student Mendy Zilbershlag has also seen firsthand how crucial the whole package offered by Kemach is. “Kemach is a wonderful organization and one that goes a lot further than simply handing out scholarships,” said Zilbershlag. “If they simply handed out money without advice, the money ultimately becomes worthless. With Kemach, I went through evaluations, psychological assessments, and received a wealth of career advice before deciding to become a social worker.”

Zilbershlag attends the Chareidi College of Jerusalem, which acts as a campus for courses from a range of Israel’s top universities. Zilbershlag’s course is provided by Bar Ilan University, and is taught separately for men and women. Despite the adjustments made for the needs of the chareidi community, including alternative course materials, Zilbershlag says that without the additional support of Kemach he would not have succeeded.

His course began with 40 students; now just 10 remain. “Many families are against academic study and exert immense pressure on students to return to kollel. Additionally, the financial commitments involved in supporting a large family whilst studying, even part-time, is too great a strain on many students.” Kemach provides both financial and emotional support to all students enrolled on its courses.

Beginning academic study for the first time is nerve-racking for most new students, but Zilbershlag and Shechter, being the first university students in their families, encountered many unexpected challenges. Silent lecture theatres as opposed to the hubbub of the beit midrash, citing academic papers as opposed to presenting their own opinions, and, for Zilbershlag, encountering professional ethical dilemmas that potentially contradicted Jewish law. But these problems can be overcome, and, true to their promise, Kemach is succeeding in overturning the downward trend of employment afflicting the chareidi community. Upward of 80% of Kemach’s 2,000 graduates are employed, and 70% state that they have seen a significant increase in earnings.

Following his damning report on the state of the chareidi community, Professor Trajtenberg visited Kemach last year to witness firsthand this dramatic change in chareidi employment.

“The Kemach Foundation is contributing . . . providing the tools for chareidi Jews who want to contribute their share,” said Trajtenberg. He told the gathered supporters how it was difficult for him to fully relate to a fearful chareidi person entering an unfamiliar world, not knowing what is on the other side of the door. “But Kemach . . . relates to him, not just as another statistic, but as a person who has his own needs and his concerns.”

The road to advancing meaningful employment in the chareidi community is not simple or one that can be hastened. Change must occur at a steady pace and, as is evident by the 13,000 applicants who have thus far turned to Kemach, it appears change is welcome. Now, the challenge is how to expand the infrastructure to accommodate this increased demand. (IMP Media) v

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