• KOBI YAFEH
For years, freelancers and small-business owners in Israel have been flocking to coworking office spaces, and recently members of the haredi community have also decided to follow this trend.
Haredi coworking offices are either for men only, or have a completely separate area for women (in some offices, women are allowed to attend meetings, but cannot themselves rent space). These offices look like any other modern place of work, except the library probably includes tractates of Talmud and books on Halacha alongside economic textbooks. You’ll also find mehadrin (the most stringent level of kosher supervision) espresso machines and the coat rack will be covered with long black coats and black hats.
At first glance, although it may seem like any regular office, there are minor differences, such as the notice on the board that lists prayer times.
“The government spent millions of shekels on this place,” says Shimon, who rents a shared room in a coworking building in Bnei Brak, but prefers not to give his real name. “Many haredim have built up businesses and are happy to support their families financially. Coworking spaces offer the possibility of renting small spaces at low cost that also enable us to engage in networking and benefit from the energy and networking taking place here. I know quite a few people whose businesses have grown due to relationships that began in coworking spaces.”
When asked whether haredi coworking offices are a successful business model, Shimon replies that yes, he believes so.
“My building happens not to be full; there are still many empty rooms, but the building is amazing and the atmosphere is great. I think the haredi community just needs a little time to get used to the idea of coworking space. Some people are still afraid. They don’t understand the potential here.”
On the other hand, “there are some buildings in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem that are doing really well and are full to capacity. Some even have waiting lists,” continues Shimon. “It could just be that the ones that aren’t full just haven’t made enough effort to attract new occupants.”
A few well-known coworking buildings such as the Achim Center for Entrepreneurship and Business and Ampersand in Bnei Brak, and Bizmax in Jerusalem have received lots of attention in the haredi world as well as among the general public. The men working in these buildings look like typical haredim, but if you look at the signs hanging on each door, you’ll see that they’re all professionals: lawyers, business owners and directors of organizations.
“Most of the people who rent offices in coworking buildings belong to haredi sects that have no problem with men joining the working world. Some of them even encourage their sons to study for advanced degrees in haredi institutions that do not teach any ‘problematic’ subjects, and that of course are single-gender,” continues Shimon. “It’s not like serious learners are leaving the yeshiva in droves.”
As I walked around the rooms of Shimon’s office, things were pretty quiet. There were a couple of men sitting in a corner discussing municipal politics and a group of hassidim in another section sharing a meal together. Other than that, there weren’t any other people in the office. When I asked why it was so empty, some of the men replied that the office usually fills up in the afternoon.
Following years of failed ventures, these haredi coworking offices seemed like the perfect solution in the government’s eyes, as a way to integrate haredi men and women into the working world. The government, namely the Economy and Industry Ministry, has invested hundreds of millions of shekels into efforts to help integrate haredim into the working world.
The ministry’s 2018 budget proposal states that encouraging haredi employment can be achieved through continuing to implement a plan for which NIS 500 million would be allocated during 2017-2018. A certain number of positions in public service have also been earmarked for members of the haredi community, however this has not always proved feasible, since most haredim have not passed high-school matriculation exams and are lacking the basic skills necessary to work in an office or study in an academic institution.
As a result, government initiatives are encouraging haredim to open businesses, but they are not helping them fit into normative culture, which is a prerequisite to finding jobs and truly integrating into the non-haredi world.
“Even if they do their time in a national service position in place of serving in the IDF, or are passed the age of being required to enlist, they still don’t have the basic academic foundation to study a trade or get a regular job,” explains a manager at the haredi coworking office. “In an age where any decent job requires an academic degree, and where a person’s image plays an extremely important role in whether they fit in to the culture of a specific place of work, it’s incredibly difficult for haredim who’ve only ever learned in a yeshiva to enter this foreign world and start acquiring a completely new culture from scratch.
“There are two main ways for haredim to join the working world. One option is for them to engage in an arduous course of study in an effort the bridge the educational gap with the secular world. The second is for them to restrict themselves to the haredi employment market, which generally offers lower salaries and fewer opportunities for advancement in jobs. Also, many of these jobs are not “white” (i.e. do not involve invoices, paychecks, or the paying of taxes). For these reasons, many young haredim are eager to open their own businesses, since that way they are less likely to encounter stumbling blocks along the way.”
According to the office manager, many young haredim sell a wide variety of products, such as furniture, clothing, watches, wigs and cooking utensils from home. This type of selling brings in large amounts of money. Others open small businesses in interior design, mortgages, travel agencies, advertising, telemarketing and educational resources.
“These types of businesses form an important foundation for haredi communities,” explains the manager. “They form an integral part of haredi society, but they’ve always remained small-scale and mostly run from the home, the car, or a small structure rented in parking lots and such. For the first time ever, business owners can now rent a proper space inside an office building – and at subsidized rates no less – with conference rooms and everything else you need to run a successful business.”
Some people think that the existence of the haredi coworking offices will prevent haredim from ever really integrating into the Israeli working world, while others believe that these working spaces will serve as a stepping stone for the brave men and women who want to enter the working world but weren’t able to up to now. Some people claim that coworking offices are a passing fad that in time will just slowly disappear.
Only time will tell.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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