At first glance, the Bizmax office in Jerusalem’s Romema district looks much like any other start-up accelerator. Computer screens flicker in glass-fronted cubicles. In the kitchen, a young entrepreneur is dosing up on caffeine.
But Bizmax’s mission is anything but generic: set up five years ago, its aim is to bring men from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community — which has traditionally shunned many of the trappings of modern life — into Israel’s tech-fuelled economy. And as I wander further through the office, this melding of worlds is increasingly apparent.
Pictures of elderly rabbis and religiously-inspired motivational quotes adorn the walls. “Be Awesome,” advises one placard. “Pray hard,” says another. “Success is dependent on [God],” adds a third.
The task that Bizmax has set itself is a crucial one for Israel’s economy. Today, the fervently devout Haredi — “those who tremble before God” in Hebrew — make up an eighth of the population. But with an average of seven children per family, the Haredim will account for nearly a quarter of Israeli citizens by 2050.
That shift will have far-reaching implications. In Haredi families, women are often the main breadwinners, while men devote themselves to religious study. Only half of Haredi men work, and close to half of ultra-Orthodox households are below the poverty line.
“We have a very big challenge with the Haredi community and integration into the workforce,” says Yitzik Crombie, Bizmax’s founder. “We try to show them that it is possible. And the way to show them that it is possible is to build role models . . . and one way to build role models is to help start-ups.”
Few places are more fertile for entrepreneurs than Israel. Last year, the self-styled “start-up nation’s” budding tech groups raised $25.4bn in funding and the sector now accounts for more than half of Israeli exports.
However, the long boom in Israeli tech has largely passed the Haredim by. Many of the community’s religious schools do not teach maths or English. Its spiritual leaders have fought a rearguard action against modern technology such as smartphones and social media, and even TV. And since Haredi men tend not to do military service, they are outside the tech networks connected to Israel’s elite cyber and intelligence units.
Bizmax’s goal is to mitigate this by helping Haredi entrepreneurs build the business skills they lack, and linking them with investors in an environment that is attuned to the nuances of Haredi life. So far, says Crombie, 42 companies have taken part, raising $36mn and hiring 200 staff. Among those entrepreneurs is Jonathan Heller, whose company MikvaTech provides water-cleaning technology for swimming pools and Jewish ritual baths — an activity governed by stringent religious rules.
Although his technology won support from leading rabbis, a small group of ultraconservatives was outraged and waged a noisy campaign against it on Jerusalem’s pashkevilim (huge public billboards where many ultra-Orthodox get their news). Bizmax understood the significance of this campaign, says Heller, as well as how his religious sensitivities interacted with his business. “That need would not be answered by any other accelerator,” he adds.
There was a time when initiatives like Bizmax would have been unimaginable. But in recent years, habits in the Haredi community have begun to shift. Hillel Paley, a 22-year-old Bizmax alumnus whose company, Traffics, uses AI and variable speed limits to optimise traffic flow, says the number of young Haredi breaking with the community’s strict lifestyle has made some leaders realise the need for change. “I would say that most [of my friends] are still in the system, but even those who are staying have a need for something else,” he says.
Crombie says that the key is to help ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs in a way that does not force them to choose between their religion and their business. “We need to change the way Haredi people think about the tech industry, and especially how to open a start-up,” he says. “We are trying to show them that it is possible, and that it’s possible to do it in a way where you don’t need to be afraid that you have to change your way of life.”