How New York Jews are creating opportunities for disadvantaged Israelis seeking high-tech jobs


Until four years ago, Haim Hacohen, 37, was a full-time student in a haredi Orthodox yeshiva in the Israeli city of Ramat Bet Shemesh. Every month he received a government stipend of about $800 for his yeshiva studies, but it was hardly enough to support his wife and five children.

“That’s when I decided to learn programming in my free time in order to make a living,” Hacohen said. “Back then, it was much less accepted in our community, and people didn’t really understand it.”

Then Hacohen saw an ad for a boot camp seeking haredi Jews with some computer experience. He enrolled, and the training eventually led to a job with the software developer Unique. Now he works for Israel’s Education Ministry, where he earns over $4,000 per month calculating attendance, salaries and other data.

“After only one year, I tripled my salary,” he said.

Yirga Semay, 43, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia alone at age 9. After his mandatory army service, he stayed on in the Israel Defense Forces for over a decade and a half, serving as an officer in a cyber intelligence unit, eventually earning a degree in computer science and an MBA, and marrying and having three children.

Semay’s long-term dream was to establish his own startup, so after retiring from the army he launched a company in the central Israeli city of Ramle. Called MetekuAI, the company and its 10 employees — all Ethiopian Israelis — combine artificial intelligence with human expertise to tackle problematic online content. Among its clients is the Jewish Agency for Israel, for whom Meteku AI focuses on fighting online antisemitism.

“Our vision is to tackle misinformation and fake news concerning Israel,” said Semay, who started the company a year ago. “We help organizations control the narrative by taking active part in online conversations, identifying potential crises before they spread and responding in real time with personalized content.”

Both Hacohen and Semay received help at key points in their careers from programs funded by UJA-Federation of New York designed to help Israelis from disadvantaged communities — including haredi Jews, Ethiopian Israelis, Bedouin Arabs and underprivileged Israelis from the country’s periphery, among others — find places in Israel’s enormously successful high-tech sector.

Hacohen is an alumnus of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s Tech Ventures Program, which helps integrate haredi Jews into Israel’s high-tech sector. Semay was assisted by Olim Beyachad, a nonprofit group that for the past 12 years has been working to get more Ethiopian Israelis into higher education and competitive fields. Both organizations receive substantial funding from UJA-Federation.

“Especially in the current climate, our investments in these diverse initiatives represent our commitment to strengthening a flourishing, inclusive and democratic Jewish state for the next 75 years and beyond,” said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation. “We’re helping to bring hope and possibility to people across Israeli society for the sake of the country as a whole.”

As a founding partner of Olim Beyachad, UJA-Federation gives $180,000 per year to the program, which to date has over 1,400 alumni. Led by CEO Genet Dasa, who was born in Addis Ababa and came to Israel at age 11, the nonprofit aims to steer Ethiopian-Israeli university graduates toward rewarding careers while helping middle- and high-school students in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) so they’ll be better prepared for the job market.

“We know from research that our participants face racism while looking for employment,” said Dasa. “So our mission isn’t just to help them find work but also to change society’s perceptions and negative stereotypes toward Ethiopians.”

Through a group called Siraj, Bedouin Israelis participate in a hack-a-thon and skills building program in southern Israel. (Courtesy of UJA-Federation)

UJA-Federation is also a founding partner of JDC’s Tech Venture Program, which includes Israel’s Ministry of Economy and Industry and the Haredi Coalition for Employment. The program offers 100 types of services and has more than 5,000 current participants.

“We work with young men ages 17 to 24 who want to integrate into the job market,” said Eli Salomon, who heads the Tech Venture Program. “From the yeshiva world, there’s no natural pathway, so we help to bridge that gap.”

Since its inception in 2006, the initiative has helped 130,000 haredim find jobs.

Programs like these are critical to Israel’s economic health, said Eugene Kandel, the former CEO of Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that helps support Israel’s startup ecosystem. Haredim comprise 13% of Israel’s 9.5 million citizens but account for only 3% of all high-tech workers, according to Kandel. In 30 years, haredim are projected to be 25% of Israel’s population, but they’re ill-equipped to enter the workforce, he said.

“About 60% of haredi homes have computers, so it’s not like they’re completely disconnected, but most of them cannot go to universities,” said Kandel, also a former chairman of Israel’s National Economic Council. “The quality of the places they do study is not great, and most haredi men don’t learn English. So it’s mostly the women who are joining high tech.”

Kandel has served on the advisory board of UJA-Federation’s Benin Scholars Program, which gives talented young people from Israel’s socioeconomic periphery the chance to pursue undergraduate studies in STEM fields. A pilot of this program is operating this year with 180 students across three institutions: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheba. The program offers large scholarships and living stipends alongside psychosocial support and career guidance. It is slated to grow to six or seven institutions and encompass some 700 students, which would make it among the largest STEM scholarship programs in Israel.

When it comes to integrating Israel’s minorities into the high-tech sector, Arab Israelis — who comprise 21% of Israel’s population but only 1.8% of its high-tech employees — are cause for more optimism, Kandel said.

“For many years, Arabs were very wary of high-tech because it was related to defense, and in many cases Arabs couldn’t get into that, so they studied other fields like law and medicine,” Kandel said. “But that’s no longer the case.”

Fahima Atawna is the executive director of Siraj, a nonprofit based in Beersheba that aims to get more Bedouin youth into technology, starting in middle and high school. The organization, whose name means “source of light” in Arabic, was established six years ago. It has partnered with Ben-Gurion University and, more recently, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose students teach local Bedouins how to write code as well as soft skills like working in teams.

“We hope to be a source of light for all those students who dream of a future in high-tech,” said Atawna. “I know that we are a poor community, but our approach is not to sit here and say, ‘We are weak and poor.’ Rather, I know that I’m smart and have ability. Just give me opportunities.”

At present, two cohorts with a combined 43 Bedouin teens ranging in age from 14 to 18 participate in the program, which receives annual funding of $50,000 from UJA-Federation.

Israel is home to an estimated 280,000 Bedouin, of whom fewer than 100 work in high tech, according to Atawna. But the numbers are growing.

“When I started, there were zero Bedouin high-tech graduates at Ben-Gurion University. Now, 21 Bedouins study computer science and software engineering there,” Atawna said. “My community understands that you can do this work from home. You don’t have to travel to Tel Aviv. And Beersheba has good companies like Microsoft and Intel, and it’s very close to our villages.”

She added that companies are being encouraged to hire minorities because having people from diverse backgrounds adds value.

Raghad Aboreash, 15, who lives in a Bedouin village 20 minutes from Beersheba called Hura, said she joined Siraj after hearing about it from friends.

“I like trying new things; it’s in my character. I’ve learned Python” — a computer programming language — “and how to build programs, and I’ve made friends in America. I want to be a software engineer.”

Mohammed Alafensh, 15, from the Bedouin city of Rahat, is studying software engineering and physics. He hopes Siraj will help pave the way to success.

“I dream of becoming a big engineer, because this is the future,” he said. “I will be great at this.”