PoVIf WeWork and a Yeshiva Had a Baby: Coworking Spaces for Haredi Jews Are Israel’s Latest Trend
With Jewish scripture, graffiti-decorated walls, modern office furniture, and gender-segregated floors, Haredi coworking spaces are attracting young ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs and businessmen and women from fields as diverse as advertising, talent management, law, design, and engineering
What I saw was a group of Haredi men sitting together, minding their own business, but instead of religious writings, they were looking at laptop screens. Instead of stuffy rooms, they were working within a top-notch working space, complete with a state-of-the-art coffee machine and a fully equipped kitchenette that has separate microwaves for dairy and meat, as dictated by Jewish religious law.
Some of the spaces have cabinets lined with Jewish scripture next to walls decorated with graffiti and modern office furniture, reminiscent of more traditional working spaces. The clientele ranges from entrepreneurs, advertisers, and talent agents, to lawyers, web designers, and engineers, all working together under a single roof.
The first real cultural shock came when I went up to the second floor of WorkUp—the latest of these spaces to open earlier this year in Haredi Tel Aviv-suburb Bnei Brak—where the women-only space is located. One of the women I met there is a 20-year-old secretary for a male Haredi entrepreneur, who was looking for a way for them to be able to work together while still enabling some segregation, as required by ultra-Orthodox religious codes of conduct.
Another woman, a graphic designer, told me she used to work from home but found it difficult to grow her business without having the opportunity to meet new people. “I looked into shared-spaces for the general public, but was uncomfortable there,” she said, adding that she prefers to work in an all-female environment.
Orthodox Jewish law demands strict segregation between men and women who are not married to each other, including between family members. One-on-one meetings between a man and a woman are forbidden unless they can be seen by others at all times; during mixed public events and in synagogues, women sit hidden behind a curtain or some other form of blockade that separates them from the men; weddings, bris milahs, and funerals are also generally segregated.
Just several months after its launch, WorkUp already has a few dozen female members, according to co-owner Shimi Segal. One of the members, he said, is an insurance agent that used to work from home but couldn’t meet her male clients there because it would have been considered unchaste. “Her only options were either a synagogue or a cafe, and Bnei Brak does not have many cafes,” Segal added. Female members can meet with clients here without breaking the rules in special meeting rooms or in the common areas, he explained. “In the kitchenette, however, there is no reason for men and women to interact,” he said. “A married woman will be uncomfortable to eat beside another man.”
On this floor, men are not allowed in the 2-square-meter private offices and the same goes for women on the men’s floor. Segal lets me into one of these tiny rooms, the walls of which are made of frosted glass. “You can only imagine what can go on between a man and a woman here,” Segal said. “We know what the guys at WeWork are up to, and, putting it simply, they are not there just to work,” he added, signifying the extent to which stereotypes on the presumably promiscuous secular society are still evident among Haredim.
Despite a great will to integrate and join the tech ecosystem, many Haredim still find the general secular population to be intimidating. The secular community on its part also holds fast to its own stereotypical views of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and building bridges between the two communities may take more than a while.
“Here we have a see-through window that makes it possible for men and women to hold a meeting,” Segal said, pointing at a slightly larger room functioning as a conference room. “People that are even more observant may opt to leave the door open as well,” he added.
WorkUp spans over 1,100 square meters, with a capacity of up to 180 people, and charges NIS 990 (approximately $280) per month for a hot desk, NIS 1,750 (approximately $490) per month for a one-person office, and over NIS 3,500 (approximately $980) a month for a double office.
Bnei Brak does not have a lot of small office spaces, Segal said. This may explain why Haredi shared-offices are becoming increasingly popular, with four in Bnei Brak, one in Jerusalem, and others planned for central Israeli towns Beit Shemesh and Ashdod, all home to large ultra-orthodox communities.
“In the past, there was no way for Haredi women to work in a shared-space because that would require them to work alongside men,” Segal said. The Haredi shared-spaces offer a hub of entrepreneurial spirit while remaining compatible with cultural and religious restrictions, providing these men and women with the space they need to become more involved in the workforce, he added.
These spaces demonstrate the deep social changes Haredi communities have undergone in recent years, mainly a broader entrance into the general workforce, including in professions— namely tech— that were once closed off to ultra-Orthodox people in general and to Haredi women in particular.
Dozens of papers, essays, and reports were published on Haredi participation in the Israeli workforce and their potential role in solving the country’s notorious talent crunch. An encouraging trend can be seen in data collected by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics—in 2009, 40% of Haredi men and 59% of Haredi women were employed. In 2018, 53% of men held jobs, and 74% of women were working by early 2019.
However, many in the ultra-orthodox community are still employed in traditional jobs such as the education system, and in various religious positions, which are often part-time positions or ones that pay low wages. The average wage within the Haredi community is 60.1% lower than among the country’s general population, according to the bureau.
You have to bring home the schmalz, Segal said. “In the past, you could live hand-to-mouth, with the man studying in the Kollel and the woman taking care of the children and working part-time,” he explained. These days, if both the husband and the wife don’t bring in at least a minimum wage, it is impossible to survive, he added.
Segal, a 37-year-old advertising agent and weekly magazine editor, started WorkUP together with several partners, at a NIS 4.5 million (approximately $1.26 million) investment and plans to open additional branches in Jerusalem, Ashdod, and Haifa. Only a Haredi entrepreneur can start such a venture, he said. A non-religious person would have to obtain rabbinical permits, may have trouble securing a Kosher internet connection (which restricts access to websites that may break Jewish chastity rules), and would not have sufficient comprehension of acceptable norms and rules of conduct, he said.
Many of the male members I spoke with told me the shared-space reminded them of a Stiebel, an informal synagogue used by Jewish communities for prayer and study, where men gather to meet, work, mingle, and solve problems.
As we walk through the men’s floor, I am surprised to see a young, sharply dressed woman holding a Louis Vuitton purse coming out of one of the offices, accompanied by two men. She is married to one of the men, so she can be in the room with them, 38-year-old Shari Peled told me, explaining her presence there. Peled, her husband Zeevik, and the other man, Menachem Edelstein, are partners in a real estate investment fund.
According to Peled, the three previously leased a 250-square-meter office in a nearby tower, but after visiting Regus, a shared office space operated by Luxembourg-headquartered company IWG PLC, they felt a shared space would give them more exposure and networking opportunities, enabling them to save on advertising costs. “Besides, it is the hottest trend in office real estate,” she added.
Peled does admit that the current clientele is not necessarily what she is looking for. According to her, WorkUp is oriented towards younger people, while Regus is occupied by lawyers and real estate agents over 40, which are more up her alley. “I am here because I need Haredi customers,” she added.
Peled has her own office on the women’s floor and claims one of the main advantages of a women-only space is that there are never any fights over air conditioning, because “men like it freezing and women don’t.” All of Peled’s employees are men, “since real estate is a man’s world.”
From a religious standpoint, a women’s role is to be modest and hidden, but Jewish tradition does tell the stories of women, such as Deborah the prophetess and Queen Esther, who were very influential, Peled’s husband Zeevik said. Pointing to his wife, Zeevik asked how her job is any different than, say, that of a school principal, which is considered an acceptable job for a Haredi woman.
Their daughter feels differently, Peled said. “She says she does not want to be like her mother and prefers to do nails, makeup, and wigs,” Peled said. Every woman should do what is best for her, they don’t all have to be at the helm, she concluded.
Visible from WorkUp’s windows is the balcony of competing shared space Ampersand, which launched last year. Its 1,300-square-meter space has separate common areas for men and women, private offices, meeting rooms, classrooms, and its own synagogue.
Ampersand was established by KamaTech, a nonprofit organization working to integrate Israel's ultra-Orthodox population into its tech industry. KamaTech’s CEO, Moshe Friedman, studied in a yeshiva until he was 30 before undergoing training to get into tech about 10 years ago.
“Being Haredi, I had very little faith in my chances of succeeding as an entrepreneur,” Friedman said in a recent interview. He had no ecosystem to lend support, no connections to investors, and no networking ties formed in the military or during academic studies, Friedman explained.
There are nearly 20,000 people who are able and willing to work in tech but lack the right diploma or some of the credentials, Friedman said. The entrepreneurial spirit is there but they have difficulty finding work, he added. KamaTech as well as Friedman’s venture fund Twelve Angels were born to encourage Haredi entrepreneurs to start their own companies rather than wait to be hired by existing firms. Ampersand is meant to give the ultra-Orthodox community a sense that it belongs in this world, Friedman said.
Ampersand charges between NIS 1,500 and NIS 1,800 (approximately $420-$500) a month for a private office and NIS 1,100 (approximately $310) a month for an open space seat.
The oldest Haredi shared-space is Bizmax, which opened in Jerusalem as early as 2015. Located within a government building, Bizmax is less flashy than its younger Bnei Brak counterparts. It was founded by the Jerusalem Development Authority, a city and government agency promoting economic activity, The Kemach Foundation for Haredi professional development, and non-profit organization Achim Global, established by early WeWork investor Marc Schimmel.
Bizmax spans over 600 square meters, with an occupancy of about 100 people paying NIS 1,000 (approximately $280) per month on an open space sit, NIS 1,800 (approximately $500) on an office for one, and NIS 3,500 (approximately $980) for a double office.
In Jerusalem, less Haredi men work, since they fear intentional influence from non-religious groups, Yitzik Krombi, who heads Bizmax, said in an interview. Some cultural gaps are hard to bridge Krombi said, mentioning as an example a conference on digital presence for businesses held recently by Bizmax in segregation—women attended between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., while a separate event for men took place between 7:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. “This blew up into a world war on Facebook, with people accusing us of excluding women and turning Israel into Tehran,” Krombi said.
The exclusion of women and gender-based segregation in events aimed at religious populations is a highly sensitive subject in Israel, often prompting public outcry and criticism from women’s rights organizations.
As a result of the controversy, representatives from Israeli government investment arm the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) canceled their participation in the event, stating the IIA cannot stand for gender segregation, Kromby said. If you really want ultra-Orthodox people to join the workforce, you have to work with them and allow them to maintain their way of life, otherwise, they’ll just keep to themselves, he added.
Achim Global also has a Bnei Brak co-working space and is planning a third one in Ashdod. Bnei Brak’s Achim Center looks like a WeWork duplicate, with its sleek glass and black aluminum design. The lobby, however, is equipped with a large bookcase adorned with Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud books.
Achim Center has 35 private rooms of different sizes, priced at between NIS 1,300 and NIS 3,400 (approximately $365-$950) a month, and 110 opens space seats going for NIS 750 (approximately $210) each. All revenues go towards the activity of the nonprofit, dedicated to fulfilling the economic potential of the Haredi community. “We are working at a 110% capacity,” Aharon Gafni, who heads the center, said in an interview. “We have a hot-desk policy in the open space, with people coming in either in the morning or in the afternoon,” he added.
“Think of a guy in a Kollel (an advanced Judaic studies program for married men), who dedicated his life to studying and was considered a prodigy,” Sackler said. After years of getting up at 5 a.m. after studying all day and night, this guy finds himself looking for a job and realizes the only positions open to him are low-paying manual labor jobs, he explained. “That is an extremely painful breaking point and I believe that if we could solve that, we would see a growing number of Haredim, getting out of the circle of poverty and government support by entering the job market.”