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Jewish Journal

Frum women find a place

by Michelle Chabin

November 15, 2012 | 3:18 pm

Marci Rapp, creator of MarSea Modest Swimwear, was one of 200 participants at the Kishor business conference for religious women in Jerusalem. Photo by Michele Chabin

Marci Rapp, creator of MarSea Modest Swimwear, was one of 200 participants at the Kishor business conference for religious women in Jerusalem. Photo by Michele Chabin

When “Rivky,” a Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, woman with “a very large family” — she declined to say how large, fearful of tempting fate — opened a woman’s clothing shop in the basement of her Jerusalem home 40 years ago, advertising her business was easy.

“There was only one newspaper serving the ‘frum oylom,’ ” she recalled, referring to the “religious world” in Yiddish-accented English.

Today, the grandmother said, the Charedi community “is fragmented.”

“There are four daily papers and 15 100-page circulars published every week, and you get the feeling you have to advertise everywhere. You’re spending all your money on advertising even before you’ve earned anything.”

Eager to discuss the situation with others, Rivky, who like many Charedi women declined to share her real name or be photographed for reasons of religious modesty, decided to attend the third annual Kishor Conference for religious businesswomen.  

From the modest way the participants dressed, the strollers several pushed, and the types of seminars being offered, it was clear this was no ordinary business conference. 

Although the 400 attendees, who ranged from Modern Orthodox to Charedi, were treated to the kinds of networking and entrepreneurial pep talks any business conference would offer, the summer event also featured remarks — and some warnings — by a prominent rabbi and a workshop titled “Eshet Chayil [A Woman of Valor] — Not Superwoman, Keeping Our Priorities Straight.”

There was also a seminar on Internet marketing, despite the admonitions of some Charedi rabbis to stay offline.  

The conference’s theme, “Homemaker, Business Builder,” reflected the attendees’ feelings of responsibility to their families, and the belief that, with the proper training and guidance, the same skills they use to smoothly run a home with six to 15 children can be used in the business world.       

The gathering was an outgrowth of the Kishor Women’s Professional Network, which was established in 2008 (under a different name) to provide a monthly forum for meeting, educating and supporting religious businesswomen or those aspiring to be one.

The conference took place at a time when a few thousand Charedim, both male and female, are pursuing advanced degrees or intensive job training, many in programs tailored to them.

Thanks to the secular subjects they study in school, Charedi young women are more prepared for a career than their male counterparts, who study only religious subjects in the higher grades.  

While Charedi women have always held jobs as teachers or worked in shops, the need to be the breadwinner while their husbands learn in kollel (Hebrew for “house of study”), the reduction in government child allowances and greater contact with mainstream society, is motivating them to reach further.

Many Charedi rabbis do not object to the community’s women establishing their own businesses if it enables their husbands to learn full time, and as long as the women work according to the precepts of Jewish law.

The rabbis understand that their insular lifestyle is under threat as a growing number of Israelis demand that Charedim, who have the most children and lowest workplace participation, earn a living and serve in the army. 

Founded by Sarah Lipman, a Charedi high-tech entrepreneur, the Kishor network was a way to provide Charedi women with the tools and support non-Charedi businesspeople usually take for granted — in a religious framework.  

Lipman noted that advertisements for mainstream business events are posted in media that are not seen by the Charedi community and that networking events are mixed (men and women) and therefore uncomfortable socially. She said that business programs and events are costly or held at hours that children are home from school.

As in previous years, the conference was sponsored by Temech, an organization that promotes religious women’s participation in the workforce. Signaling greater society’s determination to help Charedi families escape the cycle of poverty, it was co-sponsored by Bituach Leumi (Israel’s National Insurance Institute), the Jerusalem Development Authority and the MATI Jerusalem Business Development, with assistance from private companies.

The conference is especially important, some of the participants said, because women aren’t welcome at the annual Management Forum, the premier, all-male Charedi economic conference in Israel.

Among the Kishor participants were store owners, accountants, architects, high-tech entrepreneurs, a doula, graphic designers, a massage therapist and the manufacturer of a line of modest swimwear.

Exactly how many Charedi women run businesses in Israel isn’t clear, presumably because the community is so insular and also because many enterprises are run off the books.

“This hidden economy makes it difficult for the government and NGOs [nongovernment organizations] to reach this population and accelerate their economic growth with the kinds of educational and capital support extended in general,” Lipman said. 

Temech director Shaindy Babad noted that her organization, which is funded by American philanthropists, offers basic computer training courses in cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Microsoft; another program, facilitated by Temech and Bituach Leumi, offers workplace readiness and one-on-one mentoring.   

“One of our goals is to reduce social gaps through work integration of at-risk populations,” Brenda Morginstin, a Bituach Leumi official, said of the Charedi population, which, along with the Arab sector, has the lowest workplace participation in Israel.

“We want them to reach their potential, despite their shortage of work skills, large families and family attitudes,” Morginstin said.  

The successful Charedi mentors who spoke during the conference’s final event shared their experiences and know-how with a roomful of eager participants.

“If I’m sitting here, anyone can,” said Elisheva Kligsberg, who related how she came up with the idea to open a school to train event planners during the year-and-a-half she was bedridden following a car accident.

Devorah Zaks, whose company employs 20 other Charedi women, said that when her children were small, “I worked mornings and nights” in order to be with the kids when they arrived home from school. When teenagers arrived home just before dinnertime, she shifted her schedule accordingly.

“Having the flexibility to make your own hours is one of the reasons to go into business,” Babad said. 

Another reason, participants said, is the fact that many non-Charedi employers won’t hire religious women, believing they will go on paid maternity leave every other year. Still another reason: plain prejudice against Charedi Jews.  

Chana Malka Landau, a clothing designer with shops in virtually every Charedi neighborhood, described how an acrimonious relationship with her main distributor led to her decision to open her own stores. 

While the speakers talked business fundamentals, they also emphasized their community’s values.

“It’s important that the time you spend on your businesses won’t hurt your husband’s or sons’ studies,” Landau told the audience.     

“Never forget why you are working: to help your husband do his work, whether he is learning or working,” Landau agreed.

While advice like this may sound old-fashioned to nonreligious women, “It’s what I needed to hear,” said one participant.

Another participant, Marci Rapp, the creator of MarSea Modest Swimwear, said she was attending the conference “for networking and reinforcement.”

“I want to expand my business, which is, thank God, growing, and this is a good start,” Rapp said.

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