BNEI BRAK, Israel (RNS) At the age of 36, Michael Luc realized he needed to find a good job.
Until then Luc, an ultra-Orthodox Jew and father of four, spent his days studying Torah. It entitled him to a small government stipend and an exemption from mandatory military service. His wife, a kindergarten teacher, helped put food on the table.
Within the ultra-Orthodox stream of Orthodox Judaism, sometimes called “Haredi,” the daylong study of Torah and other rabbinic works, such as the Talmud, is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy in Isaiah — “for the land will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.”
But it is also a struggle for many families whose commitment to their faith forces them into lives of poverty.
“What my wife was earning wasn’t enough, and she was exhausted,” Luc said. “That’s when I decided I needed to work.”
Like the vast majority of graduates from Israel’s insular schools for Haredi Jews, Luc lacked the academic background to pursue a career.
He had barely studied subjects such as math and English, prerequisites for most good jobs in Israel.
And he had to confront the stigma many in his community attach to men who work, believing that they are betraying their faith commitments.
Determined to feed his family, Luc enrolled in a program at the Bnei Brak Employment Center, which offers intensive, culturally sensitive job training to Haredi men and women, many of whom have never held a full-time job.
During a two-year course of study, Luc learned English, math and technology and received both vocational training and help finding a job. Today he is a computer programmer.
The employment center, which is funded by the Ministry of the Economy and works in conjunction with the municipality, was created to help one of Israel’s poorest communities emerge from poverty and begin contributing to society.
A whopping 52 percent of Haredi families lived below the poverty line in 2014, compared with 19 percent of the population overall, according to Israel’s National Insurance Institute.
“If these groups don’t participate in the economy in larger numbers, Israel’s economic growth will go backward,” said Michal Tzuk, senior deputy director-general at the Ministry of Economy and Industry and head of employment. “To decrease poverty you have to increase employment.”
Tzuk emphasized that the goal “isn’t to change” the Orthodox community’s norms or way of life. “We highly respect the value of Torah study.”
To accommodate their lifestyle, which prohibits mingling between unrelated men and women, the center holds gender-segregated classes on alternating days. Classes for men begin in the afternoon to enable students to engage in religious studies in the mornings. Online training includes special software to filter out sites and images the community considers inappropriate.
Still, the community’s rabbis have not officially sanctioned the employment center, said David Shechter, the center’s Haredi director.
“Are there some rabbis against? Of course. You can say we walk between the raindrops.”
Although 70 percent of the community’s women are employed, most are teachers or other low-paid workers. Those Haredi men who do work — about 45 percent — generally perform manual labor or work in retail stores.
The government’s five-year, $125 million employment plan for ultra-Orthodox men has a loftier goal:
“We want high productivity in high tech, the civil services and in all economic sectors,” Tzuk said.
The ministry offers generous financial incentives to employers who hire these religious workers.
Tzuk said the men “are serious, loyal employees” and quick learners thanks to years of studying Torah and complex rabbinical commentaries.
And contrary to public perception, Luc said, years studying religious texts provided excellent training for the work he does now.
“Programming is very intense and requires an understanding of complicated processes layered one on top of the other. It’s the same mindset.”
Ninety percent of the workforce at the company where Luc works, Kedum Plus, consists of other ultra-Orthodox employees.
Created four years ago the company offers Web design and digital services. Its modern office features separate workspaces for men and women. Glass walls ensure transparency, according to Amichai Uzan, the company’s co-founder.
“We are a morally driven company, a family company.”
Most of Kedum Plus’ 50 employees were recruited from the Bnei Brak employment center. Female employees usually work until 3 p.m. in order to spend time with their children. Most male employees work the 3 to 8 p.m. shift.
Given that religiously devout families have the highest birthrate in Israel, maternity leave and breast-feeding breaks are built into the business plan.
“There’s a lot of understanding about maternity leave here, lots of coming and going,” Uzan said.
Seated in front of a computer in a room full of female Web designers, Henny Lampin, a 28-year-old designer and mother of four, said the job suits her religious lifestyle.
“It’s close to home; I can run home and nurse,” she said. “There’s a positive atmosphere and motivation here to do our jobs well. I can be myself here.”
Luc said entering the workforce has enabled him to continue studying Torah part time.
“It takes less of a toll on my wife. Now she works till 1 p.m., instead of 4 p.m. We’re also moving to a bigger place.”
Even so, Luc said he would like his sons to study Torah full time, without learning secular studies.
“I believe that if and when they feel the need to work they’ll be able to catch up very quickly,” he said. “Just like I did.”
(Michele Chabin is a Jerusalem-based RNS correspondent)