At first glance the Ampersand co-working space in Israel looks like any of its peers from San Francisco to Barcelona: an array of cacti, trendy furniture and multicolored cubicles.
But this project, in a poor suburb of Tel Aviv, has one crucial difference: the work areas for its 130 or so tenants are segregated by gender, to prevent men and women from mingling — one of the necessary working conditions for the ultraorthodox Jews that represent Ampersand’s target market. “The idea of our project is to build bridges for the ultraorthodox community to get into the Israeli high-tech industry,” says founder Moshe Friedman.
From Ampersand’s offices on the 18th floor of a tower block, he points westwards at the glitzy high-rise towers of Tel Aviv, home to many of the workers in Israel’s high-tech boom.
Moshe Friedman: ‘The challenge is to bring the ultraorthodox coming from a religious culture and lifestyle and connect them with a secular Israel, which is an innovative high-tech economy’ By contrast, Ampersand’s neighborhood of Bnei Brak, 7km from central Tel Aviv, is one of the poorest and most crowded in Israel, and a center of ultraorthodox Judaism. Known collectively as Haredim — which means to be in awe of god — this broad spectrum of groups is characterized by a rejection of modern secular culture.
“We are trying to close the cultural and educational gaps,” says Mr Friedman, whose great-grandfather co-founded the Haredi community in Jerusalem in 1921 and banned maths, science and English from its schools. “The challenge is to bring the ultraorthodox coming from a religious culture and lifestyle and connect them with a secular Israel, which is an innovative high-tech economy.”
The success or otherwise of initiatives such as Ampersand — a WeWork for the ultraorthodox community — and the potential to emulate them across the country and for other minority parts of the population, is crucial to Israel’s ability to integrate isolated communities such as Haredi Jews and Israeli Arabs into the workforce, notably the high-tech industry that powers its economy.
“The integration of the Haredi is one of the most pressing issues in Israel today,” says Philippe Guez, founder and chief executive of Maor Investments, which recently raised a $100m venture capital fund to invest in Israeli high-tech companies. “Integrating the ultrareligious into the workforce is crucial in the fight to improve labor market participation and increase productivity.”
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