Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel join workforce


It’s the first day of school for Chani Dickman, an ultra-Orthodox woman in her 40s. She is one of 20 ultra-Orthodox women participating in a training course for medical coding—reading patients charts and diagnoses and assigning the proper codes that are used for insurance reimbursement.

If she passes her exams, she is guaranteed a full-time job with HRS, a Baltimore-based company that does medical coding. She’ll start out above minimum wage and her compensation will increase every year.

Dickman will be coming to the Jerusalem Technological Training Center every day from Ramat Beit Shemesh, an ultra-Orthodox community about a 40-minute bus ride away.

“This course will give me the specific skills I need to get a proper job,” she told The Media Line. “I’ve been working but I need more work, and this guarantees us a full-time job for at least two years.”

For other women, like Malka Mittman, it’s an opportunity to get back into the work force.

“I was doing English proofreading but I didn’t have enough work,” she tells The Media Line. “I’ve also done some medical proofreading which will be helpful.”

Like much of the ultra-Orthodox community, their husbands don’t work and these women are the primary breadwinners for their large families with an average of eight children. In the ultra-Orthodox world, the highest value is based on full-time study of Jewish texts. Unlike in the United States, where most ultra-Orthodox men work at least part-time, in Israel only about 25 percent of ultra-Orthodox men are part of the labor force.

“This is huge—we’re making history here,” Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennet told The Media Line enthusiastically. “Twenty percent of Israel is ultra-Orthodox. Historically they had very low employment rates. What we’re doing here and in hundreds of other programs is getting a big chunk of the population into the workforce. This is good news for Israel and for them, because now they’ll be able to provide for their families in a respectable way.”

Wendy Copeland Gould, the owner of HRS, says she was inspired to open the course after one of her employees in the U.S. moved back to Israel. While other medical coding companies are looking to India, she decided to invest in Israel. The new course comes on the cusp of a revolution in medical coding in the U.S. that is set to take effect in 2014.

“The new coding system is already causing havoc in the health care system,” Gould told The Media Line. “We’re going from 14,000 codes to 140,000 codes. My American staff have to learn it, hospital staff have to learn it, and there’s a projected 50-60 percent drop in productivity.”

As long as she had to retrain her own staff, she says, why not open a course in Israel to train staff there as well?

The $2,700 cost of the course is being split among the Israeli government, the Joint Distribution Committee and an organization called Temech, meant to help ultra-Orthodox women in Israel find jobs. The women themselves will pay $300, which they will get back if they complete the course.

They will attend class from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week for eight months. As most young children finish school at 1 p.m. the course seems more suited to women with older children.

In Israel, secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis often know little about each other. School systems are separate, as our most neighborhoods. In 2011 Israel was rocked by social protests calling for ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted as are all other Israeli Jewish men and women. The parliament is currently working on several plans to draft these ultra-Orthodox men.

Shaindy Babad, the director of Temech, which is helping to fund the medical coding course, says having more ultra-Orthodox women in the workforce is good for Israeli society as well. Her organization has trained 3,000 ultra-Orthodox women in fields ranging from hydrotherapy to high-tech.

“Each of these women is an ambassador,” she told The Media Line. “It can build a bridge with the rest of Israel and show both sides that they have a lot to offer each other.”

She said that most businesses need to make only minor adjustments to employ ultra-Orthodox women. They prefer to be in female-only areas, and they may need more vacation time around the Jewish holidays.

“They are committed, educated and dedicated employees,” she said.


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