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Friday, 17 November 2006

Unconventional, but Orthodox

Jewish women in the West Bank know the language of outsourcing

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Deena Porat is director of human resources at Citybook Services, a U.S. outsourcing firm that employs ultra-Orthodox women from the West Bank. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, November 17, 2006
Page D - 1

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Modiin Illit, West Bank -- When a major property company decided to purchase a prestigious Manhattan skyscraper a couple of years ago, its managers faced the challenge of reading through the 200-page contracts of each of the building's 300 tenants before they could finalize the deal.

It was the kind of back-office paralegal work that could have taken weeks and cost a small fortune. But thanks to the initiative of a New Jersey businessman, the work was carried out in a couple of days a third of the way around the world by a dedicated team of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, at a fraction of the cost.

This work, known as lease abstracting, is one of the mainstays of Citybook Services Ltd, a company in the ultra-Orthodox -- or "haredi" -- township of Modiin Illit on the edge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Citybook is a flagship company in Israel's fast-growing outsourcing sector, which takes advantage of the country's large immigrant community to provide English, French, Spanish and Dutch language back-office services to companies in the United States and Europe, including paralegal and accounting work, call centers, graphic design and software development.

Salaries are 40 to 50 percent lower in Israel than in the United States, and because of the time difference -- 10 hours later in Israel than in California -- work can be commissioned at the end of the working day in America, completed overnight during Israel's daytime hours and be ready for stateside clients by morning.

IDT, a Jerusalem company, leads the outsourcing sector, with 1,000 employees operating call centers for clients around the world in a wide variety of languages.

In a 2004 survey, consulting firm AT Kearney ranked Israel as one of the top 25 most-attractive places worldwide for outsourcing. In February 2005, the Economist ranked Israel in the top 20 and in September 2005, Red Herring magazine called Jerusalem a "new hotspot" for outsourcing.

"Israel is in a unique position, due to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world," said Eli Kazhdan, a former chief of staff of the Ministry of Industry and Trade who now acts as a consultant to outsourcing companies. "This is where Israel has its competitive edge. We are able to cut costs without compromising on quality."

Citybook's arrival in Modiin Illit has not only benefited its clients, it has also set off a small social revolution, providing 150 jobs for women in the impoverished ultra-Orthodox sector, in which more than half of families are below the poverty line -- about $1,000 per month for a family of four -- and many of the men are full-time students in yeshiva seminaries.

"It brings them into the workforce in a non-coercive way, very much taking into account their religious sensitivities and sensibilities," said Kazhdan. "These people would not work in a Tel Aviv high-tech company, because it just doesn't fit with their lifestyle. Citybook has created a high-tech environment, which enables these workers to go from welfare to employment without compromising religious values."

Citybook provides the women with four months of training and salaries well above the minimum wage in a work environment that respects their conservative religious values as well as their needs as working wives -- such as short working hours and a room set aside with two hospital-standard breast pumps for nursing mothers.

Two more Israeli companies have followed Citybook to Modiin Illit, creating a total of 500 jobs in a community with a population of only 22,000.

"People think that to help the haredi community you need to concentrate on welfare programs, but the key to helping them is to give them the means to support themselves," said Mayor Yaakov Guterman, who visited Citybook recently.

The fast-growing town is situated just inside the West Bank, which means it is an illegal Israeli settlement in the eyes of most of the world. But Guterman says it is built entirely on land purchased for the purpose in 1967 and its position near a major highway midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem means it is likely to be annexed to Israel in any future peace settlement.

Joe Rosenbaum, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish businessman from Lakewood, N.J., founded Citybook three years ago as an offshoot of Madison Title, an insurance and property services company that insures $5 billion in liabilities, also based in Lakewood.

The venture has been so successful that he is planning to create an additional 40 jobs for ultra-Orthodox workers in Jerusalem.

"I had this vision with all the global outsourcing going on all over the world," said Rosenbaum. "Employees from the orthodox community have unique qualities. There's a tremendous reliability, work ethic and commitment. They are very careful not to waste time and are extremely grateful for the opportunity afforded them, so they go way beyond the call of duty."

Yocheved Katz, Citybook's office manager, said the company began "as an experiment with 12 women doing research and checking titles for Madison, and grew from there."

"The ladies in New Jersey stopped doing the research. Now they are much more available for client service and other things, which really help the company over there," said Katz.

Chaya Milgraum, a 22-year-old mother of two originally from Worcester, Mass., said she began working at Citybook two years ago because she and her husband, who was then a full-time yeshiva student, "really needed it." Now she lives right next door and the journey from home to work takes just a few minutes.

"There was a little opposition from my parents and my parents-in-law, because they're not used to the woman going out to work, only the husbands go to work," said Milgraum. "At the beginning it was hard, but then they said, 'You know what, it's good for you -- you're getting out, you're taking care of yourself, and you feel good about going out to work.'

"It was very important for me to come somewhere with a haredi environment. It's easier to get along with everybody when you're all in the same ballpark. When I was single, I worked alongside my mother in a totally mixed office, with men and with non-Jews. It was very nice, but I do enjoy working in an all-women environment."
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Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders are among those walking by female employees at the Modiin Illit office of Citybook Services. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

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