The following vignette, “Rivki”, follows what happened to her during the Corona epidemic. It reflects the change that occurred in the daily lives of Haredi women in Israel, and particularly self-employed women. Rivki is based on a real person and research done for the vignette
The following vignette, “Rivki, a Haredi working woman from B’nei Brak,” follows what happened to her during the Corona epidemic. It reflects the change that occurred in the daily lives of Haredi women in Israel, and particularly self-employed women. Rivki is based on a real person and research done for the vignette.
Michal Manheimer, a member of the Israeli team of Corona experts with which Adva Center cooperated on this project: demonstrating the effect of the Corona epidemic on individuals from different sectors of Israeli society, explains below the challenges faced by Haredi women forced by the epidemic to exit the workforce.
“The main problem of reintegration of Haredi women into the world of work is that they were drawn back into the home as full-time housewives. The Haredi community was gradually becoming accustomed to married women being both mothers and breadwinners, and the need for a steady income led to a more balanced division of labor within the home. As women hurried off to work in the morning, the care of small children, help with homework and the rest of the household tasks no longer fell entirely on the shoulders of mothers. But with the lockdowns, the situation changed completely. Haredi housewives are different from secular housewives in two ways: firstly, Haredi society has not yet internalized and completely accepted women going outside the home to work; thus, when they returned home — things reverted back to the way they were before — and it will now be harder for them to go out to work again; secondly, the myriad demands of a large family, hold back many Haredi mothers from going out to work.”
Rivki is a 35 year old Haredi woman married to a man who studies in a kollel – a Yeshiva for married men. She has five children, three girls aged 7, 8 and 10 and two boys aged 13 and 15.The girls are enrolled in a Haredi elementary school for girls, and the boys in yeshivas. The family lives in B’nei Brak in an apartment they own. The apartment encompasses no more than 80 square meters.
Rivki studied in a religious teachers’ college for girls (Beit Yaakov). After graduation, she took a course in group facilitation, at the end of which she was certified. Five years ago she started her own business as a group facilitator. Gradually, she created a clientele, consisting mainly of Haredi institutions. She worked with the faculties of girls’ schools and with businesses employing Haredi women. Rivki did the facilitation work on her own and did not employ anyone else on a permanent basis; occasionally she hired an organizational consultant to assist her. She did her group facilitation work at the site of the client; the planning was done at home, sitting at a small table placed in the corner of the master bedroom. She used an old computer with no internet connection to do that work.
Rivki’s business is based on her personality and her skills. She has a strong presence that contributes considerably to her success as a facilitator, and she receives tremendous satisfaction from her work. She was able to expand her business thanks in large part to the recommendations of satisfied clients.
The money that Rivki earned (about NIS 8,000 or $2500 a month on average) enabled her husband to study in the kollel and as such gave her power and prestige within the family as well as in the community at large. She is the one who handles the family’s money; she is careful with every shekel and usually purchases no more than the necessities, but during holidays she allows herself to spend a little more on the children, as is the custom.
Rivki: What happened with the outbreak of the Corona epidemic?
During the first lockdown, Rivki’s business simply collapsed. The orders she had received prior to the epidemic were cancelled and some of the payments for workshops she had already given were not forthcoming. She did not receive any new orders, of course, as her work was based on her physical presence at the institutions that invited her and on the relations that she was able to develop among participants.
Rivki’s husband continued to study at the kollel and her sons continued to study in their yeshivas. Her daughters, however, stayed home, and Rivki remained with them. As Rivki related, “The situation was impossible: the girls were supposed to learn via the telephone; I tried to help them but it just didn’t work.” The family’s financial situation worsened: “That was a very hard time. I needed to stay at home with the girls and at the same time try to keep my business going. At some point I just gave up on the business.”
Rivki applied for financial assistance from the Israel tax authority; Luckily, the rule was that assistance was made available on the basis of income earned in 2018, by which time Rivki’s business was already established, and thus the grant she received was not insignificant. Rivki was grateful for every shekel she received in assistance; the money enabled her to maintain her status as the family breadwinner: “Although I stopped working, the money kept coming, Baruch HaShem.”
When the second lockdown came into effect, Rivki realized that she had to change her product. She contacted a voluntary association that assists Haredi women to develop their businesses, run by a Haredi woman. She received advice regarding how to apply to the Agency for Small and Medium Sized Businesses for a grant that would help her turn her business into a computer-based enterprise, and she received a grant in the amount of NIS 5,000 ($1,560) for this purpose. She used the grant to create a website for her business and began to work on designing new workshops that would be appropriate for Zoom.
At the same time, Rivki continued to submit requests for government grants, to make up for her loss of income. She did receive additional grants; although her income was reduced, as happened during the first lockdown, these grants enabled her to continue to support the family.
At home she divided her time between taking care of the girls, organizing activities for them, and teaching them the content they missed from school, as long-distance learning did not seem to work for them. At the same time, Rivki continued to develop her business so as to offer on-line workshops.
During the third lockdown, her oldest son came down with Corona and was quarantined at home. Rivki gave him the master bedroom, brought his food to the door, and luckily he recovered and no one else in the family contacted the virus. Many of her friends were not so lucky; children who were quarantined often spread the virus to the entire family.
Rivki: What happened after the third lockdown?
The end of the third lockdown found Rivki bursting with energy and optimism. She reset her business as a hybrid one offering both face-to-face and Zoom workshops. She contacted all of her former clients and explained that she now had not one but rather three options: frontal workshops, Zoom workshops, and, for schools – workshops via a special platform that enabled her to speak with participants via kosher telephones. She gave interested parties free sample workshops.
Gradually, Rivki’s clients began to return to her, and new clients took an interest in her products. Her daughters returned to school, and with the help of her husband and children, she converted a larger corner of the apartment into a small office, with space enough for a computer and large screen. Her income is still not as high as it was before the Corona epidemic, but the changes she made in her business give her new possibilities for more income in the future. As Rivki said, “Baruch Hashem the business was not lost. I experienced success, failure, and a return to the right path.” At the same time, Rivki was acquainted with other owners of small businesses who were not as lucky as she was. She feared another lockdown during the High Holidays [which did not materialize]. Although the Corona epidemic was the catalyst for her to develop her business further, she was aware that the future remained uncertain.
Researched and written by Barbara Swirski. Edited by Dr. Shani Bar-On Maman.
Citations courtesy of Liron Baharav, on the basis of her research, “Between Religion and Neo-Liberalism: The Case of Small Business Initiatives of Haredi Women in Israel.” PhD. Thesis, Ben Gurion University, 2021.