Batya Kenanie Bram, a former Israeli government spokeswoman, said she was looking for a new challenge. The working mother of three wanted to do something that she thought would have more direct social impact. Drawing on her natural business acumen and her formal academic training — she has a master’s degree in political science and public administration — she began teaching Haredi women in Jerusalem to start and maintain small businesses.
Kenanie Bram said it has been deeply fulfilling to help the women with whom she works understand that to be a good wife and mother and a productive and profitable entrepreneur are not mutually exclusive pursuits. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What does your work with these Haredi women entail?
Batya Kenanie Bram: The program I am involved with is an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce. It involves courses on how to start a business from theoretical, legal and tax perspectives. We work on self-empowerment and we evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses using models from the business world. We also cover marketing, presentation skills, negotiation skills, and the basics of business planning. The women also require ongoing coaching, and sometimes just someone to talk to, because their regular environment doesn’t provide the support and stimulation they need to advance.
Who are the women who take these courses, where are they from, and what motivates them to do this?
The participants are Haredi women who are residents of Haredi Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Har Nof, Meah Shearim, Ramat Eshkol and Shmuel Hanavi. A few women come from Ramat Beit Shemesh. There are courses for Haredi women outside of Jerusalem, but I do not teach those.
Haredi women take upon themselves the heavy burden of financially supporting their [often very large] families, in addition to running the household, so as to enable their husbands to learn all day. As a result of welfare payments having decreased in recent years, these women desperately need to make money, and they realize that they need to learn basic business skills to do so.
The program costs next to nothing for the women, so who pays for it?
The funding comes from both [local and national] governmental sources and not-for-profit organizations and NGO’s.
Why do you think these women should learn to open their own businesses, rather than find a part-time job somewhere?
I believe that empowering these women is very important for their communities. We are talking about an extremely economically weakened segment of society, a population of women who will not find opportunities for economic advancement. Companies will either not hire them, or they will take advantage of them in terms of low wages.
What kinds of small businesses are the Haredi women starting?
There are all different types of small businesses. Some examples include selling gold-filled jewelry, making Judaica for synagogues, an alternative medicine practice, and an events photography business. One woman in Meah Shearim from an extremist Haredi community [called Toldot Aharon] manufactures mattresses for baby strollers. Due to high demand for her product, she is now considering moving her manufacturing operations to China!
What do the husbands of these women and other members of the Haredi community think about this program?
The women’s communities are generally supportive, but only as long as the businesses come after first fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers and wives. Women whose husbands and rabbis are not supportive don’t come to the courses in the first place. But I am pleased that there are many men who do support their wives’ businesses — by helping with the money, driving them to fairs, buying materials, or discussing business matters. Sometimes a student will ask me to meet with her and her husband to listen when there is a problem, or to provide an outside opinion.
What have been the greatest rewards and challenges of this work?
It is very gratifying when the women tell me that if it weren’t for the courses and the ongoing coaching and personal meetings that they would not have had enough courage to start a business. I am also pleased that many of the women are not only opening their own small businesses, but are also interested in helping other women meet the challenge. And more and more of these women are opening legal businesses, rather than off-the-books ones that are so common in the cash-driven Haredi economy that operates almost autonomously from the main Israeli economy.
The greatest challenge in this work has been the need to bridge the cultural gaps and the suspicion. I have had to be careful not to respond to what the women say about how they perceive the State, because it would cause conflict. It has also been challenging to not take for granted that these women understand basic concepts, and to figure out how to best explain them to people who have no frame of reference for them from their everyday lives.