Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
The Hebrew Free Loan Society’s Entrepreneurship Course for Haredi Women provides innovative, rigorous, culturally-sensitive entrepreneurship training that positions participants to successfully launch or grow small businesses and help their families – most of whom are poor or near-poor -- achieve economic self-sufficiency.
The course also has an impact beyond businesses launched and income generated -- participation builds graduates’ self-confidence, empowering them to pursue their goals. Their work changes their own and their families’ perceptions of women’s abilities and roles within the family and the community as a whole.
If there was ever a powerful and life-changing application of Jewish wisdom, the Hebrew Free Loan Society’s Entrepreneurship Course for Haredi Women is it. Since 2011, HFLS has empowered Haredi women to become the economic engine that drives their families toward financial stability in insular communities where Jewish poverty is the most highly concentrated in New York City.
On the first day of our semester-long program, the class reads Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor) and together underlines the portions that describes women entrepreneurs. The class typically comes to realize that every line in Eshet Chayil describes a woman entrepreneur. This introduction sets up an authentically Jewish framework for a course which combines a focus on hard skills like developing a business plan, understanding how cash flow works, and negotiating a lease with softer, but no less important conversations about issues relevant to these particular women. For example, we discuss managing pushback from a community where women’s leadership is not culturally normative and how to balance the assertiveness necessary for negotiating a contract with deeply-held values of modesty and service. All of this is done in a setting which brings together emerging women entrepreneurs to learn from successful women in business and from each other.
HFLS’s women’s entrepreneurship course incorporates three deep forms of applied Jewish wisdom: the kabbalistic idea of avodah b’gashmius, learning from the lived experiences of observant Jewish women entrepreneurs, and careful attention to all three questions posed by Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
Our courses cover a lot of ground in twelve weeks, and much of it is focused on practical skills. But these courses were designed to address a very culturally-specific need in the Jewish community, and the instructor weaves into every session the kind of exploration and coaching that recognizes the unique set of challenges the participants face as women attempting to succeed in their communities, whose norms can create strong headwinds against the professional paths they have chosen.
Crucial to the success of these courses is creating a setting in which the women can Jewishly affirm their hopes and goals to build a business. We encourage participants to frame the entire project of small business creation as a way to elevate the mundane to a level of holiness, based on the kabbalistic and Hasidic idea of service through the material, or avodah b’gashmius. A business, like any other everyday activity, can be a vehicle for Jewish values at every turn: how you treat customers and employees, practicing honesty and integrity and the value of a good name – all of these are issues of great importance for business and for Jewish life. Through using this framework, we are able to better reach and engage a population of women who might not view women’s entrepreneurship as normative. Additionally, we are better able to create a holistic educational experience that speaks to the culture and identity of the women who participate, rather than providing an education that is only vocational in nature.
Although times have changed in the ultra-Orthodox world and it is now less common for women to take on professional careers, there is a strong history of observant Jewish women in business. We are intentionally continuing a long tradition of women in small business that stretches back to the biblical daughters of Tzelofchad, was influenced the economies of small Eastern European villages, and was brought to New York City with immigrants from these communities. The course curriculum and informal class discussion incorporates this history to provide an authentic context for women’s entrepreneurship. Helping to establish this context is critical in empowering women and normalizing women’s careers in the ultra-Orthodox communities that we serve.
Finally, perhaps the most intensive application of Jewish wisdom comes in the many conversations that the women have about how to balance their professional and personal dreams and ambitions (If I am not for myself) with their cherished commitment to the community and its values (If I am only for myself) at a time when they have decided to take a decisive step forward in the direction of their dreams (If not now). The course provides a unique forum for these women to have critical, identity-building conversations like these, and their success in navigating these deeply Jewish questions has a large impact on their ability to not only successfully launch and grow a business, but also to build their own self-esteem and sense of empowerment.
The women who participate in our courses typically arrive on the first day with an idea for a business. Some have started their businesses and are struggling to move ahead, and others haven’t yet launched their businesses. The participants typically have large families and limited secular education, making entrepreneurship an ideal way for them to build a career that can contribute to their families’ financial security and self-sufficiency and which speaks to their personal interests and talents.
The nature of the materials in the courses means that everything taught is immediately relevant to someone who is about to or at the beginning stages of starting a business. Many of the women are applying the concepts they learn immediately and then coming back to the course to discuss results with the instructor and the other students.
Post-course evaluations and follow-up interviews indicate that Women’s Course graduates acquire the hard and soft skills required to launch and run successful small businesses, build a supportive network of fellow Haredi businesswomen to lean on and learn from as they move their businesses forward, feel empowered to pursue their goals, and experience a positive shift of their own and their families’ perceptions of a woman’s abilities and role within the family.
Etty, who runs a catering business with her husband, said after completing the course: “Before this course, I used to identify and introduce myself as the wife of a caterer. This course has changed and shaped my identity as a legitimate, hard-working, realistic female business owner, one that has the tools and knowledge to go ahead and succeed!”
Malka, who launched a coaching consultancy, said, “The course gave me the skills to evaluate my business concept in realistic numbers and see how far it could take me. A lot of time and patience was given to the question of how much to charge, and to give everyone confidence that making a profit is not being greedy, but will allow us to grow, hire workers, and spread the wealth. The camaraderie built in the class was a motivating force, encouraging all to grow and achieve.”
We have two main takeaways about applied Jewish wisdom from this work. First, even people deeply familiar with Jewish teachings and Jewish experiences can have aspects of their lives and identities where applying Jewish wisdom in a new way is profoundly important. The power and impact of the program comes from the way that it enables Jewish frameworks and teaching to shape and strengthen an important process of risk-taking that these women entrepreneurs have decided to pursue.
Second, we have learned that applied Jewish wisdom is most powerful when it is not taught only by experts, but when it is owned and shared by a community of learners. Throughout the course, participants are coaching each other, providing stories and examples from their own experiences, and, in ways that penetrate far beyond the classroom, taking these stories, ideas and skills back to their family, their friends, and their business associates.
Because the application of Jewish wisdom within the group is so important, we have created a network for course graduates called the Women’s Forum, where course participants can continue to provide support, ideas and advice to each other as they build their businesses and grapple with implications of being a strong, successful female entrepreneur in a community where perceptions of women’s roles is gradually changing.
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