Israel's Druze community, numbering roughly 150,000, is a small but vibrant minority, one that broke away from Islam a thousand years ago. Spread throughout the Middle East, they have historically been persecuted as "heretics" by the Arab and Muslim nations.
Today, the Druze people are concentrated in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Thousands have emigrated to Europe and the United States. In Israel, where Druze enjoy equal rights and protection, their community is centered around Mount Carmel, the Western Galilee, and the Golan Heights.
The Druze people embrace three identities: a fierce loyalty to any country they reside in, including Israel; the Druze religion; and the Arab cultural and linguistic heritage.
A small minority of Druze, roughly one tenth, are religious, practicing special rituals and wearing an austere and modest type of clothing. The Druze religion is a secret one and its holy book may only be read by trained religious men. As a very conservative religion, orthodox Druze prefer to maintain a separation between men and women, especially in the workplace. At the same time, a high percentage of Druze women, both religious and secular, choose to study computers, mathematics, and science in high school, with aspirations of integrating into Israel's growing and lucrative high-tech sector--an instrument of socio-economic mobility.
Orthodox Druze women, who cannot work in mixed company with men and rarely leave their village, face a unique challenge when they want to move on to higher education to obtain a degree in computers and mathematics.
Five years ago, Meissa Halabi-Alsheikh--a Druze woman with a master's degree in computer and engineering--created a solution integrating Druze women in the high-tech sector, without breaking tradition: Lotus, a high-tech hub for women.
A non-profit organization, Lotus expands professional employment opportunities for Druze women--whose traditional lifestyles preclude not just mixed-gender workplaces, but driving or working outside their village. Lotus runs a unique year-long training program, teaching women advanced software development.
Upon graduation, they find work at a shared workspace in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Karmel from which they work remotely for some of the country's leading firms headquartered in the Tel Aviv area. The environment empowers them to work near home in a strictly female environment, earning a high salary otherwise denied to them in traditional professions in their village.
The program currently trains and provides workspace for over 400 young capable orthodox Druze women. For the high-tech sector in dire need of about 15,000 programmers, the space serves as a win-win solution. Tech firms are happy to pay their share in the collaborative workspace which enables them to recruit adept Druze programmers who otherwise would not be able to come to a Tel Aviv office.
The Lotus program enables hundreds of talented, ambitious, and diligent women the opportunity to dream about fulfilling their futures. Without such an option, their day-to-day reality, even after graduating high school with high marks, would typically be working in their village in low-skilled positions, earning a salary significantly below minimum wage.
For the first time in their history, orthodox Druze women have an opportunity to realize their dreams and truly provide for themselves and their families. In this way, Lotus--the first high-tech ecosystem in a Druze peripheral village--is growing the tech talent pool by enabling Druze women to gain the skills, knowledge, and social connections they need to thrive in today's digital economy. Ultimately, that helps them, their families, their communities, and the Jewish State of Israel to which they are loyal.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.