A new scholarship program has been set up to help Israel’s deeply patriotic Druse community gain entrance to the nation’s lucrative high-tech sector.

When Isaac “Yitz” Applbaum first visited a Druse cemetery in Israel about two years ago he was humbled to see how many had died on Israeli battlefields. Israel’s Druse, the American businessman and philanthropist learned, fight Israel’s enemies alongside the country’s Jewish soldiers and many have sacrificed their lives.

Accompanied by his friend, MK Avi Dichter, then Israel’s Minister of Internal Security, Applbaum suddenly felt compelled to help to better integrate this under-recognized patriotic community into Israel. He was especially impressed to learn that a number of the Druse soldiers were members of intelligence units as high-profile as America’s CIA.

Although it is considered to be an offshoot of Islam, the Druse religion and culture is quite different from mainstream Islam as it is practiced today. Religious authority is very strong in the tight-knit Druse communities in Israel. And unlike Israeli Arabs who normally do not serve in the Israel army, the Druse, to whom allegiance to the country in which they live is traditionally very strong, see service as an important contribution to society.

“The Druse, I learned, serve in the Israeli army and a disproportionate number of them serve in elite units,” Applbaum tells ISRAEL21c. And beyond that, he continues, “the Druse people are known to be great givers.”

Locked out of high-tech

But when Applbaum met personally with leaders from the Druse community, it was clear to him that for various reasons this sector of society had never gained entry to Israel’s lucrative high-tech world. They tended to find jobs in the field of social work or in the security service or prisons. “Not a lot of doors open for them in the high-tech community,” says Applbaum, a venture capitalist.

“Who you know is as important as what you know. If you don’t know someone in the VC community, then it’s hard to get ideas funded,” he explains. So Applbaum hatched an idea with Dichter to accelerate high-tech opportunities in the Druse community.

He founded ExcelHT, a scholarship program that aims to identify suitable students and help them through the entire process of matriculation, army service, college and landing a high-tech career. The program also arranges professional internships and employment opportunities in leading companies upon graduation.

They joined with Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Charitable Fund, a passionate philanthropist who has worked with both Arabs and Jews in the Israel army, and the trio recruited a task force: Top professionals from the Israeli high tech-world, and other organizations that could provide high-tech support and training.

Support from experts and philanthropists

The ball started rolling over a year ago, and today there are 10 young Druse benefiting from the scholarship and mentoring that ExcelHT provides. Expertise to train them comes from Israeli universities, mentors and multinational companies stationed in Israel, such as Cisco, which recently held a full day seminar for the students.

During the seminar, the group learned about Israeli high-tech through representatives from Cisco, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the IDF Planning and Manpower Division, and attended special workshops with Druse engineers already employed in high-tech companies in Israel. They also met with Applbaum and Dichter.

Financing for the scholarships comes from the US, and Applbaum and his partners expect the program to expand every year, by bringing on more students and through building connections in the high-tech community.

But there are no free rides. People accepted to the ExcelHT program are expected to give of themselves by volunteering for community service. This particular group decided to work with high-school kids and teach them about high-tech.

Along with their older mentors at ExcelHT, a group of about 60 Druse from the Yarka School of Sciences spent the day at Cisco learning about careers in the computer field.

Satisfaction from first steps

“Cisco actively assists in integrating different sectors of society into the Israeli high-tech and technology job markets,” says Ifat Baron, Cisco Networking Academy manager. “The unique introduction into the high-tech world that we are giving these young men and women from the Druse community can provide an important preliminary guide to choosing their army, academic and employment fields in the future.”

While at present the ExcelHT scholarship covers only the costs of the students’ school career, the group hopes that it in the future it will raise the funds to expand the program. Still, Applbaum, the ExcelHT chairman, is already pleased with the encouraging immediate results.

“God knows we’ve moved the ball forward,” he says, referring to the 18-month period before when very few from the Druse community had even contemplated being a part of the local high-tech scene.

“We can already point to outcomes,” he says excitedly. “The community is small and focused. We know where they live, we know where they are working and we can point to their leaders,” he adds, noting that as a philanthropist, being able to measure these small steps of progress gives an enormous amount of satisfaction.