army - Ofer Vaknin - November 4 2010
Haredi soldiers. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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If it were only up to him, Meir, a 31-year-old ultra-Orthodox man from Bnei Brak, would dedicate his days to studying in yeshiva like his brothers and friends. Instead, every morning he gets up, puts on his air force uniform and travels to the base where he serves as a computer programmer.

His road from yeshiva to computers started four years ago. He'd been taught that his purpose in life was to study Torah, but the difficulty supporting his wife and two children pushed him to look for work. As someone whose education consisted mostly of religious studies, he found the choice of jobs open to him quite limited and the salaries low.

From friends, he heard about a program for Haredi employment run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There, Meir learned, he could study a profession while doing his army service - and not break any Haredi rules. "The decision to enlist wasn't trivial," said Meir. He consulted with his rabbi and wife, and concluded that if he wanted to raise a family it was the right thing to do.

While his initial motivation to enlist was financial, he later grew proud of his service. He says he is not looking for conflicts, so he doesn't make a show of his service in the ultra-Orthodox community. "But I have nothing to be ashamed of," he said.

"In my view, the added value - in addition to my acquiring a profession for life - is the feeling that I'm also helping reduce the polarization in society. We're like ambassadors to the community."

Brig. Gen. Amir Rogovsky, the deputy head of the Israel Defense Forces' Human Resources Branch, said the IDF has been suffering from a lack of manpower in technical areas for the past few years; the many reasons include a lower motivation among the public to enlist. To solve the shortage, the IDF developed a new service track in 2007 for the Haredi community, one that offers learning a profession and work experience within the greenhouse environment of the IDF.

Veterans of the IDF's exclusive technical units such as its central computer unit or intelligence fill many key positions in the Israeli high-tech world. In addition, the program's graduates receive assistance finding jobs when they finish their army service.

So far some 500 ultra-Orthodox soldiers have enlisted in a project called Shahar - the Hebrew acronym for "service for Haredim." All the soldiers are 22 or above and 70% are married. Half have children.

No Shabbats or tref

It's a good deal for both sides: The IDF gets motivated soldiers and the Haredim get to do service that fits their lifestyles. The staff is men only, the food is strictly kosher, the hours are 9 A.M. to 7 P.M., and the men don't serve on Shabbat or at night - unless there are operational requirements. They also have a daily Torah class under the supervision of the IDF rabbinate.

The original group in 2007 did basic training, then studied English and math, then took a course for professions such airplane mechanics and metalwork. The IDF decided to give the next group more challenging professions such as programming and quality assurance.

The program is run in conjunction with the JDC's TEVET (Fighting Poverty Through Employment ) project. The IDF put together special courses for the Haredim, and made up for students' lack of knowledge in areas such as math and English.

About 400 Haredim serve in various professions in computers and electronics, 35 of whom have already finished their two-year commitment and have signed on for longer. Seven are officers. Most of those who have finished their service have found jobs, half in their profession.

For now, women are not part of the program since most Haredi women of that age are married and have children.

Despite the project's success, many challenges remain. The most burning issue is that the Haredim are sometimes held back because of all the effort to make things easier for them.

"The Haredi soldiers don't remain on the base on Shabbat or at night ... but the commanders told us that a soldier who doesn't do such duty won't advance [professionally] because he lacks experience," said one of the heads of the program. He said they are now looking for ways to help the soldiers advance despite the limitations.

Of course, the biggest factor limiting the program's expansion is funding. Rogovsky said the IDF is on the verge of finalizing a government plan to encourage Haredim to join the workforce and enlist in the IDF. He said the Finance Ministry admits that the cost of a Haredi soldier's service is many times that of a regular soldier's, but there is still no agreement with the treasury on defraying these costs.

Most of the extra money goes to pay the higher wages needed to support a family. A regular soldier serving in a noncombat unit gets NIS 400 a month. Married soldiers, Haredi or not, get between NIS 3,000 and NIS 4,000 a month depending on how many children they have.

Other costs go for adapting the army experience for the Haredim, such as food with stricter kashrut supervision, which costs twice as much. Also, the Haredim spend a shorter time in compulsory service and more time in the higher-paying professional army.

As to why the IDF should invest so much in Haredi soldiers, Rogovsky said: "This is a national mission that the IDF has taken on, since it is impossible to be a people's army without relating to the people."