"This project is intended specially for Torah students," says Elad, a 28-year-old graduate of a Lithuanian-stream yeshiva who lives in the ultra-Orthodox community of Elad.
"The project," as he phrases it, is not an advanced course in Gemara but rather a unique army track the Intelligence Corps recently opened up to graduates of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) yeshivas.
"We have a personal aim here of ... leaving the yeshiva world in a respectable manner," says Dudi, who hails from Petah Tikva and, like Elad, is married with a child and a graduate of prestigious yeshivas. "But we certainly did not come only to get a salary or to get free studies at the army's expense. We came to serve the country. After all, we could have done very short service because we are married and have children. But nevertheless we signed up here for a stint in the standing army."
"Here you can enter the world of intelligence," adds 29-year-old Yisrael, who studied at the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, among others, and who serves like his two colleagues in a sensitive post in an elite intelligence unit. "You become associated with people who are very high quality, get to know the unit and are party to things that very few people are exposed to."
The three are part of a group of 70 Haredi yeshiva students who have been conscripted to the first course of the Binah Beyarok ("Intelligence in Green") program whose objective is to absorb young ultra-Orthodox men into the ranks of army intelligence. The project began when the commander of the corps, Major General Amos Yadlin, gave instructions to absorb 300 young, ultra-Orthodox men after the success the Air Force had in absorbing Haredi soldiers in its technical side.
"The aim was to open up to them quality positions in the technical and research fields, while at the same time taking care of all their special needs," says Colonel Asher Fogler, the head of human resources in the corps. "We also considered this a national mission - helping Haredim to enter the work market and military service while at the same time extending the number of our conscripts of quality people. A lot of these conscripts could also be battalion commanders in Golani and there is competition for people like this. In this case, we have very high quality people who have spent years studying in yeshivas that inculcated them with the ability for higher learning."
Choice of units
At the stage of deciding the branch would be opened up to Haredi conscripts, it was clear, say the senior officers, that to achieve their goals, it would not be worthwhile enlisting them merely in those positions that appear compatible with a strictly religious lifestyle. So the ultra-Orthodox conscripts have been placed, inter alia, in programming jobs, operating computer networks, quality control, and conducting intelligence investigations. As for choice of units, they were given the option of "the best of the best," including Unit 8200, the Intelligence branch's electronic intelligence-gathering arm.
The first task was to define the target population - yeshiva students aged 22 and older, married with children, who needed to leave the yeshiva to make a living. Thus, they were different from the Haredi Nahal unit, Netzah Yehuda in the Kfir Brigade, which from the outset was for youngsters who left yeshivas for lack of suitability. In the next stage, 70 soldiers were carefully selected and a special track was set up for them, including preparatory studies in mathematics and English, which they had studied only on a low level, and basic training at a closed base with "men only" teams. Some of them, like the programmers, had to sign on for two and a half years of standing army service.
Nevertheless the program's commanders had quite a few fears. The new conscripts had been promised that, as mostly family men, they would not have to do night shifts or work on Shabbat, but it was also made clear there would be no such exemptions in an emergency.
Another problem was complaints from women soldiers that certain positions might be closed to them because they were classified as "for men only." A creative solution was found: The Binah Beyarok soldiers were placed in mixed teams but separate rooms were set aside where they could work separately. Even the difficulty of the considerable costs of the project - because of the need to supply Badatz-approved kosher food and to pay higher salaries including child allowances - was solved when the Finance Ministry set aside a special budget for this.
The success in absorbing the first group of Binah Beyarok soldiers has paved the way to expand the project, say officers in the corps. Elad says: "In the beginning, I was skeptical because I didn't think I would be able to continue my ultra-Orthodox way of life in the army. But they built a special program here, specially for us."
"The people who came to the first session were open-minded," says Dudi, "the kind of people who have relatives who have served in the army. In the next courses, people will also come from families that are more closed, after we have proven that it's possible."
Even among the Haredi public there is quiet support for the project. "There are hardly any people here who rebelled against their family - in the worst case, they won't go home with their uniforms on," says one of the soldiers. He adds: "Even when I consulted my rabbi before enlisting, he said to me that if I failed to go for it, I would be sinning [because it is something that could be beneficial], that I was suitable and therefore had to enlist in the project."
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