The plot of the book, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" takes place in a fictional settlement for Jewish refugees in the city of Sitka, Alaska. The heroes are Yiddish-speaking policemen, armed with pistols, called a "sholem" in the novel, and there is a murder.
In the last few months, it seems that something out of this fictitious scenario created by American Jewish writer Michael Chabon is becoming a reality, not in distant Alaska, but right here in the Holy Land in the ultra-Orthodox city of Beitar Ilit: a group of local residents was drafted into the municipal security department. Its members were armed with pistols, which hang in holsters from their belts next to their fluttering zizith (ritual fringed garment). It is indeed an unusual sight in the ultra-Orthodox scene but, as Chabon writes, these are "strange times to be a Jew."
The truth is that in the real Jewish state what is strange is that only now is this a sight that is seen, and that even now, it is only a localized occurrence.
The nine people drafted into the Beitar Ilit security department are the first group ever of ultra-Orthodox to join the national service program. The Tal Law, which this June will mark six years since its approval by the Knesset, designated national service (as opposed to conscription in the Israel Defense Forces) as one of its main pillars, but to this day no appropriate frameworks have been set up to implement it.
Only around 60 yeshiva students are taking part in a national service program, the majority of them as individuals in frameworks such as the Magen David Adom emergency medical service and the Jerusalem municipality. The group in Beitar Ilit is the first instance of an organized group that also received the approval of the city's rabbis, Rabbi Yaakov Tewfik and Rabbi David Tzvi Ordentlich.
According to the Tal Law, every man who declares "Torah study as his occupation" is entitled to leave the yeshiva or kollel for a year, during which he is free to work, study, travel, or loaf. At the end of the "decisive year," he must choose one of three options: return to his studies and assume the status of one for whom "Torah study is his occupation," enlist in the IDF or join the national service program. In the case of the latter option, the program lasts a year or two, depending on the work, and at the end of that time the volunteer is entitled to benefits similar to those of a demobilized soldier.
Stuck without a framework
To this day, only a few ultra-Orthodox men who chose national service were able to implement their choice. Most of them found themselves at home. As of January, according to IDF figures, 150 ultra-Orthodox men, graduates of the deciding year, are waiting to be offered a national service option.
"I have friends who finished the deciding year and they've been stuck for three years now waiting to be offered a framework in which to do national service," says Tzvika Cohen (27), of Beitar, a married father of two daughters, who works in security as part of the program.
"I myself finished the deciding year a year-and-a-half ago. I was in the process of enlisting, but the army didn't want me for two years. As someone who also works, I won't go and chase after the army. When I heard about the option of national service, I realized that I could serve close to home and I went for it."
From the start, the fate of the Tal Law depended on how the ultra-Orthodox community would look at those students who took advantage of the deciding year. From the ultra-Orthodox perspective this meant that they were declaring they were not built to study in a yeshiva full-time. Would their status be affected as a result?
So far 2,300 yeshiva students and kollel students have finished the deciding year and to date, there are some 600 in the middle of it. Of the 50,000 yeshiva students registered with the IDF, as of January, the percentage in the middle of a deciding year is 1.2 percent. That is not a lot, but it is also not an amount that can be ignored.
In Beitar, not only are the volunteers not concerned about being exposed, they are proud of their roles. "Everyone here wants to serve the state, we don't absolve ourselves of responsibility," says Cohen. "If I was in the army, I'd be a disgruntled sergeant, but here everyone is doing it because they want to be. We combine service to the state with protecting our home."
The director of the security department, Ra'anan Amran, relates that the initiative to set up a national service framework in Beitar actually ran into problems posed by the government. "I heard that we could accept people doing national service. I inquired several times and they didn't let me. They offered me girls doing their national service, but the rabbis didn't approve it. In the end, they approved nine men. It's working very nicely."
The members of the group go on Jeep patrols, secure the gates allowing entry to Palestinian workers and there are also "home front" jobs, such as preparing emergency kits or doing a shift at the 106 municipal hotline, where they deal with municipal problems that arise.
"It's all really new, and most of the residents haven't yet internalized it," adds Amran, "but they meet up with them every day. They provide what the state needs, and on the other hand they aren't upsetting the ultra-Orthodox framework in which they live. Everything is approved by the rabbis, and is functioning smoothly. These people are fine quality and mature. You can rely on them and the yield is high."
"There was someone who said I am a fool, but most of the responses are very positive, people say 'well done' and respond favorably to this. They also respond to the fact that we have guns, because that's an unusual sight here. As if we're the new fighters," says Cohen, and his friend, Barak Tshuva, adds: "the fighters of the 106 hotline."
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