Haredi students - Eyal Warshavsky
Haredi students receiving a lesson on marriage and family Photo by Eyal Warshavsky
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Moti Milrod
Haredi soldier. Photo by Moti Milrod

About a thousand ultra-Orthodox young men mustered into special Israel Defense Forces service tracks during the past year, according to 2010 wrap-up statistics compiled by the army's personnel division, obtained by Haaretz.

This figure represents a 25 percent increase in the level of Haredi conscription compared with 2009.

Ultra-Orthodox men serve primarily in two special units: the "Netzah Yehuda" battalion, a combat force, and the non-combat "Shihar" (a Hebrew acronym for "integrating Haredim") framework. All told, some 2,500 ultra-Orthodox men serve today in these special IDF frameworks. Another 62,500 draft-age ultra-Orthodox men, however, are known to have received exemptions from military service on religious grounds.

IDF personnel division officers are expressing cautious optimism about the moderate rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox men drafted into these special service frameworks. The Shihar framework is considered to be a particular success, as it provides participants with professional training that can be useful in the civilian work world. Soldiers in this unit study Torah for at least one hour a day, they are separated from female soldiers, and they receive strictly kosher food.

The Shihar framework started in the Israel Air Force in 2007 with the conscription of 38 ultra-Orthodox men. Other IDF branches have joined the program, and 530 ultra-Orthodox men served in it during 2010. There are 455 Haredi soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda battalion.

In the upcoming years, the IDF plans to expand the Shihar unit and introduce new combat options for ultra-Orthodox men. Also, in 2011, the first group of graduates of a special yeshiva, where army-related subjects are integrated with religious study, is expected to join the IDF.

All the IDF frameworks for ultra-Orthodox men are budgeted today by private non-profit organizations that receive contributions from overseas donors, the Joint Distribution Committee and the IDF. Paradoxically, an IDF personnel division officer noted yesterday that the rise in the number of Haredi men in service will complicate budgeting of these special army programs, as additional sources of funding will have to be found. Speaking with Haaretz, Lieutenant Colonel Amir Vadmani, head of the IDF's regular service personnel planning branch, did not point an accusing finger at the government but hinted at the finance ministry's "short term outlook."

"Government ministries fail to understand that drafting young Haredi men will pay dividends," he said. "They ask us to report on the number of soldiers, but they don't see that there has been an increase. They don't understand that 104 soldiers means 104 families, nor do they understand that this goes beyond the period of army service. Whoever serves in the army later pays taxes, and contributes to the state, and his children will contribute to the state."