Religious IDF soldier
A religious IDF soldier praying beside a tank Photo by Archive
Text size

Every weekend, the Israel Defense Forces Education Corps sends dozens of soldiers and officers to take part in a Shabbat dinner at Ascent, a Chabad-run center in Safed that has come under fire from critics accusing it of religious coercion.

While the army initially suspended the collaboration to examine the complaints, the partnership was recently renewed.

Ascent was opened in 1983 in the Galilee city with the blessing of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement's Brooklyn-based spiritual leader. At the time, the movement described the facility as providing visitors with "familiarity with the Jewish spiritual experience in general, and Safed's tradition of kabbala [Jewish mysticism] in particular."

The center is staffed by Chabad members, most of them newly religious.

The center's partnership with the military began seven years ago, at first with small-scale visits and seminars. A year and a half ago, the army began sending soldiers and officers to Shabbat dinners, and thousands of soldiers now pass through the center's doors every year.

The soldiers are given lectures and tours, and hosted in the homes of Chabad members in the city. This Saturday saw a contingent of Artillery Corps troops pass through.

Education Corps officials said one of the reasons for the continued affiliation with the center is the army's goal of offering Jewish religious education to servicemen without employing the services of the IDF Chief Rabbinate, which they fear is increasingly exerting its influence over army-sponsored education.

Culture clash

"Every time cultures meet, there is room for misunderstanding," Rabbi Shaul Leiter, the director and co-founder of Ascent, said yesterday.

Leiter dismissed any charges of religious coercion at the institution. "We're trying to spread Judaism. [Becoming religious] just isn't part of the lexicon. We teach Judaism; we excite people," he said.

Tal Mendel is in charge of Ascent's relations with the IDF. "Like any organization that provides services to the military, we are watched closely. There is always suspicion at first, and we're always suspect because we're religious," he said. "We host tens of thousands of soldiers every year, and we also bring non-religious lecturers because it's important that there be a balance."

Mendel said some Reform-affiliated members of the Education Corps oppose the dinners, but believes they are in the minority. "If we were really trying to make them religious, they wouldn't keep working with us," he said.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response it was looking into ascent as well as other institutions.

"In line with the findings of those examinations, the Corps refines and improves the programs it offers," the spokesman said. "Strengthening Jewish-Israeli identity is an inseparable part of the values-oriented activities that drive the Education Corps, IDF units and the military itself."