Religious IDF soldier
A religious IDF soldier praying beside a tank Photo by Archive
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Omer Yisraeli didn't think he would ever serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Military service is not part of the ultra-Orthodox milieu in which he grew up. After completing his studies at a high-school yeshiva in Tel Aviv, he and his friends went on to a yeshiva in Jerusalem; after he married, he entered a kollel (a yeshiva for married men ). After he finished his studies there, however, he began to agonize over the future.

"I looked for guidance, tried to figure out what I would do in life. It wasn't all that clear. A friend told me he had enlisted in the army and learned computers there, and I started to look into it," he relates. "I heard that people like us - married Haredim - are treated well and given the tools to be regular soldiers, with food that has a special kashrut certificate and consideration of our needs. I applied to the Teleprocessing Branch and after the obligatory tests, I entered a programming course."

Yisraeli, 22, lives in the Haredi city of Elad and has an infant son. I met him with two of his friends at the IDF's Teleprocessing Branch base in Ramat Gan. They are three Haredim who joined the army late in life, but in uniform they look like any other religious soldiers. Two had no computer background, and they say some people in their course didn't know English.

In the first lesson the recruits are taught how to turn a computer on and off, and simple operations such as cut and paste. Four months later, they emerge as programmers or software checkers. After completing their army service, they can find work in the civilian high-tech industry.

"I attended a kollel for many years," says Yisraeli's friend Meir, 25, the nature of whose work in the army is classified. "Two years ago I would never have dreamed of army service."

What made you think of this option?

Meir: "That came with the decision to get a job, and the army is a stage you have to go through first. This is something of value, a place where I can contribute and which will also help me."

Like Yisraeli, Meir had no background in computers. "Ultimately," he says, "learning how to play on a computer is easier than learning Gemara."

The fathers of these two young Haredim actually did army service, but that was long ago . No one else in their closed environment enlisted, neither older brothers, cousins or neighbors.

This year, the IDF recruited 400 yeshiva graduates for the various technical tracks in Project Shahar (the Hebrew acronym for Haredi Service ). There are another 500 men in the Nahal paramilitary brigade's Haredi battalion, which is celebrating the 10th year since its establishment.

The head of the personnel directorate, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, views enlistment of Haredi men as a possible solution to the IDF's increasingly acute manpower problems, and to the growing danger of the collapse of the "people's army" model, given the increasing number of people who do not serve.

"Ten years ago, if you had talked to the rabbis and the political leaders of the Haredim about army service, they would have shown you the door," says a senior General Staff officer. "Today, though, they lend a hand to it, whether by offering concrete support or by saying nothing."

What caused the change?

"The socioeconomic situation of the Haredim is dire. People are beginning to open their eyes, to see the developments among the secular population and the growing disparities, and they are also afraid of ignorance in Haredi society. Some are also aware of the growing social pressure [on that society] and don't want to stretch the rope too tight."

The Israel Air Force took the lead in mobilizing Haredim to fill technical positions. Indeed, former air force commander Maj. Gen. (res. ) Eliezer Shkedy viewed this as a key mission.

"All our grandfathers were Haredim. It's our people, we are two generations removed, and we have to take an embracing approach," Shkedy told his surprised officers at one point. He instructed the IAF rabbi that henceforth his task was not only to check mezuzahs and ensure that the food is kosher, but also to promote integration of Haredim. Go to the leading yeshivas, he told the rabbi, to the Hebron and Mir yeshivas, and bring the best and the brightest to the technical corps.

The rabbi wasn't sure how people who had never studied mathematics or English would be able to handle the sophisticated technology of F-16 warplanes. Shkedy had an answer: They may not know English, he said, but they do know how to study. Anyone who has spent years under the discipline of a Haredi yeshiva, studying 14 hours a day, will be able to master the material.

The first Haredim entered the air force three years ago. There are now 400 of them filling 22 kinds of technical jobs, from electricians to programmers to electronics technicians. Five are now officers, two will shortly complete the Training Base 1 course and 15 others have signed up for the career army.

"We feel we are drilling in concrete and have made a small hole in the dam that separates secular society and Haredi society," says a senior air force officer. "Our guys understand that they have received a short chapter in history which they can influence. Prof. Arnon Sofer [a social geographer from the University of Haifa] called to tell me that this is a turning point in Israeli society."

A few months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Hatzerim air base and had his photo taken in the cockpit of an F-15. Back in his bureau, he said his eyes teared up when he saw soldiers with earlocks and prayer fringes in blue IAF uniforms.

The head of the National Economic Council, Prof. Eugene Kandel, says integrating Haredim and Arabs into the labor market is a vital goal. Like Netanyahu, he too was moved upon meeting Haredim in the aerial maintenance unit at Tel Nof base. One of them told him, "I am a Gur Hasid and on Friday-Shabbat I wear a streimel" - the traditional fur hat worn by Orthodox men.

"We approached the Haredim because of a severe manpower crisis," the senior IAF officer explains. "The immigration from Russia has ended, the birthrate is down and there is draft evasion on a vast scale as well as among the 'Torah is their way of life' population. We looked for more manpower sources. There are two populations I cannot touch: Haredim and Arabs. And in another 20 years, a fifth or a quarter of the Jews will be Haredim. For years I saw them as people who do not share the burden and only take from the GNP. But it's possible to approach the issue other than by legislation or the Tal Law [of 2002, which sought to address draft exemptions for Haredi men], and instead to listen to their needs and formulate a model."

The IDF needs quantity, quality and motivation; the young Haredim need a livelihood. "We said we would allow them to maintain their Haredi way of life in the army," the officer continues. "Our gauge of success would be whether they remain Haredim upon their discharge. The greatest threat to the project would be if they leave the army as non-Haredim."

He is pleased with the result. "Everyone gains. We get very good soldiers with motivation to advance, and they get preparation for the world of work. It's win-win."

Dawn recruitment

The chief of personnel in the IAF, Brig.-Gen. Rami Ben-Ephraim, and another senior officer in the unit, Col. Yoav Bar-Sela, spearheaded the project of recruiting Haredim, known as Blue Dawn. Ben-Ephraim, who was raised in a secular home in a moshav (cooperative farming village ), spent most of his service in the cockpits of F-16s and as commander of Ramat David airbase. Suddenly he was called upon to meet with rabbis, and learn the differences between yeshivas and streams within the Haredi community, as well as different types of "glatt kosher."

The model developed by the air force, which was subsequently applied in intelligence, teleprocessing, naval and personnel directorate units, seeks to preserve the Haredi way of life within the military framework. The most crucial condition in this regard is no contact with women; there are only men in the Haredi soldiers' immediate work environment. This, of course, clashes with the army's effort to integrate women into professional and technical jobs.

"It's very delicate and requires a great deal of prior explanation and deployment," IAF officers agree. "There are departments which the commanders define as off-limits to women, but there might also be an aircraft platform where they work together."

The Haredi soldier might deal with the cockpit, for example, and the female technician with the engine, or vice versa. The IAF rabbi ensures that proper distance is kept. The Haredi soldiers in the force, all of whom are married and have children, serve an average of two years. They go home every evening, which means that they must be posted to bases close to the center of the country and not in the Negev. They are provided with glatt kosher food. And every day they learn a page of Gemara, as part of their service.

This model gives rise to many problems, from ensuring the proper kashrut certification to dealing with internal tensions. Bezalel Singer, who is 25 and has a 10-month-old son, checks software in the Teleprocessing Branch. He describes his encounters with the secular soldiers: "There are people with us in the unit who didn't know what religion is. From their point of view, a Haredi is someone who throws stones, brawls and is a troublemaker. Suddenly four guys show up who can talk about yesterday's basketball game and do the work as required, if not better."

Curiosity was piqued, Singer says. "We had a kashrut check on the base, and the soldiers came to us with every little problem. Before every holiday we prepare a pageant, and now they want us to talk about the Torah portion every week. People see that I am a software checker just like them and that I do my work no less well than the secular soldiers who took the course with me, only that things are a little different: I pray three times a day and study the daily Gemara page."

And what did you learn about the secular soldiers?

Singer: "I discovered very good, caring people, with good values and a very deep sense of mutual responsibility."

Last year, the IAF carried out a survey and was surprised to find that the highest motivation in terms of career service and the officer corps was among the Haredim - even though men performing those kinds of service lose the special conditions of Haredi soldiers.

"There is a merging of interests here," says the senior IAF officer. "But the truth is, and this is what moved the prime minister, that from the moment these guys get into uniform, they sing the national anthem and stand at attention when the siren sounds [on Holocaust Day and Memorial Day].

Yisraeli says the army "does not get into the Haredi public enough. They are afraid there that people who serve in the army will be ruined."

Military service, even at a later age, apparently draws the young Haredim back to the state from which their parents disconnected. "No one in my family served in the army, only my grandfather," Singer says. "On the last Remembrance Day, my grandmother said she wanted to go to Haifa with me in order to see me standing in uniform during the ceremony."

"Nevertheless," says an officer in the Personnel Directorate, "we are not offering the melting pot proposed by [David] Ben-Gurion, rather we are allowing them to maintain their 'multiculturalism.'"

The Haredi soldiers get a salary of about NIS 3,000 a month, because they are married and have children ("family payments," in army jargon ). The money comes from the Finance Ministry, which subsidizes recruitment of Haredim in order to facilitate their workforce integration. Before their discharge, they get help finding civilian jobs. Some graduates of the IAF project are now employed in private high-tech companies.

But the army says that the current subsidies are not enough. "This is a national project, not an IDF project," the senior General Staff officer says. "The true cost is higher than what we get from the treasury. The training is expensive and the service is relatively short. Instead of them being discharged and applying for unemployment insurance, let them pay us the unemployment insurance and we will find them jobs. The experience of the first to be discharged will be formative for those who follow."

The IDF wants an interdepartmental directorate to oversee the Haredim on their path from the National Induction Center via the air force squadron or the Teleprocessing Branch, all the way to getting hired at a civilian workplace afterward. The IAF is planning to open new tracks and positions to the Haredim. This summer, some 500 will be inducted.

"We can get to 1,000 Haredim in the IAF without harming the force's fabric," the senior officer notes. "Beyond that, a different deployment will be required, because we want integration and not exclusively Haredi units." He adds that the IDF can take in 3,000 to 5,000 Haredim: "If we get to that number, we will have won this war. This is our next Russian immigration wave."

The army does not conduct recruitment campaigns in yeshivas, preferring to reach out to potential soldiers by word of mouth and via meetings together with their wives and children. In the meantime, the demand is outstripping the needs.

"When I saw them with their spouses at a meeting for candidates, it all clicked," says an officer in the Personnel Directorate. "The sense of pride and belonging was so intense there - I understood that their way to reach the mainstream passes through the army."

This week, when I arrived at the Teleprocessing Branch base, I saw at the entrance two young men in Haredi garb - black trousers, white shirts, skullcaps and prayer fringes. The Haredi soldiers told me afterward that the two were friends of theirs, with whom they had told about their service, and who had come to the base to find out how and when they could join up.