Meir Ben-Haim stands in Jerusalem's pedestrian mall, dressed in the traditional garb of the ultra-Orthodox, distributing fliers. He recalls how years ago the U.S. Marines would stand in the center of town, trying to persuade youngsters to sign up to go to the front. "We are copying the American model," says Ben-Haim, who is a member of a civilian rganization that supports the Israel Defense Forces' Nahal Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) infantry battalion, called Netzah Yehuda.
"Haredi Jews in effect are not obliged to be conscripted. An ultra-Orthodox Jew who enlists is really volunteering, like an American youth. Our idea is to reach as many youngsters as possible and persuade them to join the Nahal Haredi."
To this end, members of Ben-Haim's association have fliers and a movable booth, which they also take to the central bus station and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, not far from the city's Haredi neighborhoods. "In Shabbat Square [in Mea Shearim], the booth would be burned down in minutes," he says.
Unlike other IDF soldiers and officers, who often go to speak to youths at nonreligious and religious high schools, the members of the Nahal Haredi battalion are not asked to speak at local yeshivas. Their target audience is more easily found in the downtown area.
"If a Haredi youth comes to Zion Square [on Jaffa Road] for ice cream, it is probably a sign he does not study at a yeshiva," Ben-Haim explains. "If a young man is wandering around Shabbat Square, that is not a sign that he isn't studying."
In the middle of the day, there are plenty of potential candidates (aged 18-25) wandering along the pedestrian mall, but hardly any of them approach the Netzah Yehuda booth. On the other hand, some secular Jews come by and say they are proud of the unit. Ben-Haim says that "from time to time, someone [ultra-Orthodox] will listen." In the two weeks that his organization has operated its booth, five people have signed up and their details were transmitted to the army recruitment bureau.
On the other side of the street, a young Hasid walks close to the wall. His head is lowered but he sends a furtive glance in the direction of the booth. Even when he passes for the sixth time, Ben-Haim and his partner, Eli Elias, do not call out to him.
"If he wants to, he'll come of his own accord," says Elias, who was hired by the Netzah Yehuda association to promote the unit in cooperation with the IDF. "The psychology of the Jews is that if you push someone to do something, he will run away. Our marketing campaign here is not aggressive."
Netzah Yehuda is a civilian association that accompanies the soldiers of the unit with the same name. It assists them with personal problems and arranges for religious as well as secular studies to enable them to acquire a profession (see: nahalharedi.org). Some 350 soldiers join the battalion every year in three separate recruitment cycles. Ben-Haim says the association has existed for seven years and the number of volunteers they are seeing is constantly growing. Their campaign is necessary to improve the quality of the service of the soldiers, he says.
Ben-Haim, who became religious after his own army service in a regular unit, refuses to relate to reports about extreme right-wing activities by Netzah Yehuda soldiers, or about the soldier from the battalion who commited suicide last week in a mosque.
"Today the recruitment is 30 percent 'hill-top' youth and 70 percent Haredim," he explains. "Our hope is to bring the Haredi numbers up to 90 percent."
Ben-Haim adds that the organization's members hope to improve awareness of the battalion among the secular public and to encourage the soldiers to feel good about serving in the IDF. He would like to see army recruitment and the Nahal Haredi unit in particular win acceptance in ultra-Orthodox society.
"We want our public to understand that they must contribute toward closing the gap in all of Israeli society," he says. "There is no better time than at army age to do that."
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