For Some Haredim, the IDF Serves as Gateway to Successful Career

An estimated 25% of ultra-Orthodox men currently enlist for the Israeli army. But some of those who did say it changed their lives forever.

Nir Keidar

At the age of 25, after much deliberation, Moti Meringer decided to leave the warm embrace of an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva and enlist in the army. Since he showed great aptitude for computers, after a training and screening period the army placed him in the prestigious 8200 intel unit as a software analyst. He toyed with the idea of attending an officer training course, but his wife objected as it would have entailed prolonged absences from home.

When he demobilized three years later, he did not take the customary Far Eastern trip like many of his secular peers, but immediately started looking for work. Within two days he was hired as team leader by a company dealing with queue management systems.

Meringer, now 31, says anyone lucky enough to serve in the Israel Defense Forces in anything technology-related has a good chance of finding employment after leaving the army. “I know someone who dropped out of an army computer course and ended up serving in the Military Rabbinate. Now he’s a taxi driver. For him, enlisting didn’t prove to be beneficial. However, any Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] man who believes that military service is incompatible with his values is mistaken. The IDF today makes a big effort to ensure that Haredi soldiers feel comfortable. But, to make things work, goodwill is required on both sides.”

Chanoch Zaltz, 30, enlisted when he was 22, serving in an air force unit that incorporated ultra-Orthodox men. “It wasn’t an easy decision, since I come from a very religious background, but in the end my parents didn’t object,” says Zaltz. “During basic training we were a homogenous group consisting only of Haredi men. But this was a difficult period because, even though we were older, they didn’t cut us any slack during training – it was also strange to be given orders by a 19-year-old squad commander,” he recalls.

He received software training at the Center of Computing and Information Systems (its Hebrew acronym is Mamram), and was subsequently placed with other Haredi soldiers in the Israel Air Force, where he led a team of software testers. Zaltz then attended an officer training course. “A course like that exposes one to people with different backgrounds, which expanded my horizons,” he says.

As an officer, he served in the IDF for six years. “Three months after demobilizing, I found work at mPrest [a subsidiary of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems], which deals with control and monitoring of software systems. I head a team at the company and make very good money.”

Could you have obtained the software training without serving in the army?

“I could have progressed professionally without the army, but I saw an intrinsic value in serving. It was easy for me to decide to enlist, because I no longer wanted to study in a yeshiva and earn pennies for a living – less than minimum wage. Anyone attending a yeshiva for many years reaches a stage in which he’s living from hand to mouth, while his wife works very hard. It’s true, students there perform important spiritual work, but financially I’m much better off than they are. My wife, Keren, also works, as a shift manager at a credit company.”

Something does change

Capt. H., 32, is an ultra-Orthodox man who enlisted seven years ago and now serves in the standing army, being responsible for a team of 40 software testers. He intends to remain in the army until he reaches military retirement age. His wife, Dvora, manages a law office.

“I’m enjoying my military service, and also using it to assist the army in absorbing further Haredi men into the ranks,” he says. “I give them advice on setting up tests to classify inductees. I give suggestions for questionnaires that are adapted for Haredi candidates, since their cultural background is completely different than that of secular or religious-Zionist men. For example, they’ll fail if the test contains many English terms, since they don’t know the language. I also lecture at gatherings organized by the IDF for ultra-Orthodox men interested in joining the army. I try to answer difficult questions from the audience, such as ‘How will I cope with the hostile environment where I live after I enlist?’ Or ‘Will I be able to stay Haredi during my service?’”

Indeed, he admits that something is different after they enlist. “People don’t change in their essence and they remain ultra-Orthodox. Nevertheless, they realize, for example, that nothing will happen if they are in a room together with a female NCO who deals with soldiers’ welfare. Over many months, they open up to their surroundings. An ultra-Orthodox man who serves in a less sophisticated capacity – such as a rabbi’s assistant on the base, or in vehicle maintenance – also benefits from his service, since he comes into contact with diverse people. Upon his return to civilian life, his chances of finding employment are much better than if he hadn’t served in the army.”

Asher Meinhart, 24, is an ultra-Orthodox man who studied at the Breslau yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He opted to join a relatively new combat unit, Defenders of the Negev. The unit is part of Netzah Yehuda (formerly Nahal Haredi), an infantry battalion exclusively for the ultra-Orthodox.

“I wanted to enlist but ran into difficulties since I had some medical issues,” Meinhart relates. “After much effort I improved my military medical profile. After my wedding, enlisting was out of the question, but I started to come into contact with the non-Haredi world. In Itamar [a West Bank settlement], where we moved to, I was herding sheep and cattle for two years, looking after animals. This may have paved my way for the next step – enlisting in the army. Even though I was supposed to serve only two years, the army accepted my request to serve another year so I could attend officer training school and stay in the army for longer. I think this is the key to finding subsequent work as a civilian.”

Two-thirds is an achievement

According to army data, the potential pool of eligible ultra-Orthodox men is 8,500-9,000 recruits a year. Drafting targets are constantly on the rise: in 2015, the goal is to enlist 2,300 men. In 2014 it was 2,000, and in 2011 only 1,200. The duration of service also varies. The target for 2016 is 3,200 men – a third of the potential pool.

New soldiers can choose between two streams: 19- to 22-year-olds face a three-year term; two in a regular unit and a final year spent receiving professional training for civilian life. The second option is to enlist for two years, but this is intended for those aged 23 and over. During this term, soldiers get professional training in technological professions such as software testers, ERP systems operators, electricians, car mechanics, or within the financial sector, all in coordination with the Economy Ministry. Ultra-Orthodox men will soon be incorporated into new areas such as cyber warfare or geographic information systems.

Dr. Gilad Malach, head of the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute, estimates that the number of Haredi men currently enlisting is slightly more than 25%. “If two-thirds of the pool enlists, this will be an achievement,” he says. “The amended Defense Service Law strives for an 80% rate, which is ambitious. If mobilization occurs at a higher rate, many new homogenous male units will need to be established. The army was really striving to increase the percentage of ultra-Orthodox serving for financial reasons: compulsory-service soldiers cost much less than the career army or reservists.”

Dr. Haim Zicherman, a researcher at the same institute, believes that if ultra-Orthodox parties rejoin the next coalition government, it will encourage more Haredi men to enlist in the army or do national service. An earlier amendment to the conscription law – which proposed imposing economic or criminal sanctions against those refusing to enlist – is not practical, he says. “This shows intolerance toward the Haredi population. I can’t see the Military Police storming yeshivas and arresting men designated as draft dodgers. A new government with ultra-Orthodox parties should dissipate tensions and increase the motivation to enlist. When half of Haredi 20-year-olds aren’t part of the workforce, the IDF is not an end in itself, but a means to correct the socioeconomic distortion,” he adds.