National Service for ultra-Orthodox a Surprise Success

The number of ultra-Orthodox men currently performing national service - 470 - is more than double the number the National Civilian Service Administration had expected by the end of 2008, according to a report the administration will present to the cabinet Sunday.

The report also said the number of Arab national service volunteers jumped by 50 percent this year, to about 1,000 volunteers, despite public opposition by Arab politicians. The administration is releasing the data as it marks slightly more than a year of operation.

The Tal Law was considered a failure for the first five years after its 2002 passage. The law allows yeshiva students over age 22 to take a year off from their studies without being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and then choose between returning to full-time Torah study or completing an abbreviated stint in national service.

One major obstacle blocking ultra-Orthodox participation in the program was the Finance Ministry's objection to funding a national service administration, preventing its establishment.

The administration was not established until August 2007, to prevent the Tal Law from being overturned by the High Court of Justice, and appears to be successful at recruiting ultra-Orthodox and Arab men into national service, long seen as the province of religious Zionist women.

The first eight ultra-Orthodox volunteers have just completed their inaugural terms. Two of them - Moshe Perry, who volunteered at Zichron Menachem, an organization that helps children with cancer, and Mati Eckstein, who volunteered at the religious drug rehabilitation center Retorno - say they are happy with their decision and received support from their communities.

"I got satisfaction at Zichron Menachem that I don't know if I would have gotten in the army," said Perry, who was responsible for soliciting blood donation from students at 12 yeshivas in Jerusalem. "I don't think I could have given there what I gave at Zichron Menachem."

Perry, a 25-year-old father of two from Beit Shemesh, also indicated that ultra-Orthodox society appears more ready than ever to accept having some of its men perform national service and hold down jobs, rather than studying in yeshiva all day.

"They didn't look at me funny," Perry said about members of his community. "Someone who performs acts of kindness, no one will dispute that that's a big mitzvah. Whoever can study in yeshiva, good for him, but there are some people who need to make a living."

In the year before beginning his national service, Eckstein, who is 28 and has three children, started a computer company that employs six people and works with computer companies abroad. At Retorno, he organized the computer network and created a Web site that allows people to make donations through the Internet.

"I wanted to do something for the country, and in my family situation, doing something military wasn't pertinent," he said.