Civilian National Service Fails to Attract Yeshiva Students

Less than 0.1 percent choose service option provided by Tal Law rather than IDF service referrals.

Only 50 yeshiva students have opted for civilian national service since this option was made available to them about six months ago, according to data provided by the head of the National Civilian Service Administration, Dr. Reuven Gal.

This is less than 0.1 percent of the more than 50,000 yeshiva students who currently receive draft deferrals. In other words, the Tal Law - which was meant to encourage yeshiva students to enter the job market by allowing them to perform civilian service instead of military service (as opposed to keeping their draft deferral status by remaining in yeshiva and not seeking employment) - has thus far been a flop.

"We are maintaining a low profile," Gal explained. "The time has not yet come to make waves. Those who do civilian service are pleased with it, and every dozen brings another dozen."

This low profile stems from fear that if the program were widely publicized, it would spark opposition from ultra-Orthodox rabbis that would force it to shut down entirely. But without publicity, many yeshiva students do not even know that this option exists.

Last year, yeshiva students who received draft deferrals comprised 11 percent of the entire pool of draftable 18-year-old males. By 2020, that rate is expected to reach 25 percent - meaning that one out of every four 18-year-old males will be in yeshiva instead of the army. This makes solving the problem of yeshiva draft deferrals urgent.

Nevertheless, the Tal Law - which enables any yeshiva student who so desires to continue receiving a draft deferral - was extended for another five years last July, under pressure from Shas.

The law, enacted in 2002, was meant to encourage yeshiva students to enter the working world by enabling them to take a "year of decision" at age 22, during which they could either work or go to college without being drafted. At the end of that year, they could either return to yeshiva or enlist for abbreviated military or civilian service.

In practice, however, no framework for civilian service was established during the law's first five years of operation. A key reason for this was the Finance Ministry's demand that anyone participating in such service be paid a much lower wage than the stipend given to yeshiva students. The proposed wage would not have enabled such students (many of whom are already married by age 22) to support their families, leading the other relevant bodies to deem the plan a nonstarter.

During the law's first four and a half years of existence, from mid-2002 through the end of 2006, only 2,150 yeshiva students (4 percent) took a gap year, and of those, all but 150 (0.3 percent) returned to yeshiva afterward. So far, however, opening a civilian service track has not improved the picture.