Record Number of ultra-Orthodox Men Sign Up for National Service

Uncertainty surrounding the aftermath of the Tal Law's August 1 expiry drives men to volunteer.

The uncertainty surrounding the aftermath of the Tal Law's August 1 expiry has driven a record number of ultra-Orthodox men to volunteer for the national service program in the past few days.

Some 200 men packed Jerusalem's Yad Sarah conference hall Thursday, constituting the largest contingent ever to join the program, launched in 2008 as an alternative to yeshiva students' military service.

The men, coming from the Lithuanian, Sephardi and especially Hasidic factions of the Haredi community, will be joining the 1,860 Haredi men currently in the national service.

"Everyone here realizes that once the Tal Law expires, the terms might worsen for the volunteers," said Yisrael Meir Ravitz of the National Civilian Service administration for Haredim.

Some men who had been planning to join the service in the next few years changed their mind in view of the current uncertainty and have joined now, he said.

Sar-Shalom Gerbi, the administration's director general, said the volunteers' numbers have increased consistently over the years.

"The service is not a melting pot, we want whoever enters [the program] Haredi to remain Haredi," Gerbi told the 200 volunteers at the conference.

Until about a year-and-a-half ago it was difficult to find ultra-Orthodox volunteers, apart from yeshiva dropouts and young people on the fringes of Haredi society, to fill the few national service slots allotted to Haredim. Now the Haredi establishment has changed its attitude and appears to be warming up to the program.

"Until recently they used to call volunteers to the national service brats and punks. Today the best of my kollel [yeshiva for married men] are here," said a Gerrer Hasid.

"If there were more places, thousands more Haredim would join the national service," he says.

Asked if they came for ideological reasons, he says: "We're all practical people, we all want to work. This isn't Zionism. We're no better than the soldiers serving in the Army Radio."

Like the national service, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion in the IDF's Kfir Brigade barely fills the 100 places it has.

Many of the new volunteers will be employed by local authorities, the Ministry for Pensioners Affairs and even Yad Vashem, where they will advise Haredi Holocaust survivors about their rights and take their testimonies, officials said.

The civilian national service is one of the volunteer programs set up in the wake of the Tal Law, in addition to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion and Shahar, an IDF project to train ultra-Orthodox men in technological professions.

The current law exempts men who serve in the national service for at least a year from military service. It also entitles them to various financial benefits during the service and upon their discharge. Above all, they are permitted to work, or more accurately, to work legally.

The High Court of Justice, which declared the Tal Law unconstitutional earlier this year, dedicated extensive parts of its ruling to the flaws in the national service. "Implementing this project was paved with difficulties. In reality, although the law deferring [military] service was enacted in 2002, the national service administration was only formed in 2007 and started operating only in March 2008," then-Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote in her ruling.

"There are problems in supervising the service's quality, setting goals and filling the positions for volunteers," Beinisch wrote. "An appropriate application of the service-deferment law means not only increasing the number of volunteers in the national service but an examination of the service's quality so it can achieve its goals, mainly so it can constitute a suitable alternative to military service."

Ultra-Orthodox volunteers to the national service, most of them married men, are allowed to serve one year of eight-hour work days, or two years at four hours a day.

MK Yohanan Plesner, who drafted recommendations for an alternative to the Tal Law, suggests prolonging the service, as the High Court recommended.

"The national service's short term and the volunteers' ability to work or study in a yeshiva during the service is not an equitable alternative to the military service carried out by the rest of the population," Plesner wrote.

"Also, the Shahar program does not set a minimal service period, which also generates a problem of inequality," he wrote.

Plesner proposed extending the national service for ultra-Orthodox men gradually from 12 to 18 months of full-time work (40 hours a week ), or 24 months of part time work (30 hours a week ). "Five years after the law comes into effect [the government will] examine extending [the term] gradually to 24 months of full-time work, subject to the follow-up committee's recommendation and according to the number of volunteers," he wrote.