In every religious pre-army academy in Israel lay dozens of copies of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon’s books on the Jewish laws of drafting to the army. In the introduction, Rav Rimon retells an incredibly touching story that many may find surprising.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, the former ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader, was asked by a student if he could take off from learning and go to the Galilee to the graves of the righteous to pray, spending the day traveling from Jerusalem up to the northern part of the country. Rav Shlomo Zalman responded in bewilderment, explaining that the student should not waste time traveling far away if nearby there were IDF soldiers who gave their lives in God’s honor. He explained that when he felt the need to pray at the graves of tzadikim, of the righteous, he went to Mount Herzl, just up the street from his yeshiva.
This story indicates that Haredi society isn’t black and white. Although the overwhelming majority do not serve in the army, that doesn’t mean the entire ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t recognize the sacrifice of those who do.
The topic of whether Haredim should draft into the army is a source of great tension to many, and rationally so. Just the fact that a compromise is consistently kicked down the road shows that it’s such a hot potato issue.
Yet if we as a society believe that more Haredim should be drafting into the army, we aren’t talking enough about the thousands of Haredi soldiers who are already in the IDF or the challenges they face. To encourage more ultra-Orthodox men to draft, and for the sake of equality itself, we need to address the obstacles Haredi soldiers face both before and after the army.
Haredim in Combat
About 1,000 Haredi men enter the IDF each year, the majority of whom do not serve in combat. Yet for the 200 or so who do elect for a more physical service, the IDF created three units designed to cater specifically to the ultra-Orthodox population: Kfir’s Netzach Yehuda Battalion, Givati’s Tomer Company, and the Paratrooper’s Chetz Company, the newest of the three.
These soldiers are exposed to the rigors of combat training like every other fighter, but the army ensures that they have daily Torah study and three minyanim built into their day. By providing this framework, the army is hopeful in attempting to draft more Haredi soldiers, while also providing the necessary environment for success for those who do enlist.
But the army isn’t perfect (just ask anyone who served in it) and these soldiers face unique challenges that their peers don’t, and the army simply isn’t equipped to deal with them.
For soldiers who come from more extreme parts of Haredi society, a small percentage are kicked out of their childhood homes. As opposed to lone soldiers from abroad, these soldiers may not have a support system anywhere in the world, excommunicated from their communities and families and forced to find an apartment on their own to live in. The ones who aren’t expelled from their homes sometimes receive exemptions from wearing their uniforms when they leave base, so as not to be ostracized in their communities.
Where the army falls short, Amutat Chetz (The Chetz Association) tries to pick up the pieces. Founded a few years ago by myself and another fellow lone soldier veteran, David Solooki, Amutat Chetz is helping ultra-Orthodox soldiers in Chetz, and soon in Tomer too, adapt to the army and then integrate into Israeli society upon their release. We provide a lone soldier apartment in Jerusalem for Haredi soldiers who don’t have a place to live and “big brothers” for every soldier. These big brothers function as coaches to help soldiers overcome the rigors of combat, as many of the ultra-Orthodox soldiers don’t have siblings or a community that served. The big brothers become people to talk to in times of distress.
Life after the Army
Upon their release, many Haredi soldiers struggle to integrate into mainstream society and the labor market. Most lack high school diplomas and a profession to pursue. The army did try to address this problem, but their solution has come up short. Instead of serving the typical two years and eight months most male combat soldiers serve, those serving in the Haredi units can serve two years and use the remaining eight months in a program called “Shnat Misima.” Shnat Misima allows soldiers to complete high school, learn a profession, gain valuable skills to enter the labor market, or apply to university.
For all its good intentions, Shnat Misima hasn’t been the gamechanger the army hoped it would be. We found that nearly 85 percent of the soldiers who began Shnat Misima failed to complete the program, dropping out along the way. The soldiers were often forced by financial need to find work immediately, electing for jobs in security, food, and retail to earn a quick buck, forgoing higher education and employment opportunities with upward mobility.
To help our veterans get admitted into college, we recently partnered with The Feuerstein Institute to help them overcome the gaps they may have in formal education. Additionally, they launched an initiative to work with soldiers in Chetz about the options available to them, connecting them with universities, trade schools, and scholarship organizations, combine with career coaching and financial advising.
But this is a systematic problem that needs to be addressed. Whether the IDF, the government, or non-profits work to solve this challenge, to ignore it is to do these young men an enormous disservice. In the same way that Israel cares for its combat veterans, for example, through subsidized college, ultra-Orthodox veterans should have programs catered to their needs, too.
While Amutat Chetz is helping Haredi soldiers, there are many more without support systems to help them succeed in the army and thrive afterward.
If we want to push more of these young men to draft, we must accept that their path ahead isn’t as easy as their counterparts from a secular or even a religious-Zionist background. They’ll face backlash at home and in their communities, potentially suffering from isolation. Their journey into the modern workforce is filled with obstacles that the average Israeli doesn’t need to overcome.
It’s okay to push for more Haredim to join the army, but that shouldn’t come without the recognition of the challenges that lay ahead in tandem with proper programming to help ensure that their service — and integration into Israeli society—will be success for years to come.