A recent political deadlock over the issue of drafting haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youths into the Israel Defense Forces was one of the key reasons that led Israelis to the polls last week for the second time in less than six months.
The second national vote on Sept. 17 was held after Yisrael Beiteinu Party chief Avigdor Lieberman refused to join a coalition that would fail to pass his haredi draft law. The law was based on a formula drawn up by defense officials and called for a limited, yet fixed, draft cycle to resolve the draft dispute, which tears at the strings of Israeli society.
Some of the more hardline sections of the haredi community demonstrated in the streets against the idea of being drafted, and the issue remains a political hot potato in Israel.
Yet away from the ruckus, an organization has been working closely with the military to maintain something that was once difficult to imagine, and is today taken for granted: a fully operational haredi combat battalion.
The Netzah Yehuda battalion (also known as Nahal Haredi) conducts round-the-clock vital security operations in the West Bank, as part of the Kfir infantry brigade, and has become an inseparable part of the IDF.
The battalion’s support system can be found in the form of the Friends of Nahal Haredi organization. Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, one of its key founders, was CEO of the organization for 15 years. He told JNS that things have come a long way since it became active more than 20 years ago.
“The situation in Israel regarding the haredi community was one that was extremely restrictive for any youths who didn’t sign themselves up to the appropriate venue in the yeshivah system,” Klebanow, now president of Friends of Nahal Haredi, told JNS.
Klebanow, a resident of Jerusalem who moved to Israel from Boston in 1983, noted that not everyone is cut out to study religious texts 14 hours per day in the highly rigorous yeshivah learning system. “It doesn’t have to be for a totally negative reason that the boy doesn’t find his place in that venue. It could be that he just simply needs something else,” he said.
At that time, however, nothing much else existed. Improvised solutions were found when the haredi community was small, like providing odd jobs such as grocery deliveries for such youths. But once the community really started to grow, explained Klebanow, and increasing number of youths found themselves at the margins of society with the potential of getting into trouble, a different solution was needed.
“The way society in Israel is, in order to integrate into civilian society and the workforce, you need to both perform military service,” he said. “A boy who was a yeshivah student and who decided it wasn’t appropriate for him, yet didn’t feel comfortable performing army service because of the totally secular environment, the chances of him coming out of the army remaining observant were not very high. Based on that, parents were not interested in all in their children performing army service.”
In addition, the lack of any military heritage in haredi families means the IDF was a foreign world to youths contemplating enlistment, unlike non-haredi families, where military service was the norm. As a result, such youths found themselves “between a rock and a hard place.
That was the situation,” he said. “That was not a good situation.”
‘A successful service and a successful life’
Then around 21 years ago, a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from a yeshivah in Jerusalem was introduced to a retired brigadier general who was working for the Defense Ministry, and who was in charge of youth programs.
The officer sought to learn about the haredi sector, and the two men began cooperating. The eventual fruit of their cooperation was the formation of the Netzah Yehuda battalion.
“The army had to essentially compromise on two major issues,” explained Klebanow. The first and most critical of these was women in the military environment.
The IDF, he said, committed itself to creating an environment “in which a haredi young man could serve a meaningful combat or support service without having to compromise on his religious way of life. That translated itself to an environment without any women. That means no women soldiers, commanders or instructors. That’s actually easier said than done, because in the army, 95 percent of instructors are women. For them to make that commitment was pretty much a telltale sign that they were really interested in making this happen, and they did.”
The second major obligation was maintaining stringent kashrut standards for the battalion. Over time, the IDF placed soldiers in its food base who inspected trucks carrying food to bases that had haredi soldiers stationed in them.
In addition to these steps, the IDF permitted a civilian organization—Friends of Nahal Haredi—to accompany the soldiers throughout their service. The organization has official IDF recognition and permission to help the soldiers transition from civilian life into the military, and ensuring a successful military service. The organization also has a program to help the soldiers transition back into civilian life.
“None of those are trivial,” said Klebanow. “Each one is a challenging transition.” The organization recently appointed one of its graduates—a reserves officer named Yossi Levi—as its CEO, which is an indication of its success.
In addition, the Netzah Yehuda battalion will receive its first homegrown battalion commander in the coming months, a development Klebanow described as historical.
At any given time, there are 2,200 active duty haredi soldiers, and there are some 13,000 veterans—a number that grows every year.
Due to the lack of any family military legacies, “it’s very necessary that there be an organization that really validates to them that their decision to come to the army was the right decision,” explained Klebanow. “We provide the backing they need to rise when they fall down. Our mission really is making sure these young men have a successful service and a successful life.”
Although the organization does not deal with recruitment—that’s a job left to the IDF—as soon as a haredi youth makes the decision to enlist, Friends of Nahal Haredi are there, waiting to provide assistance. That includes a staff of around 25 rabbinic mentors, who visit the soldiers on their bases daily, and spend Shabbat and holidays with them.
Beyond the Netzah Yehuda battalion, the IDF has opened haredi companies in the Givati and Paratrooper infantry brigades, and is set to do the same in the Golani Brigade. However, those companies are part of regular battalions, unlike Netzah Yehuda.
Another important role played by the organization is accompanying the number of lone haredi soldiers, many of whom are alone because their families excommunicated them for enlisting.
While lone soldiers make up around 5 percent of IDF soldiers, in the Netzah Yehuda battalion, the figure stands at 30 percent. “Many of these young men, when they decide they want to go into the army can’t go home. So the organization also provides to the best of our abilities. We have apartments for these young men. We don’t take any money for them; we just give them homes.”
Asked about the political firestorm that continues to rage over the issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox youths, Klebanow said, “Our opinion, having experience of doing this for 20 years, is that we would not like to see a blanket recruitment of haredi youths. I think it’s more political. I don’t think the army wants to see that. First of all, you can’t force people to be soldiers. You wouldn’t want to serve next to someone who didn’t want to be there. What they should be doing is creating more options for haredi youths to be able to, if they leave yeshivah, to be able to find venues for them, which contributes something positive and attractive to them.”
Haredi youths have also taken up other key military roles in recent years, including air-force base security and logistical truck driving.
“We have soldiers on many of bases fixing tanks; there are all sorts of different programs. The army just has to continue to be creative in making attractive openings. You cannot compare the situation of the haredi community vis-à-vis their participation, education and work to what the situation was 10 years ago today. There is no comparison,” affirmed Klebanow.
“We have to remember, there is no quick fix,” he emphasized. “This is a program that is dealing with societal change, and it takes time. It’s not a five- or 10-year program. It’s a program of a few generations.”