Fervently Orthodox men join army, breaking taboo in Israeli community

TEL AVIV, March 14 (JTA) — At a lonely base in the northern Jordan Valley, a group of young devout men have replaced their black coats and Talmuds with army green and M-16 rifles. Unlike the average Israeli trainee, they pray after the morning jog, have a daily Torah study session, eat in the army’s only glatt kosher mess hall and serve on an all-male base. But since January, these young men — like all other Israeli draftees their age— are heeding the orders barked by their drill sergeants. By choosing to serve instead of study the Torah full time, they have broken a taboo in the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community on an issue that has been at the heart of religious-secular tensions for decades. And when their five-month training course ends, the haredi infantrymen will be deployed on active duty. “This group will become the flag-bearers for their entire community,” says Yehuda Duvdevani, head of the Defense Ministry’s Nahal and National Missions Division, who founded the program. “They will show the community that those who are studying should study in yeshiva, but those who don’t should join the army.” Since the haredi draftees prefer to remain anonymous, the Israel Defense Force does not allow journalists to visit the training camp. But in an interview with JTA, Duvdevani, 54, shared the story of how this historic group of soldiers was established. He says the army is making a serious effort to understand the special needs of potential haredi soldiers and to create a framework that could bridge the widening religious-secular gulf. The issue dates back to Israel’s independence. Believing the fervently Orthodox community would wither away, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service. In subsequent decades, yeshivas have grown and now boast more than 72,000 students. Angry secular Israelis say they have become a haven for draft-dodgers. In 1996, Yitzhak Mordechai, then-defense minister, appointed Duvdevani, a former senior officer, to head the Nahal Division and refocus it to confront challenges facing Israeli society. For Duvdevani, a secular Jew, this mission was personal as well. In the battle of Latrun in the 1948 War of Independence, Duvdevani’s father commanded hundreds of religious and secular new immigrants who arrived in the newly established Jewish state just days before being sent to the front. Scores were killed in the battle, including Duvdevani’s father, who was missing in action until last year. “My father laid out the path for me,” says Duvdevani. “In the army, we are one nation, with one destiny and one mission.” After meeting haredi rabbis, Knesset members and yeshiva students, Duvdevani realized that hundreds of young fervently Orthodox men were not studying in yeshivas, but were hanging out on the streets. “I told the haredi leaders that at least, they should let those boys who don’t study enlist in the army,” said Duvdevani. After months of recruiting, a group of 30 young men recently agreed. The army chose a base, koshered the kitchen and barred women soldiers. Most of the staff who volunteered to train the haredim were modern Orthodox Jews who understood the group’s special needs. Still, a few problems arose. One soldier complained that it was difficult to concentrate on morning prayers after the morning run. Since some soldiers’ parents don’t even know they have volunteered, some of the recruits take off their uniforms before returning home for weekend leave. Yet according to Duvdevani, the fervently Orthodox soldiers salute the Israeli flag — a symbol of the secular Jewish state scorned by their community — during morning and evening roll calls. Despite this symbol of allegiance, the rabbis’ worst fears have not materialized. “The rabbis were afraid” the recruits would “lose their religion if they join the army,” said Duvdevani. “The irony is that some of them had stopped putting on tefillin before they were drafted, and now they are coming back to religion.” The army is also helping the recruits improve their math and English skills. “We want to give them something to go out to the world with,” says Duvdevani. “ It is still too early to say whether the program will have a lasting impact on the haredi community, but Duvdevani is confident that it will slowly usher in an acceptance of the army as a legitimate alternative for young haredi men. “Not all of the rabbis agree with this initiative. But I’m sure that if this works, those that don’t agree will start to realize that this is good for their community,” says Duvdevani. “I want to build a bridge between the religious and secular worlds. What is at stake is the unity of Israel.”