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Idf’s Fervently Orthodox Unit is Seeking a Few Good Men

The Israel Defense Forces is looking for a few good men like Zach Taylor.

Taylor, 20, is a volunteer from Los Angeles serving in an infantry battalion of Torah-observant and predominantly fervently Orthodox soldiers. His unit, Nahal Haredi, plans to launch an advertising campaign this summer in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain seeking more foreign recruits.

Taylor is among the more than 14,000 American Jews from across the religious spectrum serving in the Jewish state’s military. According to Israeli government statistics, 4,419 are on active duty and 9,831 are in the reserves.

“I love the fact that I can fully live out my Jewish values while at the same time protecting Israel,” Taylor says.

In Israel, where serving in the military is mandated for all Jewish men and most women, the fervently Orthodox “black hats” long have been scorned for avoiding service by studying in yeshivas.

The Nahal Haredi is seeking to change that image. Between 10 percent and 12 percent of the 800 to 1,000 men in the battalion are Mahalniks, or volunteers from abroad, with the largest contingents from the United States and France, followed by Russia and South Africa.

Orthodox rabbis who worked with the army to establish Nahal Haredi are planning the ad campaign to encourage foreign volunteers who can meet specific standards to join the battalion.

The drive is to begin in July or August and, if effective, will be extended to other Diaspora countries with sizable Orthodox communities, said Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of Nahal Haredi-Netzah Yehuda, an auxiliary that serves as the link between the IDF and the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community. Klebanow hopes Orthodox lay and spiritual leaders in the United States will support the drive.

Nahal Haredi faced considerable skepticism from haredim and army generals when it was established in 1999. Few recruits applied, and many who did were not haredi; some had police records. At the same time, many haredi rabbis saw the concept as a plot to keep young men from studying in yeshiva.

Regular army officers said the unit’s soldiers had a tendency toward insubordination and excess violence toward Palestinians.

In the last few years, though, standards have been tightened and the problems largely have been overcome.

What kind of men is Nahal Haredi looking for? According to its Web site, www.nahalharedi.org, the basic requirements are “Shabbat observance, wearing a kippah and a refined speech.”

Theoretically, any man — no women, of course — who meets these basic criteria can join the battalion, but in practice some 70 percent come from fervently Orthodox homes in Bnei Brak and other haredi enclaves.

Time is set aside for daily Talmud study and the food is glatt kosher. No women are allowed on the Jordan Valley base, but on Shabbat married soldiers can meet their wives outside the base.

“Nahal Haredi has the highest proportion of Diaspora volunteers of any Israeli unit,” Klebanow said. “They come to us with high motivation, and many subsequently make aliyah. Sometimes they are more Zionistic than native-born Israelis.”

Klebanow cited other advantages.

“The Orthodox population is going up because of its high birth rate, while the secular population is going down, so if Israel is to have an army in 20 years, it must have more Orthodox soldiers,” he said.

To further integrate haredim into mainstream Israeli society, Klebanow’s organization supports one year of college studies for discharged soldiers.

Last month, American telecommunications tycoon Howard Jonas promised a job in one of his Israeli companies to every soldier in the battalion who completes his service.

Jonas, the chairman of IDT Corp., has established large call centers in Israel. He visited the unit’s base earlier this year.

“We want the soldiers here to know that when they come out of the army, there will be a job waiting for them,” he said.

Taylor, a corporal, comes from a non-observant home, but attended two Orthodox high schools and grew up in a fervently pro-Israel family. After graduation he enrolled in a Jerusalem yeshiva for a year, then decided to join the army for a two-year hitch, to be followed by one year of subsidized college studies.

His Nahal Haredi unit has been stationed mainly in the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank, including Hebron, the site of frequent clashes between Arabs and Jews.

Speaking from his parents’ home during a monthlong leave the IDF grants to soldiers from abroad, Taylor said he plans to move permanently to Israel and hopes to become a career officer.

His army service has reinforced his belief that Israel can survive only with a strong army. In a recent letter home, he wrote, “Our Jewish naivete is that everyone is nice and perfect and can be dealt with through diplomacy. This is not true. Our enemies learn one way, and the one and only way is through the language of war and the language of the sword.

“We did not set it up that way,” he wrote. “They have.”

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