Moshe Lifshitz, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Israeli, wears tefillin while praying in the Israeli army. Lifshitz broke with his community's tradition when he chose to enlist in the Israeli army rather than apply for an exemption to study Torah full time. Photo courtesy of Moshe Lifshitz

More Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews buck tradition and head for the army, higher ed

JERUSALEM (RNS) — Moshe Lifshitz says he always felt motivated to serve in the Israeli army even though, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, he was entitled to a military exemption.

“I don’t know where my desire to serve in the IDF came from, but I’ve always felt it,” said Lifshitz, who spent three years in a combat unit and still performs yearly reserve duty.

“My father didn’t serve and neither did my nearly 100 cousins, not that I hold it against them.”

Lifshitz is one of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox — also known as haredi — men who have defied expectations and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. They join despite often intense pressure from other haredim to study sacred texts full time and avoid the military.

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The battalion created for these haredim was founded with 30 soldiers in 1999. Today, roughly 2,100 serve in the battalion — and about 6,000 haredim overall serve, according to the IDF.

This increase is part of a larger trend toward integration into Israeli society among the insular ultra-Orthodox, who comprise 12 percent of the Israeli population.

The number of ultra-Orthodox students in the higher education system has grown tenfold over the last decade, from 1,000 to 10,800 — according to a study by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

Consequently, haredi couples, who tend to have very large families, are marrying later.

Economics underlies the changes.

Since 2003, when the government slashed the child allowances large Israeli families had come to rely on, the number of haredi families living below the poverty line has skyrocketed.

Eager to help them enter the workforce and contribute financially to the economy, the government has created educational and army frameworks suited to their needs. These initiatives are gender-segregated because haredi society frowns on interactions between unrelated men and women.

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Haredi units in the IDF allow ultra-Orthodox men to maintain their strict religious lifestyle.

Unlike regular IDF units, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (Judah's Eternity Battalion, also known as the Nahal Haredi) schedules time for soldiers to pray three times a day and, field conditions permitting, to study Jewish texts daily. Their kosher food supervision is stricter than the supervision on a regular army base.

Female soldiers are not permitted to serve alongside the battalion's soldiers, not even as instructors.

“That was a big decision because 95 percent of the IDF’s instructors are women,” says Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, president and co-founder of Amutat Netzah Yehuda, an organization that provides logistical and emotional support to haredi soldiers before, during and after their service.

During their third year of military service, most of the haredi battalion's soldiers, who typically join between the ages of 18 and 20, take up secular subjects such as math and English — subjects barely taught in most haredi boys’ schools.

“Without a command of these subjects, haredi men who leave the yeshiva (schools that focus on the study of Torah and other Jewish texts) cannot pass university matriculation exams and have limited job prospects,” Klebanow said.

And haredi men over the age of 20 may opt for a separate program where they spend the first six months learning skills such as computer programming, network administration and engineering before being assigned to IDF intelligence and technology units.

These jobs prepare them for careers once they become civilians.

Members of the Jerusalem Faction of ultra-Orthodox Jews block streets at an entrance to Jerusalem in October 2017. They protested the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are exempt from military service, must formally file for that exemption. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Israel, which often finds itself on a war footing, requires most Jewish men and women to serve in the IDF, haredim excluded. Orthodox Jewish women — those who follow Jewish law closely but are not ultra-Orthodox — are not drafted,  though some choose to serve. And with the exception of Druze and Bedouin men, Arab citizens of Israel also receive an exemption.

Israel is 75 percent Jewish and 21 percent Arab, with the balance made up of Christians and other minorities.

The goal of these haredi programs “is to help them to integrate” into largely secular mainstream Israeli society “but not to assimilate,” according to Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“It is to help them support their families, not to become less religious.”

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A small but very vocal group on the fringe of haredi society vehemently disagrees. During the past year, members of the Jerusalem Faction, which is opposed not only to serving in the IDF but being required to formally request an exemption (because this implies recognition of the secular state’s authority), have held dozens of demonstrations and clashed with police on public roads around the country.

Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, who helps spearhead these demonstrations, maintains that “when you join the army you go down spiritually and we can’t accept this. We appreciate the army but it’s controlled by a secular system of government.”


Lifshitz, who has maintained his haredi lifestyle, disagrees that to be a soldier means compromising your values.

“In the Nahal Haredi you get a higher level of kosher food, you get time to learn texts every day. There are no women on the bases. The rabbis come and give lectures. And most of your fellow soldiers come from the same background and face the same challenges.”

Those challenges include coping with scorn or even violent attacks from haredi extremists who consider the soldiers traitors. Fearing such attacks, many haredi soldiers change out of their uniforms before going home.

Moshe Lifshitz poses while serving in the IDF. Photo courtesy of Moshe Lifshitz

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“You may pay a high price,” Lifshitz acknowledged.

Lifshitz said that although his parents and siblings always respected his decision to serve, the community’s matchmakers were less forgiving.

“Your reputation can suffer,” he said, noting that many haredi families don’t want their daughters to marry a man who chose to become a soldier.

After leaving the IDF, Lifshitz attended university, earned a master's degree and works in a navigation startup company.

Now a husband and a father to three children, Lifshitz said he would be proud to see his sons in a uniform someday.

“But like every other parent, I hope that by then there will be peace, and Israel won’t need an army,” Lifshitz said.


  1. Seriously – “someday … ‘I hope … there will be PEACE, and Israel won’t need an army,’ [‘haredi’ Moshe] Lifshitz said”?

    Well, then, here you go – 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 – “The day of the Lord will come … [for] while they are saying, ‘PEACE and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly … and they will not escape.”

    Don’t miss out on the critical sequence there, brother Moshe Lifshitz: first, global PEACE; second, Messiah returns; third, destruction.

    Am I the only one who’s wisely stupid enough to believe in these futures, or what? (Clickbaiting, don’t fall for it.)

  2. ” first, global PEACE; second, Messiah returns; third, destruction.”

    No worries there then.

  3. Ultra Orthodox Jews, for the most part, are just as loony as devout Catholics and Islamists. It is a form of mental illness that should not be passed on to children, as it blocks them from being objective and from using their critical thinking during their formative years.

  4. Sorry but you should keep your ill informed and disgusting thoughts to yourself.

  5. You are probably religious enough to try and block any criticism by couching it as “ill informed” and “disgusting thoughts”.

  6. Nope but I am proudly ultra-Orthodox, a graduate of an Ivy League University as well as multiple yeshivos.

  7. How does that make you more objective about this article? Please be specific.

  8. I am intimately familiar with both worlds (Ultra Orthodox Jewish and Secular) something you are not.
    And again your comment was ill informed and disgusting.

  9. Since you are so objective and well educated, what position do you take regarding the conflict between those orthodox that serve their Country and those who refuse to serve their Country? What does the ancient text tell you [personally] to do? Please do not dodge the respectfully asked question. Attempt to educate the readers.

  10. Can you quote something that is not based on fantasy? If you accept Islam and die in a holy war, you will receive virgins in paradise. But you cannot get into heaven unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Most Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Please tell the readers- Who exactly is getting into heaven, with respect to all other faiths???? Who has the true spoken words of God?

  11. Good, they are earning their place in Israeli society.

  12. Due to both the lack of evidence and the absence of need the concept of god(s) is a classic example of the fantastical that you deride.

    You think your imaginary deity is the only-true-god and so do many who worship other imaginary deities. Of course you all think you’re right – you’d have to be really stupid to worship a second-rate deity wouldn’t you?

    Arguing about who has the best god(s)/words/heaven is like arguing about who has the best Andromeda-made ashtray. Fun to discuss but only worth taking seriously if you’re being paid to do so, manipulating others or been taught to be scared of living the one life we know we have on a rational premise.

  13. Speaking of which.

    “Who Wants To Live Forever” by Queen.

    Dedicated to my friend, Givethedogabone.

    There’s no time for us.
    There’s no place for us.
    What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us?
    Who wants to live forever?
    Who wants to live forever?
    There’s no chance for us.
    It’s all decided for us.
    This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us.
    Who wants to live forever?
    Who wants to live forever?
    Who dares to love forever
    When love must die?
    But touch my tears with your lips,
    Touch my world with your fingertips,
    And we can have forever,
    And we can love forever.
    Forever is our today.
    Who wants to live forever?
    Who wants to live forever?
    Forever is our today.
    Who waits forever anyway?

  14. Speaking of which.

    “We Have Heaven” by Yes.

    Dedicated to my fiend I mean friend, peepsqueek.

    Tell the Moon-dog, tell the March-hare
    Tell the Moon-dog, tell the March-hare
    We … have … heaven
    To look around, to look around
    Yes, he is here; Yes, he is here

  15. Really? Wow. An ultra amongst us! Please don’t go yet (despite peepsqueek doing much more than peepsqueeking). Can you post a fresh standalone comment on this article, please. I don’t get ultras except via movies, independent films. One about that guy who ties up his arm with this religious string, ascetic-like, then gets domineering over his wife. Then there’s that one about Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Mafia, supposed to be funny. In other words, give us your straight-and-narrow on this article, which I was moved by (despite my original comment yesterday).

    But if you’re made uncomfortable by this RFI, then never mind. Stick around St RNS, though, yeah?

  16. They are all imaginary deities! God is just a concept and not a physical entity that controls the universe, unless you have some contradictory evidence. I am not deriding anyone who has an imaginary friend if that gives them comfort.

  17. I hope you do not mind if I use your post. I like it!

  18. How familiar are you to “both worlds” is the question. Have you walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes? I grew up in a stable family and my parents, siblings, and myself have different opinions on numerous subjects, and we all lived in the same world.

    I spent over a year fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, and Vietnam veterans have different opinions of the war. Have you been to war in either of your worlds?

    I grew up living below the poverty level. What economic status did you grow up in, since you could afford private schools and Ivy League University? In your world, you have an air of superiority, and my opinion is “ill informed and disgusting”, as if your book learning is superior to my life experience in a poor but loving home, as a combat veteran, small businessman working with my back, raising a family, and now having five fantastic, almost grown, grandchildren, two of which are going into the fields of science. Which part of my world have you lived in? If you continue to dodge the questions, I understand.

  19. I wonder if those who yearn for forever/Heaven have ever thought about the horror that it would have to be unless they were to be so vitiated as to be impotent, characterless non-entities – in which case, I suppose, it would still be horrible, but the inmates wouldn’t be able to realise it.

  20. Freddie Mercury & Brian May are atheists like you, dingbat – is everything an argument to be made & won by you?

  21. I didn’t intend to imply that they yearned for eternal life.
    I didn’t intend to “win” anything
    I didn’t resort to calling you names either, did I?

    Perhaps if you were to chill a little, relax and see that everything doesn’t have to be competitive you would enjoy life more?

    Sometimes ideas can trigger sympathetic, supportive wondering – perhaps life is only dog-eat-dog if we choose to act like a rabid cur.

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