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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.