Against the background of political machinations and debates about how to increase enlistment into national service from the ultra-Orthodox sector, almost 200 haredi men who enlisted into the state civilian service program in June gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday for their induction ceremony.

The “Tal Law,” which was passed in 2002 and provided a legal framework for haredi men to indefinitely defer military service through full-time yeshiva study, also allowed them to enlist on a voluntary basis in one- or two-year civilian-service programs, and fulfill their national service requirements in this manner.

The civilian service directorate however was only established in 2007.

Speaking at the event, director of the Civilian and National Service Administration Sar- Shalom Gerbi described the program as a revolutionary success, “born of a gradual process of dialogue and understanding with community leaders.”

Gerbi also told the recruits that the purpose of the program is to provide part of the solution to equally sharing the burden of national service throughout society, but said that full equality in the burden is not possible.

“Is the service of a soldier who opens the gate at the IDF headquarters the same as a combat soldier in Golani?” Gerbi asked rhetorically. “But we can arrive at a situation in which a greater number of people bear the burden [of national service],” he continued, touting the civilian service programs as one of the answers to the issue.

He also reassured the recruits that the program is not designed to change their haredi identity.

“I emphasize that any haredi person who enters civilian service [programs] will come out as a haredi,” Gerbi declared.

On average, approximately 70 haredi recruits enlist to civilian service programs every month.

Despite the increased numbers for June, the highest on record, criticism has been leveled at the civilian service authority by the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, which said there has been a significant drop in enlistment in 2012 over 2011 figures.

The organization labeled the publication of the June figures as “deception” and said that the reason for the increase is the concern that the period of civilian service will be lengthened by new proposals to replace the Tal Law.

Citing numbers published by the Knesset Center for Research and Information a week ago, Hiddush pointed out that average enlistment in 2011 was 130 recruits a month, which has fallen to 70 a month in 2012.

Gerbi said however that the main reasons for the decline in recruits is that a government decision lowering the age of national service exemption from 35 to 28 came into effect this year, as well as automatic exemptions for anyone with three or more children.

He added that the civilian service was set to meet previously established government targets for the recruitment of 2,400 haredi men by 2015.

The majority of recruits at the induction event were from various hassidic streams, clad in black hats, long black coats and bearing long, flowing payot. In addition, there were haredi men from the non-hassidic sector along with members of the Sephardi community.

Netaniel Strauber, 25, comes from the non-hassidic sector of haredi society, is married and lives in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood. He decided to enter the two-year civilian service track, which involves four hours of service a day.

Until now he has been studying in yeshiva or kollel and is also enrolled at the Ono Academic College in Jerusalem where he studies law, which he will continue with during his time in the civilian service program.

Although Netanel studied in the haredi school system, which teaches very little core curriculum subjects, he nevertheless spent time studying and passing the matriculation and psychometric exams at the same time in order to be accepted into his law degree.

Netaniel said although he believes the ideal in life is Torah study, he also wanted to be able to support himself and could not rely on others to do so in the long term.

“If I don’t do some form of national service then no law firm will take me on when I qualify,” he said, adding that he feels a responsibility to contribute to society as well.

Netanel also warned of what he called the dangers of instituting obligatory service on the haredi sector, saying that the yeshiva spiritual advisers are already telling students not to enlist even if a law is passed mandating service for them.

According to the Civilian Service Administration’s statistics, there are currently 3,772 haredim who have finished or are currently serving in civilian service programs, in the fields of welfare, public security, public health, immigration absorption and environmental protection, according to the Civilian and National Service Authority.

Approximately 75 percent of recruits serve in the welfare field.

Approximately 1,860 haredi volunteers are currently serving in the civilian service.

Moshe, 28, a Gur Hassid living in Hatzor Haglilit in the North, said he was volunteering to the program because he felt it is important to contribute to society, but added that after he finishes the course he will likely go back to full-time yeshiva study.

His wife is currently studying in college and will look for employment when she completes her studies. Moshe, who will work with mentally handicapped children during his civilian service, said that for him Torah study is the highest calling, although he added that he would continue to do volunteer work after the completion of his course.

Eliezer, a 23-year-old from a Jerusalemite community established in the nineteenth century, said that he volunteered in order to be able to go to work following his service.

After completing his civilian service track, which will involve working with at-risk youth, he said he intends to enroll in an academic college in order to gain a professional qualification, most likely in computing or civil engineering.

“I’ve learned in yeshiva or kollel until now, but I need to be able to support myself and my family at some stage so I need to do this kind of program,” Eliezer said.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger