IDF’s only ultra-Orthodox battalion sworn in

Despite word of haredi protests, induction proceeded without incident; soldiers say "independent thought" brought them to enlist.

Netzah Yehuda Battalion swear in 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netzah Yehuda Battalion swear in 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Hundreds gathered at Ammunition Hill in the capital on Sunday evening to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, the only haredi combat unit in the IDF.
The battalion, also known as Nahal Haredi and currently numbering close to 1,000, is responsible for military operations in and around Jenin.
Created in 1999 following intensive discussions between haredi educators and the IDF, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion allows religious Israelis to serve in the IDF in a halachically observant environment.
The motto of the soldiers in the battalion is “V’haya Machanecha Kadosh,” – “And Your camp shall be holy” – words taken from a passage in the Torah describing the importance of keeping a Jewish military camp free of sin and ritually unclean objects.
Although a greater number of journalists than usual came to cover the event due to word of impending haredi demonstrations protesting the politically charged induction, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz – who serves as a rabbi for the soldiers in the unit – dismissed the notion that this ceremony was different than any other in the IDF.
“It’s not a special ceremony – it’s just like any other swearing in ceremony,” said Schwartz.
“The media’s here because they thought there’d be a protest, that’s all.”
Tzvika Gedalovitz, 25, who served for three years in the battalion, attended the ceremony to support his fellow conscripts.
“I was a member of this unit, now I’m here to support them,” he said. “I felt very good serving in this unit because it’s a perfect place [to observe] the Orthodox way of life, and be a soldier.”
Gedalovitz echoed Schwartz’s sentiments that the large turnout was mostly due to anticipated demonstrations by haredim, adding that he believes such protests are unjust because young haredim should have the choice whether to study Torah or serve in the IDF.
“I think their protests are not justified,” he said. “There are those who should study Torah, but some, like me, want to join the army to contribute to their country and be part of Israeli society because when they only study, they’re closed off to the world.”
Gedalovitz said the haredi soldiers in his unit served as honorably as any other, and found emotional support to deal with the alienation they felt from their respective communities by speaking to soldiers with similar backgrounds.
“They were no less [upstanding] than the other infantry fighters,” he said. “They did the same training and because they come from communities that don’t support them, fellow soldiers showed them extra support because fellow haredim understand [their circumstances].”
With respect to the anticipated haredi protest, Rafi Heltzer – who has worked at Ammunition Hill for over four years and has attended every swearing-in ceremony over that period – said it’s much ado about nothing.
“I’ve seen all the swearing ins every four months for this brigade and have never seen a protest,” he said. “I always come because it’s very moving to watch people from religious and secular communities come together as one.”
Heltzer added that he is particularly touched by the unique tradition within the unit after singing the National Anthem.
“For me, the most moving thing is that this is the only unit in the IDF that sings ‘Ani Ma’amin’ [‘I believe ( that the Messiah will come)’] – after the ‘Hatikva,’” he said.
Meanwhile, a current member of Netzah Yehuda – who requested anonymity and is taking leave to nurse a twisted ankle – said he came to the ceremony to support his fellow religious soldiers.
“I came from a haredi family, but chose to be less Orthodox,” he said of his decision to join the IDF.
“There are two different types of orthodoxy [in the battalion],” he continued. “The haredim are much more traditional – like the way it was during the Jewish exile in Europe.
The other half is more progressive and more open to new ideas and trying new things.”
He said he better identifies with the latter group, adding that most misconceptions about haredim can be attributed to politicians attempting to present them in a one dimensional light.
“It’s usually the politicians who create this [distorted] view of haredi society – that they’re the ‘true Jews’ and holy people,” he said. “But at the end of the day, each of them is unique, and they always will be.”
He added that “What makes these soldiers so unique is that a lot of them are guys who left the yeshiva system because they wanted to think independently.
“It’s a pretty awesome social experiment if you think about it,” he continued. This independence of thought, compounded by the ongoing success of the program, is what most upsets traditional haredim, he said.
“I think what scares the more traditional within haredi society is that these soldiers think for themselves and have succeeded,” he said.
“Things don’t usually last for this long if they’re not successful.”