While recent haredi protests against Israel's mandatory military draft have been hard to miss, there is a story within the ultra-Orthodox community that goes almost entirely unnoticed: the nearly 3,000 "lone soldiers" of haredi origin that currently serve in the IDF.
These young men and women leave behind everything and everyone they know in the haredi community, including family, in order to draft to the army and pursue a life of increased opportunity in the secular world.
The IDF defines lone soldiers as those with no family in Israel to support them. This includes new immigrants – the majority – but also orphans and individuals without family support.
"Leaving the community is hard. It's a drastic step. All your life you're in black and white," Shmuel Kaltian told The Jerusalem Post
Severing ties with his family, Kaltian left his haredi home in the central Israeli town of Be'er Ya'acov when he was only 15-years-old. His uncle came to his assistance but, with almost no secular education behind him, life proved challenging.
"Acclimatizing to the secular world was particularly difficult. We didn't study the compulsory topics in the haredi world and I lacked necessary academic qualifications," said Kaltian.
Kaltian drafted to the IDF Artillery Corps, where he subsequently became a combat medic and was the recipient of an IDF award for excellence.
"Relations with my family have improved since my father passed away two years ago. Prior to that, there were no such relations," Kaltian added.
Nachi Pasikov grew up in a haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem and drafted to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the IDF, an infantry unit established to accommodate haredi soldiers.
"I left home before I drafted. But once I drafted, there was no chance of returning," Pasikov told the Post
"Initially, the army didn't recognize me as a lone soldier. It took several months. I rented a flat alone and I received a monthly wage of only NIS 400 ($110). Eventually I was recognized as a lone soldier," said Pasikov.
Formal recognition as a lone soldier by the IDF was a necessary step in receiving financial assistance and help with living costs.
"At the start of the process, relations with my family were far from good. I was almost entirely disconnected," Pasikov added. "Today, after a long process of four or five years, I'm in regular contact with my parents and siblings. I still don't go home too much, it's a different community and life there."
In addition to assistance granted by the IDF and Ministry of Defense, a number of organizations also work to help haredi lone soldiers like Kaltian and Pasikov, both during and after their military service.
"First of all, we need to explain to them what the army is. They do not come from families where their siblings or parents have been to the army, so they arrive without any prior knowledge," Tziki Aud, senior advisor at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, told The Jerusalem Post
"Nearly every one of them receives a mentor who was previously a lone soldier and who can assist them with their different, personal experiences," added Aud.
"We have an entire department dedicated to supporting these soldiers all over the country," said Aud.
"There's a difference between lone soldiers whose families live on the other side of the ocean and those whose families live 10 minutes away but refuse to talk to them," he told the Post
Another organization, Out For Change, aims to minimize the difficulties experienced by soldiers and all those leaving the haredi community.
"Four years ago, the army recognized lone soldiers as only those with no contact with their parents," said Vice-President of Out For Change, Yossi Klar.
"After we applied pressure, the army subsequently changed the terminology to include those in touch, but not supported by, their parents."
"Most of our efforts are policy-based, but we do have a group for lone soldiers at our center in Jerusalem," Klar added.
Pasikov and Kaltian both emphasized to the Post
that the difficulties of leaving the haredi community are not limited to the initial separation. Rather, they continue long after their military service is complete.
"You step outside and you don't know people. You meet secular people who grew up in an entirely different world. You don't know how to speak like them, how to dress, what's cool or not, societal norms," said Pasikov.
"The real difficulty is understanding that you need to reach the level of education that everyone else has already achieved. You only realize this towards the end of your army service. You don't have high school qualifications. Math, basic things that eight and nine-year-olds know, you don't understand."
"When I was 15, I never thought about what I would study," Pasikov added. "I thought about building a family, how many children I would have. You don't think about real life on the outside. Suddenly, you have to deal with all these questions."
"We have serious gaps in our education," said Kaltian. "In English and in lots of other subjects."
"There's nobody who will guide you," said Pasikov. "There are no parents or siblings that will discuss with you what to do in life. You need to catch up quickly because you want to start a degree, you want to progress."
Today, with the assistance of the Heseg Foundation for former lone soldiers, they are both pursuing undergraduate degrees. Pasikov is studying communications at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Kaltian is studying electrical engineering at Beersheba University.
Both expressed their disapproval of the disruptive tactics used by ultra-Orthodox groups protesting against the draft.
"To protest and to stop the country, to use violence, that's not the way. And it's not the way of Judaism," Kaltian told the Post
. "I'm not against them, I'm against what they do."
"The country needs to set up as many haredi battalions as possible. That's the solution. They can't oppose a system which fully accommodates them," he added. "There are all sorts of ways for haredim to draft, but it doesn't necessarily reach enough or the right people."
"The protests are led by a particularly extreme sect," Pasikov said. "On the one hand, you think, what is this trouble all about? On the other hand, you know that the state can't use force. It won't work. You can't persuade a fanatic to draft."
Pasikov believes Israeli society needs to better understand the difficulties of leaving the haredi community.
"The most important thing is Israeli society understanding and recognizing that whoever leaves the haredi community is entering into a new world, especially in terms of education," Pasikov said.
"They should be referred to the correct people and to the correct organizations that can offer much needed assistance."