"You can always find a solution to any problem.”
That seems to be the motto of 28-year-old trailblazer Shmuel Sokolik, the IDF’s first ultra-Orthodox combat doctor.
“A lot of things I’ve done are out of the ordinary,” Sokolik told The Jerusalem Post at his clinic at the Netzach Yehuda Battalion’s base in the West Bank. Netzach Yehuda, formerly known as Nahal Haredi, has for several years been part of the Kfir Brigade.
Sokolik is part of a growing phenomenon in the army – after generations of ultra-Orthodox shunned military service, many are now joining hoping to improve their future job prospects.
“Every year more and more ultra-Orthodox are joining the army. There are more and more units being opened up to the ultra-Orthodox, and many are joining combat units,” said Sokolik.
Despite an additional 300 recruits in 2015, it still did not meet the army’s goal of 2,700.
To reach the upcoming year’s goal of 3,600, Sokolik said the army needs to “simply understand the world and the culture of the ultra-Orthodox, to speak their language and understand their needs.”
Reforms passed in the Knesset in 2014 that aimed to gradually increase ultra-Orthodox recruitment have been met with stiff opposition from many in that community. Nonetheless, according to data released by the army on Wednesday, there are some 5,000 ultra-Orthodox men in the army, with 2,528 enlisting in 2015 alone.
“At the beginning, I didn’t think about joining the army,” Sokolik said, but around the age of 14 he went to study at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, where he spent half the day learning religious subjects and the other half secular. He knew, then, that he wanted to continue learning.
He wanted to become a doctor.
“Today, it’s impossible to advance without a degree and career,” he said.
“And if the ultra-Orthodox want to continue to learn a profession they need to enlist in the army.
Sokolik was a trailblazer even during his studies at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University.
“To go to university as an ultra-Orthodox man is unusual, and I got used to it. I even started enjoying the challenge of being different.”
When he married his wife, close to the end of his studies, he said she knew he would spend the upcoming years in the army. “[But], to be honest, my wife did not know how hard it would be for us until the last two years,” he said, adding that he returns home to Beersheba only once every two weeks.
Sokolik is the eldest of six children whose parents moved to Israel from the United States. His four brothers have all followed his path, and have enlisted in combat units.
“I was raised to be this – my parents pushed me and are now very happy about where I am,” he said.
Not far from where Sokolik has been stationed for the past year-and-a-half is the Tapuah junction, where dozens of terrorist attacks have occurred since the latest outbreak of violence over the past 13 months that has claimed the lives of 36 Israelis, two Americans, a Jordanian, Eritrean and Sudanese, as well as 238 Palestinians, most of the latter while carrying out attacks against Israelis.
While he also has treated Palestinians in the general population, most of the medical care Sokolik provides is to those who are wounded while carrying out attacks against Israelis.
He knows that if there were to be another war with Hamas in Gaza, he would be sent.
“All combat doctors want to do our job, and part of our job is to treat our injured soldiers during wartime,” he said, adding that he would even treat wounded Hamas members, because as doctors, “we treat everyone.”
As rewarding as his position is, Sokolik said, it’s not easy, explaining that he is in charge of everything when it comes to the health of his soldiers, including their dental and mental health, something that has come more to the forefront with the violence in the West Bank.
“These are young guys who all of sudden need to deal with an injured friend, they face all sorts of tough situations,” he said. “We are paying more attention to our soldiers’ mental health, looking for signs of post-trauma and making sure we catch it before it spirals.”
Every day is different, Sokolik told the Post, and many are long and difficult – some beginning at six in the morning and sometimes ending the following day in the early hours of the morning.
“When you really believe in something, you are ready to make sacrifices,” he said, citing the prizes his clinic has won. “I really do love what I’m doing.”