The Netzah Yehuda Battalion, better known as Nahal Haredi, is probably the IDF's most unique unit. All of its soldiers come from religious homes, the great majority of them from the haredi community. Now it is becoming the first unit to helps it soldiers finish their service with a civilian job already waiting for them.
The first soldiers joined the Nahal Haredi unit in January 1999. The IDF didn't know how to swallow these new recruits and sent them to a small, isolated outpost in the Jordan Valley. Strict orders were handed down: the soldiers were to be allowed extra time for prayer and Torah study, despite the demands of basic training; no women soldiers were to be allowed on the base; all food would confirm to stringent Badatz kashrut standards; and special arrangements would be made for soldiers who fell out with their haredi families after joining the army.
Over the next few years, the unit's existence remained precarious as its patrons in the Defense Ministry struggled to fill the minimum recruitment quotas and many haredi rabbis campaigned against the force, claiming it was a plot to ruin the yeshivas.
At one point, a majority of the recruits were not even haredi, and standards were so low that youngsters with police records were admitted. The unit gained a reputation for insubordination and unnecessary violence toward Palestinians. Senior officers were wondering whether the IDF should be going to all that trouble.
Eight years later and most of those problems are history. The IDF Personnel Directorate has stipulated that 70 percent of every intake must be from bona fide ultra-Orthodox families. The rest are from more diverse religious backgrounds.
The unit is now named the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, and it has been incorporated into the new Kfir Brigade. For the last few years, it has been receiving kudos from the top brass for the continuing success in its sector, the Jordan Valley.
Now the unit's supporters are beginning to look at the next step. Part of the original Nahal Haredi concept was preparing the soldiers for their lives after the army.
"The IDF tries to help its graduates," says a senior officer who works with the unit, "but we realize that this is a special case. When they finish their service, most of them are not going back to homes and environments where army service is a normal thing, and they're going to find it difficult to adjust elsewhere. If we can find a way to help them out in future employment, we'll also be attracting more recruits to the unit."
During their third year of service, those who don't plan to stay on as officers take vocational courses and study Torah, but that doesn't guarantee a job.
Enter American Jew Howard Jonas, chairman of the IDT Corporation, a long-time contributor to the civilian organization that does most of the unit's recruiting. Jonas arrived at the battalion's Jordan Valley base together with Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim on Tuesday, ostensibly to visit the large number of new olim and volunteers from abroad.
But Jonas had another reason to visit. Over the last decade and a half, IDT has become a world leader in call-center technology. Four years ago, Jonas opened an IDT center in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim industrial park, which now employs a thousand workers, many of them from the haredi community.
The main attraction for IDT is the high proportion of native English-speakers among Jerusalem's haredim; many are now employed to field calls from the United States, around the clock. Now he is offering the Netzah Yehuda soldiers 200 positions over the next year, when IDT is set to expand to new centers in Safed and Beersheba.
"We want the soldiers here to know that when they come out of the army there will be a job waiting for them," he said.
The most obvious call center recruits are the many English- and French-speaking soldiers in the unit, but the company also has plans to begin training programs for native Israelis.
Jonas terms himself modern Orthodox and believes in helping members of the haredi community integrate into society via the workforce. About 20% of his employees in the US are haredi. In Israel, the proportion is even higher.
"For year we were coming here to Israel and seeing how bad the poverty among the haredim is. Of course I can give charity, and we give $15 million every year, but there's no end to poverty. Giving people jobs is a much better way of dealing with it," he said.
"To encourage ultra-Orthodox men and women to work, IDT provides them with the kind of environment they need, including time off for prayers and a strictly kosher canteen."
"I just think it's morally not right to live here and not serve in the army," he said. "So many of them just sit around not getting any success in life, and it goes with them ever after. Instead, those who join the army get a sense of direction in life, self-esteem and a job afterward. It changes their whole life."
David Hager, a real estate businessman from Los Angeles and another long-time contributor to the Nahal Haredi, also took part in the visit to the base. He discussed the difficulties in recruiting more haredi youngsters who have dropped out of their yeshivas.
"In many cases the problem is the parents. Even if they know that this is the best solution and are assured that everything is being done to make sure their sons stay religious, they're still worried about what the neighbors may say. If they know that the boy will have a job waiting for him, they will see things differently," Hager said.
Jonas is aware that much of what he is doing is highly controversial within the haredi leadership. He says, though, that he has not heard many objections.
"We are also big contributors to the Yeshiva world and I believe that the rabbis realize that what we're doing works well for people and improves their lives. They just look the other way," he said.