Netzah Yehuda, the IDF's haredi battalion, celebrated its 10th anniversary this week with a celebration at Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus. Current and former soldiers of the battalion attended, as did Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i.
The battalion, better known as Nahal Haredi, was founded in 1999 as a test program, aimed at providing a framework to integrate into the IDF and ultimately into the work force.
Strict religious standards are an integral part of the Nahal Haredi framework. There are no women bases, the food is glatt kosher, and time is allowed for prayer and Torah study.
Netzah Yehuda soldiers are expected to perform at least two years of combat service, after which they can spend a year learning a trade or studying for matriculation exams.
A common theme sounded by the speakers at Monday's ceremony was the skepticism with which the project was initially greeted and the tremendous progress that has been made in 10 short years.
Over 2,500 soldiers have passed through the Nahal Haredi program and the sight of bearded men with payot in uniform is no longer the shocking sight it once was in insular haredi enclaves.
There were fears that during the ceremony, soldiers from the battalion would attempt to fly banners protesting the eviction of Jews from settlements in Judea and Samaria. Such protests have been made by troops from both the Shimshon and Nachshon battalions, both of which, like Netzah Yehuda, belong to the Kfir Brigade.
There were no such disturbances during the event. Contrary to media reports, this reporter saw no evidence of the unit's officers making soldiers lift their shirts as they entered the hall, to check for hidden signs.
Rabbi Yoel Schwartz of the Dvar Yerushalayim Yeshiva in Jerusalem was one of the founding rabbis of the battalion. He stated that the success of the Nahal Haredi gave the IDF the confidence to create frameworks for haredi men in the other branches of service. The air force, for example, has opened a program called Blue Dawn, which trains haredi men as airplane mechanics and technicians.
"The Nahal Haredi today is setting an example both in spirit and in military expertise to all the other battalions in the Israel Defense Forces," said Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of the Netzah Yehuda nonprofit organization, which provides some financial support to the battalion.
"I was at the end of the battalion exercise that was finished a few days ago and I saw the new [Kfir] brigade commander â€¦ he was speechless, he had just unbelievable praise."
During the ceremony, Vilna'i expressed his support of the project and his hope that it will lead to further integration of the haredim into mainstream Israeli life. The minister spoke negatively about men who do not serve the state.
As was reported in The Jerusalem Post in May, a Nahal Haredi reserve battalion is in the process of being formed. During the ceremony it was announced that the reserve unit will officially be established next week, with the first call-up a month afterwards.
Some 700 soldiers have volunteered for the reserve unit, and 500 are expected to be summoned initially.