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In the coming days, the Tal Law - designed to get haredim off the dole, out of yeshivot and into the job market - will be implemented for the first time since it was first passed by the Knesset five years ago.
The Tal Law exempts haredim from army service but obligates them instead to serve one full year of national, non-military service. After this year of national service, options for which include working for Magen David Adom, the firefighters or at a local authority's social services department, the haredi man is permitted to join the work force.
But no one is expecting thousands of black hat-wearing yeshiva scholars to come pouring out of the well-lit, air-conditioned study halls, roll up their sleeves and start serving as Magen David Adom paramedics, firefighters and community workers in the near future.
"We expect a few dozen to start national service in the next months," David Knafo, head of special tasks in the Social Affairs Ministry, who is responsible for implementing the Tal Law, said Sunday.
"We hope that the first few who join will have a positive experience and others will follow."
However, Rabbi Haim Aharon Yosefi, a member of the haredi Lithuanian Degel Hatorah party who advises young yeshiva students on employment options, was strongly critical of the way the law was being implemented.
"The people who wrote the law are clueless about the way the haredi community operates," said Yosefi, who was critical of the small amount of money paid to those haredi men who do full-time national service. The maximum monthly payment, provided to a couple with at least two children, is NIS 2,100.
"How can someone support a family on that?" Yosefi asked rhetorically.
"There are married men already working for a few years that were called up to do national service. They cannot just leave their job and work for next to nothing as a paramedic."
However, Knafo pointed out that NIS 2,100 a month was more than an average yeshiva student's stipend. He also said that it was possible to do national service part-time (four hours a day) for two years.
"Someone who is already working can fulfill his duty to the state of Israel in the evenings after work."
Knafo said that the total 2007 budget for implementation of the Tal Law was NIS 5 million.
Mandatory military service laws in Israel require every young man to join the IDF at age 18. Haredim who study in yeshivot full-time can defer their army service indefinitely, and the vast majority do. They are taught from an early age to shun the IDF, whose co-ed activities and secular environment are considered detrimental to the spiritual development of a God-fearing Jew. Yeshiva students are also taught to despise Zionism, which is presented as a rebellion against traditional faith-based Judaism.
But young men who marry and find that they cannot support a family on the meager monthly yeshiva stipend are stuck. They are forbidden to work legally until they serve in the army or until they reach the age of 41, or 31 if they have at least five children.
Many haredim manage to sidestep employment restrictions by getting paid under the table or working in the black market while remaining registered at a yeshiva. Some 37,000 haredi young men aged 18 to 40 defer military service. Less than half are eligible for the Tal Law, since only married men aged 22 to 40 and single men aged 26 to 40 can join.
When the Tal Law was passed in 2002, it was supported by MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) who felt it was obligatory to provide an avenue to employment for those who wished to work. But the law was opposed by some haredim, who resented legislation that tried to force their young yeshiva students to abandon their studies. Many still do.
"If legislators think that by passing a law they can force haredim to work they are totally mistaken," said Zaka head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.
In contrast, ardently secular political parties such as Meretz and Shinui opposed the law because it gave preferential treatment to haredim, who were required to serve for only a year, as opposed to the mandatory army service of three years. According to the Tal Law, which was recently renewed with the support of haredi parties for an additional five years, at the age of 22 haredi yeshiva students are permitted to join the job market for a year, during which they must decide whether to support themselves or to return to a life of Torah study. If a student chooses to work, he must first complete a year of national service.
The first stage of implementing of the Tal Law began three years ago. Yeshiva students were allowed to suspend their yeshiva studies for a year. If, at the end of the year, they chose to leave the yeshiva and begin working they were not required to do any national service since the bureaucratic apparatus needed to enlist these men in national service had not been put in place. Rather, they continued to work knowing that there was an outside chance that one day they would be called up to do a year of national service. That day has come.
In recent weeks, haredi dailies have reported that the Defense Ministry began sending letters to former yeshiva students who are now in the work force. The letters directed these young men to contact the Social Affairs Ministry to inquire about their national service.
So far some 175 young men have contacted the ministry. Over half (55%) are between 26 and 30 years old; 20% are between 22 and 25; 23% between are 31 and 35 and 2% between 36 and 40. Most (68%) are married with at least two children; 20% are married with one child and 7% are single. Some 38% live in Bnei Brak, 37% in Jerusalem, 11% in Modi'in Ilit.
Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) said that implementation of the Tal Law was "a significant step on the way to changing the perception of service in Israel. The law integrates all walks of Israeli society while respecting each group's values and principles. Yeshiva students' contribution to national service is important for both Israeli society and the haredim."
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