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Nahal Haredi is giving ultra-Orthodox men a path outside the yeshiva and an inroad into the army. Now, some parents of soldiers are starting to see the benefits for their children and community.
There is unmistakable pride in the voice of Gittel Cohen (all names have been changed), a haredi mother of nine living in Safed, as she speaks about the benefits that army service brought to her youngest son Meir.
"The army made a mensch out of him," she said.
Cohen is a soldier in the Nahal Haredi unit of the IDF, created six years ago in a joint effort between the IDF and a group of haredi rabbis seeking to provide an atmosphere in which young, ultra-Orthodox men could serve without compromising their religious values.
These aren't sentiments one would have expected to hear from within the haredi world not long ago, but Cohen's recognition is a big step forward for a military institution that has long been considered taboo in the haredi world. Cohen and other parents have grown to appreciate, if a bit begrudgingly, the structure and opportunities afforded to their sons by Nahal Haredi.
The original mission of the unit, officially titled Netzah Yehuda, or the Eternal Judah battalion, was to provide a religiously strict venue for haredi youth, unable or unwilling to learn in yeshiva, in which they could develop job-related skills and eventually enter the work force. It was also seen as a measure to address the deeper, well-documented problems of shababnikim - haredi youth who remain officially enrolled in the yeshiva network to maintain their army deferments, but are actually wandering the streets with little to do.
These young men are considered to be highly at-risk - straying from the values of the community and often becoming embroiled in more serious problems like drugs and crime. Most recently, the Tal Commission - appointed in 1999 by Ehud Barak to examine the issue of army deferments - reported on the double-bind of haredi men who do not succeed in the yeshiva system but are unable to work out of fear of being drafted into the army, long seen as a symbol of moral debasement within the haredi community.
Nevertheless, at its onset, founding rabbis of Nahal Haredi were chased from their synagogues and the unit was viewed as a last resort for "losers." Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, the director of Amutat Netzach Yehuda, concedes that the initial plan underestimated the educational framework that would be needed to support it.
"You can't take a group of kids that are wavering and looking around and put them in an environment that hasn't yet been created and think from that will emerge the saving grace," he said.
Now, with almost 1,000 soldiers and a full-time staff of four rabbis who travel to learn with and counsel the young men, the unit is quickly shedding its initial reputation and becoming both a military success by IDF standards and a valuable, credible outlet for those on the margins of the orthodox world.
Cohen's son Meir, now 24 and married, is in his third year of service, during which the soldiers have the option to study for the bagrut exams or to engage in vocational training. By his mother's account, Meir struggled immensely with yeshiva learning after his father died, and entered into Nahal Haredi with the permission of the community's rebbe.
"His father, before he died, would go to the yeshiva and learn with Meir," she recalled. "After his father's death, his brothers would try to help him a bit, but it wasn't enough and he didn't know how to go out into the world and work."
Cohen is immensely satisfied with the interest the rabbis took in her son and the respect that both they and the unit's commanders demonstrated for Meir's rebbe, even agreeing to meet with him before Meir enlisted. She credits the army for his strengthened religious observance and for providing him with clear direction. She is certain that "someone who comes from yeshiva into Nahal Haredi will leave Nahal Haredi still haredi."
IT IS the unit's goal to build what Klebanow terms the "esprit de corps," however, that resonates most with Shayna Goldblum, who took it upon herself to send two of her five sons into the religious army unit. Separated from her husband, Goldblum sensed that her sons' self-confidence was suffering within the yeshiva system. Feeling the sting of what Goldblum termed discrimination for not having the right family lineage, she didn't ask her rabbis before sending her oldest son into the unit.
"I knew they would disagree and not allow it, so I did it on my own," she states. Her husband and his family went along with the decision after they saw the tremendous change in their son's self-confidence and image. Even her rabbi agreed to allow her second son to go after seeing the results the army unit had on the oldest son.
"In Nahal, you are a person in your own right. You have your own personality and that is a good thing. When the self-confidence starts working, they start to behave and look at the world around them completely differently."
Nowadays, Goldblum claims with some delight that her oldest son, who now works, is more haredi then herself.
Despite the good feelings of these parents towards their sons' army service, there is still much reticence about supporting it publicly. Not a single parent agreed to be identified by their real name for this article, and everyone, from Klebanow to Goldblum and Cohen, were adamant that army service should not be looked at as the conventional path, but reserved only for boys who could not seriously learn in the yeshivas.
Dr. Kimmy Caplan, who teaches in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University and is an expert on haredi society, sees this reluctance as part of a wider response to the introduction of other outside structures in general, noting that once speech therapists and social workers also needed a long period of adjustment before they were tolerated and accepted by this community.
"At any given point, when new stuff is introduced to haredi society, the usual public official response is one of being scared, threatened and therefore negative. Over time, things wane. Even with continuous objections, things find their way in the door," Caplan said.
To that extent, those who are the first to accept a change are usually those who need it most. Certainly, families in the haredi community that have been split by divorce face more bias than those living in secular societies where non-traditional family units have become more common, Caplan said.
In addition, although Nahal Haredi keeps no official numbers on what types of family structures the soldiers come from, some of the parents conveyed a sense that the disruption of their family from the death of a parent or a separation had an effect on their sons' ability to stay on the traditional path.
"In the secular world, once a kid finishes with high school, he is more independent from his family," Cohen said. "With haredim, the mother and father still remain the closest people to the kids. After his [Meir] father died, it was harder for him than a regular haredi boy. He had lost a life-long friend and he wasn't one of those kids who had a lot of strength to sit all day and learn," she explained.
The very fact that Nahal Haredi's stated goals are not to win over the top echelons of their boys paradoxically helps to increase its acceptance within the community. Jonathan Rosenblum, Director of Am Echad, a media resource organization for the Orthodox community, believes the majority of people within the community understand the role of Nahal Haredi to help out certain kids, but that anything that legitimizes it as a normalized alternative will stir up a vocal opposition.
As it currently stands, the number of actual soldiers in the unit who can be defined as haredi can only be pinned down as between 30 and 40 percent - an oft-noted fact by the unit's non-haredi critics.
"We are building a framework for the future and we don't expect to do it all from day one. This is a project of a generation," Klebanow asserted.
The foundation of that framework involves first accomplishing two parallel objectives - to become a formidable military force, and to prove that boys who come into the unit leave with their religious commitment strengthened.
Klebanow notes that, in the first few years, opponents claimed Nahal Haredi was not living up to its promises to maintain a kosher unit. Today, he says, nobody can make those claims.
Ironically, it is the success of Nahal Haredi in creating a religious atmosphere - most notably, the higher standards of kashrut and the absence of women from all training and military activities - that has attracted some of the more right-wing factions within the national-religious crowd. Many of those entering Nahal Haredi might otherwise have entered the elite units of the IDF through the Hesder program.
The presence of this group, which by some accounts makes up the majority of the unit, is a double-edged sword. In one respect, their motivation to serve in the IDF contributes to the military prowess of the unit. From another perspective, it politicizes the unit as the army struggles to adjust to a post-disengagement environment.
Ari Schwartz was considering entering an elite IDF unit, but chose to come to Nahal Haredi on the advice of his rabbi at Yeshiva Har Etzion, located in Alon Shvut. He witnessed firsthand the positive influence a strong peer group had on the character of the entire unit. Describing his experience with both "great" and "lousy" soldiers, he thinks the overall concept of the unit will succeed.
"I think the attitudes within the haredi community will change and that this is something that does workâ€¦ it is just the politics in Israel that can close it up forever," he said.
As for becoming an impressive military force, the battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Yaron emphasized that his unit operates under the same training protocol as every other battalion of the army.
"We participate in the same training activities, guard the same roadblocks and engage in the same missions," he said noting that his battalion was responsible for the capture or interception of numerous terrorists in the Jordan Valley.
NEVERTHELESS, AT this stage in Nahal Haredi's development, there are still parents who do not see it as a viable alternative to yeshiva. Yair Shnior, a slightly shy, but genuine and ambitious 21-year-old soldier in his third year of army service, has a tenuous relationship with his mother and stepfather after trying many different yeshivot in Bnei Brak.
His stepfather eventually asked him to leave the house, and he went to live with his biological father in Jerusalem. After trying another round of yeshivas there, he joined Nahal Haredi with the approval of his biological father, but ignited the anger of his parents in Bnei Brak. Today, Shnior wears the knitted kippa of the national-religious movement, but believes he will most likely marry someone from the haredi community.
Most noticeable about Shnior, however, is his intense focus on studying for the bagrut exams and his drive to enroll in a university and then earn a living. He occasionally goes home for visits now, but is always careful to first remove his army uniform and change into typical haredi dress.
"My parents were afraid that when I went into the army I would leave the religion. When they saw that nothing happened, they became calmer." he said.
For many parents, the fear of what their neighbors and friends will think keeps them from openly expressing their real opinions about Nahal Haredi. Everyone has a story about relatives who tell them privately that they wish they had the courage to send their children into the army or who believe the main impediments to the army have been removed.
Eliyahu Ziff said his neighbors were against his son's enlistment until they saw the results and realized it was a good thing for him. Cohen also recalls that her close friends understand her predicament and lashes back at the neighbors who dare to whisper behind her back.
"They were probably jealous of my son who did Nachal Haredi, earned a combat certificate and married a girl who covers her hair without even showing one strand," she states.
Finally, there are graduates like the American-born Akiva Yongerman, who grew up in Neveh Ya'acov and learned in a haredi yeshiva before joining Nahal Haredi and continued to learn afterwards.
Yongerman's mother fully backed her son's decision. "There was one ceremony where one of the fathers went around to all the other fathers encouraging them to smile and be supportive of their kids," she said. "He told them that since they are already here, it is their job to support them."