About this time every year, 12th-grade boys begin contemplating their futures.
In the national religious community, the boys are lectured by their rabbis,
receive explanations from the school counselors and visit various mechina and
In the end, each young man will decide on his own
course; a few will go directly into the army, others will decide to pursue
spiritual, physical or emotional growth in a mechina yeshiva, and many will
follow the advice of their rabbis and enroll in the hesder
Hesder is a five-year program combining yeshiva study and army
service. Young men attend yeshiva for about 18 months, then serve in uniform for
16 months and conclude with a little over two years back in their yeshiva.
That’s 16 months in uniform as opposed to the standard army service of 36
There is much to be said about the hesder program.
boys make motivated, hard-working soldiers who are inspired to serve in combat
units whenever possible.
Many also take their Torah studies seriously,
and because of this, if the slightest chance exists for a boy to fit in, his
rabbis and educators will strongly encourage him to join the hesder
UNFORTUNATELY, OVER time many hesder boys become less devoted
to Torah study and turn to pursuits that have nothing to do with the army. These
boys often spend their “free” time finishing their matriculation exams, studying
for the psychometric exam and even starting degree courses at various colleges.
Many have side jobs to bring in a few shekels, and some find themselves a wife.
These are the three Ms of hesder: matriculation, material gain and matrimony –
none of which is part of the social/army contract which brought hesder into
While the normal combat soldier is training, patrolling,
fighting missions and living under the pressures and physical rigors of the
army, many hesder boys are spending their time on the three Ms, or just plain
taking it easy.
And this life of options is not lost on soon-to-be
soldiers, many of whom may be truly motivated to serve but see hesder as a
comfortable Plan B. For them the game goes something like this: “I want to be in
unit soand- so, but if they don’t let me in, I will simply join (or continue
with) hesder” – hardly the dedication to Torah study upon which hesder is
And this confirms the reality with which I am familiar: While
some hesder boys are fit to devote the better part of five years to studying
Torah, the majority are illsuited to such an undertaking, having neither the
patience nor interest to spend their waking hours delving into the Gemara and
other religious texts.
OF COURSE, as Jews we have answers for everything,
and the national religious community has its answers for hesder, albeit most of
them weak and self-serving.
• “Everyone knows there is a huge
amount of wasted time in the army. At least hesder boys are
Time is wasted in many walks of life, in work, in play and
even in hesder. If optimal use of time is the issue, religious soldiers can
easily spend their downtime learning from a pocket-sized book.
boys are highly motivated and make excellent soldiers. Many have fought and even
died for the country.”
True, but this is not unique to hesder, and not
unique to religious boys. And let’s not forget that many national religious boys
choose not to join hesder. They are arguably even more motivated to give to the
• “Why make a fuss about hesder? When you take reserve duty into
account, in the long run hesder boys serve as long as every other
This answer is way off. Just do the math. Hesder boys do 20
months less active duty than regular soldiers.
Considering that there are
about 7,500 hesder students today, this translates into about 30,000 months of
service annually that have to be covered by reservists (some of them even from
hesder). It takes a hesder boy 20 years to make up what he missed as a
• “Hesder is a fair compromise between learning Torah and army
By its very essence, the national religious camp does not see
army service as something to be compromised.
It is an important
expression of religious dedication to the state, deriving from one of the most
basic tenets of Judaism – preservation of life (pikuah nefesh).
program, every unit has its loopholes. Why single out hesder?” True. But the
hesder loophole is so wide you can drive a tank through it. In essence it is a
haredi-like entitlement that allows boys to unilaterally shed well over half of
their time in uniform with almost no scrutiny as to how they are actually
spending their non-army time.
Unlike students who choose to complete
university before army service, and who have to maintain an 85 average to
continue, hesder boys are free – free to take time off, be home for almost every
Shabbat, free to date, work in summer camps, travel and get on with their
secular education. For them, it can be a charmed life
RESPONSIBILITY FOR the abuse of the hesder framework falls
ultimately on its guardians – the rashei yeshivot who allow their boys to
deviate from their commitment – as well as the lack of serious scrutiny from the
outside. It is exactly this environment that has transformed hesder from a
program of national responsibility into one of personal opportunity.
this is consistent with the slow-but-sure haredization of the national religious
community, whereby state institutions are to be leveraged for personal gain
while separating from the general population.
Is this what the national
religious community considers fulfillment of national obligations? Is this what
the high-school rabbis have in mind when they speak to their 12th-grade boys? Is
this the national religious gold standard for army service? To be fair, there
certainly are boys who take their yeshiva studies seriously for the entire
This is as commendable as it is impressive. One can still
argue as to whether this represents what a national religious boy should do, but
you cannot take issue with boys who keep their ends of the bargain.
this blunt critique is not a call to disband hesder.
After all, the army
sponsors many different tracks for young men and women in which they can offer
their special skills. There is the IDF Band, Army Radio and Bamahaneh, to name a
few. Having modern-day Torah scholars in the army is arguably even more
important than having these other units.
But to restore hesder’s luster,
it must become like all other special programs: Enrollment must be limited not
only to assure high standards, but to not overly burden the country.
must be accepted not by haredi-like entitlement but by merit, and must uphold
the conditions of their service throughout, as verified by formal oversight. If
hesder waives more than half a soldier’s time in uniform, he must maintain the
highest level of commitment to learning. (And I say, teaching, too. Shouldn’t we
have our top young hesder scholars teaching those soldiers who wish to learn?)
Only then will hesder become a program of which the national religious community
can be proud.The writer is a mechanical engineer. He made aliya in 1984
and is the father of eight children, including three soldiers.