Ten haredi young men who enlisted in the IDF a month ago, six of whom are married with children, started training this week to become electricians. Upon completion of their course, which is funded by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, they will first work in the army in their new profession and, after serving their country, will make the transition back into civilian life with the means to support themselves and their young families.
We warmly support this initiative as an ideal model for integrating the young generation of haredim into mainstream society and into the job market. This is one way to foster unity in a state wracked by divisiveness along any number of ideological fault lines, from secular/religious to left-wing/right-wing to Arab/Jewish. The project combines military service - which, despite all the talk of postmodernism and post-Zionism, is central to self-identity and a formative Zionist experience - with good, old-fashioned job-training - what's known as parnassa in the mother tongue.
The program is tailored especially for the haredi populace, taking into consideration the sensitivities of this community: An IDF rabbi accompanies the group, providing spiritual guidance and Torah learning, and a male-only environment is carefully maintained.
PERHAPS THE only thing wrong with the program besides the small number of participants is that it was not implemented earlier. But apparently both the IDF and the haredi community needed to undergo a certain maturation process. The IDF has learned to recognize and respect the right of soldiers from diverse backgrounds to maintain their distinctive lifestyles. Meanwhile, the haredi community, which has been growing by leaps and bounds, bli ayin hara, is gradually moving toward the realization that while it might have been commendable and necessary to direct all educational resources toward Torah learning in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the time has come for a reevaluation.
A lot of haredi children being born means a lot of haredi children who need to be fed. And these same children will also need to support themselves when they grow up. In 2008, 223,157 haredi elementary school students made up 21% of the total Jewish elementary school population, compared to 15% in 2000 and just 9.5% in 1992.
According to projections made by David Brodet and Neri Horowitz for the "2028 Project," in less than two decades, haredim will make up 20.5% of the Jewish population.
The haredi community's high fertility rates over the past few decades have also had adverse affects on IDF enlistment. In 2007, the percentage of men and women who did not enlist in the army reached an all-time high of 25%, primarily due to the sharp rise in haredim who avoided service. These haredi "draft-dodgers" have grown from 4.6% of the total number of military-age men and women who did not enlist in 1990 to 11% in 2007. This means more young Israeli men are coming of age without sharing their peers' experience and obligation of serving their country.
Many of those who do serve look with disdain upon those who do not. And many of those who exempt themselves from mandatory military duty to dedicate their best years to Torah study inevitably feel alienation from the rest of Israeli society. The large-scale exemptions, moreover, depart from the Jewish tradition of only the best and the brightest studying Torah, with the rest observing the halachic obligation to provide for their families.
More and more haredim are serving in the IDF, be it in the Nahal Haredi, in special air force and navy units, or via courses such as the electricians' program. This is a positive trend that, if supplemented by a greater emphasis on requiring those who do not enlist to perform alternative forms of national service, can do much toward healing some of the deepest rifts in Israeli society. It offers the prospect of proving that while the Jewish state's diverse demographic sectors might disagree on particulars, they share a common fate and enjoy the fruits of the Middle East's only democracy. Perhaps one day, with the right encouragement, Israeli Arabs will reach a similar realization and join them.