Serving its purpose?

In Mea She’arim, it seems the scare campaign to prevent young haredim from joining the army is proving effective.

Mea She’arim 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea She’arim 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In one of the more surreal scenes to have occurred in the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood, a group of policemen recently rescued a haredi soldier from dozens of infuriated fellow haredim who were encircling him and threatening his life because he was dressed in army uniform. A similar incident occurred a few days later – a clear indication that the objection to IDF enlistment in haredi society is becoming more intense.
On Thursday morning last week, a small group of young yeshiva students were hanging around the IDF’s recruiting center in Romema, perhaps in wait for someone haredi to show up and enlist. Across the street, behind a heavily sealed iron gate, two soldiers stood staring at the group, waiting to see what would develop. No haredi recruits appeared, however, and after a while, two of the yeshiva students spat toward the sealed gates of the bureau, and they left the place.
Asked if this was a frequent occurrence, one of the soldiers said that for the past few weeks crowds of young haredim near the gate were increasingly prevalent, but so far there had been no violence.
“These are sights we didn’t see for a while, despite the growing numbers of haredim entering the army during the last decade or so,” said a haredi man in his early 20s who was passing by (but refused to be identified). He admitted that while he had been considering enlisting himself, he had decided not to do so, for fear of being attacked and ostracized.
“It has never been easy for a young haredi man to admit that he is willing to leave the yeshiva and join the army, but now you need to be a hero to do so,” he said.
Aside from the two separate attacks on haredi soldiers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, blunt posters and flyers denouncing what they describe as the unforgivable offense to the Torah that IDF enlistment is causing are inundating the haredi streets.
Young haredim have been joining the army’s ranks in growing numbers for the last 10 years, but while the community’s rabbis have tolerated that trend for most of those years, the attitude has now changed dramatically. Following what many consider a deterioration of haredi status since the last elections, and particularly in reaction to the abolition of the Tal Law – a move that has led to a bill requiring conscription of yeshiva students – the haredi community now views army service as a shameful deed, almost an act of heresy.
Of course, even before the recent deterioration of the situation, enlistment in the army was never “trendy” in the haredi sector. However, the facts on the ground tell a more complicated story.
According to Israel Hofrichter – head of the American Joint Distribution Committee’s Shahar program, which helps young haredim enroll in the IDF – the number of recruits is not dropping, but the drastic change in the community’s attitude, and the atmosphere that change has created, have become unbearable.
Lately things have reached an unprecedented level of violence, with the flyers presenting the recruits as “hardakim” – an acronym for “haredim kalei da’at” (lightweight haredim), which also plays on the Hebrew words for “germs” (haidakim) and “pests” (harakim).
Some of the depictions and language these campaigns use seem to have been taken directly from the typical anti-Semitic arsenal. One such flyer, which reads, “This area is hardakim-free,” has caused Hofrichter – usually a calm person – to reach uncharacteristic heights of anger and frustration.
“It’s a real war,” he says simply, adding that he is more committed than ever to proceeding with his task, despite the harsh new atmosphere.
ELHANAN FRUMER, 29, a married father of three, did his army service through one of the Shahar programs.
“From the moment I understood that I was not suited to sitting all day long in yeshiva and studying Torah, I knew I would have to make a choice,” he says. “Even when I was still studying at the yeshiva, I was involved in additional activities, like organizing conferences and summer camps for the younger generation within the community. But later on, after I got married and became a father, the urge to earn a living grew stronger.
I spent three years in a kollel [yeshiva for married men], and earning a living to ensure decent conditions for my family became urgent, so I decided I would go to work and... leave the yeshiva lifestyle. I knew that would mean I would have to serve in the army, and I was ready for that.”
Frumer’s story illustrates not only the path of young haredim who decide to depart from the traditional and demanding yeshiva environment, but also the absurdity of how the authorities have been handling such decisions. “Like any other young yeshiva student, I went to a Talmud Torah [religious elementary school], then to a yeshiva high school and then to a [posthigh school] yeshiva, and after marrying, became a member of a kollel in Modi’in Illit,” he recalls. “Like every one of us, at the age of 17, I had to declare at the recruitment office that I was entitled to an exemption as a yeshiva student. So when I decided, at the age of 25, to go to the army, I had to annul that declaration.”
Frumer sent a fax to the number indicated, announcing the change, but nothing happened. He finally had to go to the bureau in person and ask to begin the enlistment process – but again nothing happened, and it was not until he asked to see the head of the bureau that things began to move.
“Meanwhile, I had heard about Shahar, and I decided to join its next [round of] conscription to a specific unit, which was scheduled for January 6. But by January 4, I still hadn’t received a recruitment form – as if even when I was ready, the army wasn’t doing a thing to make it happen. It was very frustrating, and I know the same thing happened to many other yeshiva students.”
It turned out that Frumer, like many yeshiva students who changed their minds about army service, was a prisoner of the system.
“As young yeshiva students, we are told [by the rabbis] not to cooperate with the army authorities when we report to the army recruiting office. As a result, we get very poor results and notes about our capacity [to serve], and our names are put down as ‘incompatible’ with army duty, and that creates a situation in which even when we are ready to serve, we are tagged as unfit, which is of course nonsense,” he says.
Frumer finally completed his service, and today he works in the Shahar section at the JDC, helping more young haredim to serve in the IDF and, from there, to lead what he refers to as “a normal life – remaining haredi but working and living a decent life, released from the terrible poverty imposed by life in yeshiva.”
Asked how he combines his new lifestyle with his haredi ideals, Frumer offers two major points.
“First of all, I do not live in a large city – Jerusalem, for example.
We moved to a small community in the region – haredi, but away from the [eyes] and the pressure of haredi society, and that’s very important. And secondly, I am very strict about devoting time daily to Torah study. Even if I come back home late and tired, I do not neglect daily studying.”
In addition, he says, “the fact that despite the army service and working in a non-haredi workplace, I have not given up my haredi lifestyle – I have not declined in my spiritual religious level – makes all the difference. No one can accuse me of having lost my morality because of my decision.”
Yet the content of the recent posters and flyers in haredi neighborhoods is hard to swallow, and Frumer, though he says he can see it in context, admits that it is very hard on him and many of his friends.
“It is a new style of protest imported from America,” says Shmuel Pappenheim, a member of the Toldot Aharon hassidic court, who had to leave his native city and community in Mea She’arim and move to Beit Shemesh because of the criticism of his decision to go to college. Pappenheim, who also worked in the Shahar program for a while, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and international relations from the Open University, but he has nonetheless remained faithful to hassidism.
“They use modern techniques and modern methods to convey their messages, and it is efficient: graphic design, colors, more sophisticated messages – it works more,” he says. “But it is much broader than the issue of enlisting in the army; it is a large political struggle.”
According to him, that struggle started around the time of the last elections, “even before this bill in the Knesset [on compulsory army service for everyone, including yeshiva students]. They [the leaders of the campaign against haredim serving in the army] started to publish harsh stories about [Theodor] Herzl and his family, in very harsh language, then moved to the army service issue, and on the way mentioned the fact that haredim are receiving money from the state, that this is endangering haredi education and all that. It is as if we’re back to the days of the basic debate of the attitude toward the State of Israel, and [now] the Satmars are the main power behind this.”
Pappenheim is convinced that the current campaign is successful because it has managed to create a climate of fear in haredi society.
“They feel threatened,” he says. “Haredim have never been or become Zionists, but this [haredi] campaign is aimed at promoting the active anti- Zionist approach, which has been [less prominent] for quite a while.”
FOR HOFRICHTER, the debate is a matter of culture and outlook – the fact that most of the young haredim who go into the army come back to their communities and remain haredi doesn’t make a difference, he says.
“There are two threats to the haredi way of life and opinion: secularism and Zionism. In many ways, for the hard core of the haredi leadership, Zionism is still the most dangerous option, and serving in the Israeli army is, no matter how you present it, serving the Zionist propaganda and project. [That’s why] they oppose it so harshly,” he says.
“As long as it was a local initiative, of young people who could not fit into the yeshiva [lifestyle] all day long and all their lives, that could be swallowed – that was on a personal basis,” he continues. “As soon as it becomes part of the Zionist agenda – to enlist haredim like any other Israeli – that causes a problem; hence the very violent reaction and anger.”
Pappenheim says that in the meantime the campaign has achieved some of its main goals.
“They have spent lot of money on this campaign. They have managed to drag even the Shas movement into opposing army service, even though most of the Shas leaders and constituency have always served in the army,” he says. “For the moment, the scare tactics are working, and every declaration in the Knesset and by the political leaders [regarding] this policy [forcing haredim to serve in the army] is only serving the campaign organizers.”
Still, says Frumer, “we shouldn’t pay too much attention to these extremists among us. They are not the majority – we have to remember that.”
In his view, “the most important thing is to understand how things work in our society. Army service and professional training are not suited to singles. I wouldn’t recommend that. Not because they can be exposed to problematic sights or [speech] outside the haredi world – that already happens anyway – but because the commitment and the involvement of a married man is not comparable to a single young man, who hasn’t yet built his adult life, that’s all. So army service for haredim who are already married and parents – for those who obviously cannot spend all their life rooted inside the yeshiva – yes, why not? It doesn’t mean we have to give up our haredi opinions, outlook, way of life – not at all. But it can enable us to live a decent life, something we deserve like anyone else. And by now, there are a few thousand of us who have proved we can do it.”