Trading black for green

For ex-haredim, the army offers a key to Israeli society, but challenges along the way mean the path towards service isn't easy.

Haredi IDF 521 (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
Haredi IDF 521
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
The day when an 18-year-old Israeli arrives at the army recruitment center is supposed to be a day bursting with pride, with misty-eyed parents looking on as their son or daughter takes his or her first uncertain steps toward adulthood.
When Motti (not his real name) showed up at the recruitment center two years ago, he was also met by friends and relatives outside.
But they were not there to support him. They were waving posters and yelling obscenities, denouncing him for his decision to join the army. A relative tried to convince the draft commander that Motti had psychiatric issues and should not be trusted with a gun.
Motti is from the virulently anti-Zionist Natorei Karta sect in the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood. When he decided, at age 16, that he was going to join the army, he did so with full knowledge of what that decision entailed. “If you join the army,” his parents told him at the time, “you will no longer have a home.”
One morning, when he was 18, Motti woke up and walked out of his family’s apartment. He told no one where he was going. That night, he slept at a friend’s house in downtown Jerusalem. And he never went back to Mea She’arim.
Since that day, two and a half years ago, Motti, the sixth of 14 children, has had no contact with his family. He wasn’t invited to his sister’s wedding. “My sisters have given birth, and I don’t know how many nieces or nephews I have,” he says.
For months after he walked out, anonymous and notso- anonymous callers threatened Motti over the phone. He was terrified that they would come after him and attack him.
But despite the difficulties of leaving his community in order to join the army, the army wasn’t exactly accommodating either. At first, Motti’s “profile,” a grade given to soldiers to show their aptitude, was 21 – so low that he was exempted from serving. Despite good health and raw determination, according to the army, Motti was worth less than a high school dropout – he had not completed even one year of schooling.
But with support from a number of people, including the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center, Motti succeeded in raising his profile high enough to be invited to the “gibush” (unit formation) for an elite unit in the Golani brigade. In the coming months, Motti will finish his training and become a combat soldier in one of the army’s most selective units, fulfilling a dream.
WHEN MOST Jews in Israel and around the world hear the term “lone soldier,” they picture a new immigrant who moved to Israel from far away and volunteered to join the army.
But new immigrants make up just half of the approximately 5,760 lone soldiers currently in the army, according to the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center.
The other half of lone soldiers are native-born or veteran Israelis who have no contact with their families for a variety of reasons. Some have run away from home, some come from abusive situations, some are orphans, some were raised in foster care and have aged out of the system. According to Tziki Aud, the director of the Lone Soldier Center, more than half of native-born Israeli lone soldiers are formerly haredi and are no longer in contact with their families because their families have completely disowned them.
With all of the recent discussion over the “Tal Law” and haredim entering the army, Aud says one group has been overlooked: young men and women who leave the haredi framework and want to join the army as a key into Israeli society. These young people do not receive the support that haredim drafted into brigades such as Nahal Haredi receive. They are utterly on their own and must navigate a strange and complicated bureaucratic system with no family support. Some speak Hebrew as a second language, and many are missing the Israeli cultural cues and guidance that allow recruits to successfully deal with the draft board.
Shlomo (not his real name) is also from Jerusalem and was raised in one of the Lithuanian haredi sects. The sixth child of 10, Shlomo also decided to stop being haredi at around age 16 and left the community. He says he might still be in contact with his family if he had decided to leave the haredi world without serving in the army, but that was never really a consideration for him. He hopes that in five to 10 years he can resume some sort of contact with his family, maybe through siblings who are more accepting of his decision.
When he left home, Shlomo knew that if he wanted to serve in the army, he would need to stay out of trouble until he turned 18.
“There are lots of people like me [who leave the haredi framework at a young age], and there is no help for these people,” he says. “They turn to drugs. You can go to Zion Square on a Thursday night; 80 percent of the people sitting there were [once] haredi. Because there’s no help for these people, they get lost. It was a miracle for me, I somehow burned my time until I was 18. I didn’t want a record with the police; I wanted to go straight into the army.”
Shlomo worked odd jobs on farms and in Eilat. “Most ex-haredim have records with the police, they don’t do a lot with their lives, they work in restaurants or other similar jobs,” he says.
Shlomo decided to serve in the army for Zionist reasons, believing that every Israeli should do his part for the country. But he also believes that the army is the perfect ticket for him out of menial labor and into mainstream Israeli society.
Shlomo dreamed of becoming a combat soldier, but the army was skeptical. “During your tzav rishon [first draft call-up], they look at you differently,” Shlomo says. “You don’t even have one year of schooling. You don’t have a home. Right away they give you a low profile. I got a seriously low profile, equal to people who are mentally disabled. I know I’m smarter than that.”
With assistance, Shlomo eventually raised his profile and today he serves in an elite paratrooper unit.
Aud explains that 50 to 52 is considered a low profile, but most ex-haredim receive a grade of 42 to 49.
“They’ve never seen TV or a [secular] newspaper; they don’t know anything,” says Aud. Their sphere of reference is contained within such a small community, which is part of the reason that it is so difficult to leave.
“One [Jerusalem] girl fled home two weeks before her wedding at age 17,” he says. “She said she ran and ran and ran and ran and thought she had run to Tel Aviv.
She just got to Zion Square, but she’d never been that far away from home before.”
AUD NOTES that the transition into the army is especially difficult for women who leave the haredi framework.
But the process is completely foreign to all ex-haredim. “For example, they go to the office and [the army] tells them, ‘you need a form,’ but they don’t understand,” says Aud. “They feel like they’re being tested all the time and they’re embarrassed to ask questions.
Sometimes they don’t understand a word but they’re embarrassed to ask what the word means. It’s not like an immigrant who doesn’t know Hebrew. They can’t say, ‘Can you tell me what that is in Yiddish?’” Even a simple request for medical check-ups is a challenge for someone who is new to Israeli bureaucracy and has no idea how to navigate the health system.
“It’s hard for haredi soldiers because it’s the first time they need to deal with a completely different mentality,” says Aud. “It’s the first time they deal with money on their own and the first time someone tells them what to do at every moment.”
The Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center, with offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, tries to smooth over the difficult transition by answering questions, exercising its wide network of connections and helping the ex-haredim find communities or apartments of other people in the same situation. The center offers assistance only to young adults who have already left the haredi community and are considering army service. Aud stresses that he is completely removed from their decision to leave their communities and will not offer any counseling in that regard.
Not all ex-haredim who join the army are forced to go through a complete break with their families. Shlomo and Motti’s stories represent the most extreme situation, although it is a common one.
Shlomo says that haredi brigades within the army are slowly gaining acceptance in the more moderate haredi communities. Some families will maintain phone contact but encourage the soldier not to visit home for fear of harming the marriage prospects of the other siblings.
Even soldiers who have no contact with their families often stay in the same city during their army service, living in shared apartments with other ex-haredi lone soldiers just in case the connection with their families may be renewed. Aud tells of one soldier who always goes back to Mea She’arim to buy ready-made salads and dips. “He says he likes them, but I think he misses his family and hopes to see them accidentally,” he says.
After years of working with formerly haredi lone soldiers, Aud has a few suggestions for the army: start offering ex-haredi soldiers the same type of extra assistance that they offer to other groups, such as Hebrew courses offered to new immigrants and extra support for immigrants from Ethiopia. At the Michve Alon base, recent Ethiopian immigrants with extremely low profiles can complete a two-month introductory army course and then get a new profile. The same type of program should be available to ex-haredim, Aud says.
Perhaps the most important component is a six-month course offered at the end of their service which allows soldiers who have not finished school to get the equivalent of a high school diploma.
The course acts as 12 years of schooling for ex-haredi soldiers, who do not have any education recognized by the Education Ministry.
The course allows these soldiers to enter straight into a “mechina” or matriculation exam preparation program after they complete their army service. Going straight from the framework of the army to one leading to higher education or another profession keeps many ex-haredim from falling through the cracks, Aud explains.
Finishing that course is even more important than how they serve, Aud says, because it provides them with concrete tools for building their lives after the army. “It’s about social justice. The army really gives them the ticket to enter a different society.”
An army source said that the army worked to minimize difficulties for all lone soldiers, both foreigners and native-born Israelis, but that they did not take any steps to specifically help lone soldiers from haredi backgrounds.
“It’s hard for everyone in the end, but there is help all the time. There are frameworks and they will get everything they need from the army,” said an army spokeswoman.
BUT NOT every commander can release soldiers from a unit six months before the completion of service. And financial constraints keep the course from expanding to be able to include all of the soldiers who request it. Part of the lack of funding, the soldiers believe, is that Israeli lone soldiers are not as “sexy” a charitable cause as foreigners who come to Israel to serve.
“It’s not as cool to help lone soldiers from Israel,” says Shlomo. “At conventions and events for lone soldiers, they talk about soldiers from abroad and I feel like a little pushed to the side. It’s a subject that’s really on the margins.”