Pre-military academies and hesder yeshivot have become a rite of passage not only for graduates of yeshiva high schools but also for graduates of less religious high schools, according to data released last week. Forty three percent of graduates from 70 "regular" religious high schools, most of which are located in outlying areas in the South and North, opted to enroll in either a hesder yeshiva or a pre-military yeshiva academy last school year. A decade ago just 13.2% did so, according to Ma'agalim, an organization that encourages Orthodox high school graduates from poor towns to volunteer for significant IDF duty beyond their mandatory service. According to Asaf Weiss, founder and director of Ma'agalim, the proportion of graduates from yeshiva high schools who enroll in a pre-military academy or a hesder yeshiva was much higher. "We work with guys who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are normally less religious," said Weiss. "And we try to encourage them to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for IDF service. A pre-military academy or a yeshivat hesder is the perfect way to do it." Some have been critical of the rising number of IDF soldiers who have come under the influence of rabbis who teach at the hesder yeshivot and pre-military yeshiva academies. These critics have claimed that religious soldiers are split between their loyalty to their spiritual leaders and their IDF commanders. However, Yoav Margolit, head of the secular Kibbutz Movement's Defense Department, rejected the criticism. "Those accusations are ridiculous," said Margolit. "Religious soldiers are the salt of the earth. They have complete loyalty to the Land of Israel and to the people of Israel. It is too bad that a couple of cynics are trying to disparage them." Margolit's organization encourages high school graduates living on kibbutzim and moshavim to enlist in combat units and take on significant roles in the IDF. Margolit, a kibbutznik from Netzer-Sereni, said that while there are fringe elements in all groups the vast majority of religious soldiers who enroll in hesder yeshivot and pre-military academies are completely loyal to the IDF. In recent years there have been a number of new pre-military academies created to cater to the rising number of students from regular high schools located in outlying areas. In Kiryat Malachi and in Nokdim, pre-military academies have been created to serve graduates of regular religious high schools. These graduates are normally less well versed in Jewish texts than graduates from yeshiva high schools. In parallel, existing hesder yeshivot have received permission from the IDF to launch a shorter, less demanding track of studies for these students. In an agreement reached between the IDF and the hesder yeshivot announced in June, a four-year track was approved which combines a shorter period of Torah study with a slightly longer period of army service. The first and last years will be devoted to yeshiva learning while the middle two years will be devoted to military service. Most hesder yeshivot offer only a five-year program that sandwiches 18 months of military between two stints of Torah study that add up to over three years. Eitan Ozeri, head of the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, said that the rise in the number of weaker students interested in joining hesder yeshivot has had a real impact. "There are more and more graduates of regular high schools interested in joining hesder yeshiva and their presence is felt," he said. About 1,300 religious high school graduates joined about 40 hesder yeshivot last year, a rise of 5% from the previous year, and about 800 joined pre-military yeshiva academies, about the same as the previous year.