Why do haredi Americans join the Israeli army?

"the guys from the Diaspora are not your average haredi yeshiva students."

nahal haredi 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nahal haredi 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What motivates young haredi men from America, France and Britain to volunteer for IDF service? At first glance, it would seem that both ideologically and geographically these boys are distant from the IDF and from that little sliver of holy land in the Middle East that is the focal point of so much turmoil. In the case of Yisrael Reinman, 28, of Flatbush, Brooklyn, who committed suicide Tuesday morning in a West Bank mosque, the answer was clear - he was escaping a troubled past. Reinman had managed to marry, divorce and estrange himself from his respected family before joining the Nahal Haredi battalion in April. He hid his problematic psychological history and his divorce from the IDF, according to sources close to the Reinman investigation. Apparently, Reinman thought the move and the army service would help him make a fresh start. Every year dozens of young haredim, albeit with different motivations than Reinman, decide to leave the comforts of America and Europe and come to Israel. "These guys are normally in great physical shape and very idealistic," said Rabbi David Fuchs, one of two rabbis who founded Nahal Haredi. But both Fuchs and Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of Nahal Haredi, admit that like the Israeli recruits, the guys from the Diaspora are not your average haredi yeshiva students. "There are a few American guys who arrived literally at the bottom of the barrel," Fuchs said. "But many end up finishing their service as completely different people." According to Klebanow, from an ideological perspective the Americans, French and British haredim are much less antagonistic toward the IDF than their Israeli counterparts. "Often these guys have dreamed of joining the IDF since they were little boys," he said. "Israelis are more prejudiced against army service due to the long history of rabbinic opposition." However, in contrast to Israeli haredim, the Diaspora boys tended to be more spoiled, Klebanow said. As in Israel, joining Nahal Haredi is viewed with suspicion by rabbinic figures in the Diaspora. But leading rabbis in Israel and around the world have supported the battalion as a solution for boys who are unable or unwilling to meet the rigorous academic demands of yeshiva study. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman of Ponevezh Yeshiva has given Nahal Haredi his support - although somewhat secretly. In the US, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, head of the Philadelphia Talmudic Academy, has been more publicly supportive. Three times a year, about 120 young men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 20, are conscripted into Nahal Haredi. About 10 percent to 15 percent are foreigners who join the army as part of the MAHAL program. MAHAL, a Hebrew acronym for "overseas department," is a special 15-month army service designed especially for non-Israelis interested in volunteering. Nahal Haredi does not actively recruit in America. Most of the young men hear about the program by word of mouth. Nevertheless, the percentage of foreigners joining Nahal Haredi has been growing steadily. In all, there are about 800 Nahal Haredi soldiers. About 60% come from truly haredi families, with the rest from religious Zionist backgrounds and looking for a spiritually supportive environment. Since February 1999, when Nahal Haredi was launched with 30 soldiers, it has grown quickly. But, not quickly enough for Klebanow. "The haredi community is still wary," he said. "The first reaction to anything new is to prohibit it."