Secular boot camp

In haredi communities, the IDF is a symbol of the secular Jewish state that they reject outright. In principle, yeshiva students are exempt from military service and the government considers yeshiva study as national service. Haredi men who do not study in yeshiva, however, are required by law to enlist but are often encouraged by rabbis and community leaders to deliberately fail recruitment exams. "One reason haredim don't want yeshiva students to go to the army is very simple," says T., 19, a Hillel member in his second year of army service. "As soon as they're exposed to the secular world, they see a new way and there's more chance of them leaving the haredi way of life." Prior to his break from his Sephardi haredi community, T. lied to the army about the state of his psychological health in order to secure an exemption. After much hesitation, he eventually decided to fulfill his army service. He worked to nullify his self-imposed exemption, but given his fake psychological profile, was placed in a unit for ex-cons and at-risk youth. Despite this setback he successfully passed an officers' training course and now works in his field of choice, computers, although army bureaucracy still prevents him from upgrading his profile. "We sometimes get in the picture to help them gain better positions," says Hillel director Rina Ofir. "The army isn't attentive enough and doesn't listen to us enough, and so we always have problems with the army." A Hillel liaison takes up cases like T's, and also assists in shortening service for those who are not prepared to serve the standard three years. "Generally, we are supportive of their serving in the army," says Ofir. "But not everyone can do it. They have been educated since childhood against the army, and it's not easy for them." Such was the case with M., a handsome teen with gelled hair who left his hassidic Mea She'arim community at 16. "At first I didn't want to be recruited because I heard bad stories about the army," he explains in Hebrew, which he says he didn't learn properly until age 13. M. met with an army psychologist to veto his exemption, and now serves as a driver with the status of a lone soldier. Serving in the army, he says, has improved his self-image. Upon first leaving home, he would hang out with a ruffian crowd in Jerusalem streets before finding shelter at a youth hostel through a local organization assisting victims of family violence. "I see all types of people in the army," he says. "It's very interesting. At first I thought I couldn't be in a structured environment. I was a problematic kid. Now I see from the army that I can be in a structured environment." His military service, however, has tarnished the image of his family. "My 18-year-old brother is having trouble finding a shiduch [arranged marriage] because his brother is a soldier. They don't understand that we are protecting them." One of the greatest obstacles for ex-haredi soldiers is the loneliness. "When I joined up, everyone came with their parents and I came by myself," recalls M. "I almost wanted to cry." Understanding this, Hillel representatives attend army ceremonies with the members and send them care packages every month. Volunteer families work with Hillel to "adopt" soldiers - to give them a place to spend the weekend for a good meal, laundry and other amenities regular soldiers usually enjoy at their parents' house. Despite the obstacles, T. is grateful for this opportunity. "Thanks to the army I got a chance to understand secular society. I can still see the differences between them and me. They'll talk about cartoons they watched as a kid, and I don't." He also notices another, unlikely difference. "Today I love the army - probably more than the others. I think I'm moved more than any other soldier when I hear Hatikva played every Thursday."