A piece of good news amid the horror

The good news for Israel and its future is that during this past week, 12 haredi boys, students of the Derech Chaim yeshiva, began their service in the Israel Defense Forces.

IDF combat soldiers complete a long march as part of their advanced training (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF combat soldiers complete a long march as part of their advanced training
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 I know what you are thinking: “Good news? Innocent civilians continue to be killed on our streets? Where is the good news? And on the domestic front, yes the 2015-2016 budget passed, but it did not include any major good news for the country’s economy.
And the legislation demanded by the ultra-Orthodox parties to change the equality in national service law passed its first reading in the Knesset. So where is the good news?”
The good news for Israel and its future is that during this past week, 12 haredi boys, students of the Derech Chaim yeshiva, began their service in the Israel Defense Forces. These boys are the member of the first class of the first-ever Haredi Hesder yeshiva. The boys spent the past two years studying Torah as any other yeshiva boy does during the morning and afternoon hours.
The focus was on Talmud, like all other yeshivot, with a focus on practical Jewish law. They also studied Jewish philosophy extensively.
Then, at night, they studied computers under the tutelage of the Cyber Defense Unit of the IDF – approximately 1,000 hours of study.
The haredi rabbinic and political leadership likes to portray haredim who serve in the IDF as “those who do not learn Torah.” This is dangerous, because it means that any student who considers leaving yeshiva to serve in the army has to also consider the reality that he will be seen as one who “did not make it” in Torah, and far too many do not have the courage to leave yeshiva because of this stigma. The 12 Derech Chaim students have proven this to be false – not in words but in deeds.
The first class has now completed the first stage: two years of intensive Torah study, with computer courses at night. They took the IDF exams to make sure they were prepared for their service in cyber warfare.
Around 4,000 of the country’s brightest students take this exam, and on average, 35 percent pass. Of these yeshiva students, about 80% passed.
This week, they began stage two of the program.
They entered the ID F recruitment center at Tel Hashomer, were given uniforms, and began their service in the Cyber Defense Unit. They will be charged with intelligence work, protecting sensitive computer and Internet networks and working on cyber-attacks against our enemies.
As opposed to living on a base, these men will live at the yeshiva. This will allow them to hold prayer services together every morning, and return to the yeshiva every evening after their military service for a nightly Torah study session and evening prayers.
The scene outside the base was surreal, one that flies in the face of all the negative propaganda from the haredi establishment about army service.
The yeshiva students – dressed in the traditional white shirt, black pants and tzitzit hanging out – heard words of Torah from the head of the program, Rabbi Karmi Gross. They danced in a circle while singing traditional songs, received traditional blessings from their parents, and then made their way into the base.
These 12 courageous men are being watched by the broader haredi population, and their success – emerging from their military service with their haredi values and way of life intact – will have a major impact on the future of this and other similar programs. Once the haredi public trusts that the propaganda they have been fed about joining the army and learning a trade being dangerous to their souls has been proven false, huge numbers will enroll in these programs. The fact that they will leave the four years of service armed with a skill set in cyber-warfare – which they can use in the hi-tech market while entering the workforce at a high level – will make the program even more attractive.
The program was developed by the Defense Ministry’s Security-Sociological Wing and the IDF’s Manpower and Chief Rabbinate departments, and the moment the interest grows they are ready to establish alternative options for these boys with new programs, which include studies in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.
If this model of studying in yeshiva alongside job training and military service takes off among ultra-Orthodox young men, the haredi community will be in a very different place in 10 to 20 years. We have to remember that we have already reached 10,000 ultra-Orthodox students in institutions of higher learning throughout the country, and the floodgates have opened – largely based on the efforts of the previous Knesset – toward ultra-Orthodox employment.
We have had a difficult week and we mourn together with the families of those who were killed. But years down the road, we may look back at this week – when 12 brave young men entered the IDF as proud haredim and Talmudic scholars – and we will say that this was the week when the tide turned, when the ultra-Orthodox community began to realize that you can balance being fervently religious, study Torah at the highest of levels, and also serve the country as a proud Israeli soldier.
That potential alone, is a ray of hope.
The writer was a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He currently serves as director of Anglo and Diaspora Affairs for Yesh Atid and as a political commentator for i24 News.