Rattling the Cage: A haredi soldier's story

Buhnik served as a model of commitment and decency in our unit.

haredi drawing 224.88 (photo credit: Drawing: Mali Rotbard Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi drawing 224.88
(photo credit: Drawing: Mali Rotbard Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When I was doing reserve IDF duty in the '90s, there was a haredi man in our unit named Buhnik. When I say haredi, I mean he wore a black kippa, had an unshaven beard, wore a long black coat when he wasn't in uniform, and spent every free moment reading some dark, leather-bound religious book. He hadn't always been haredi; if he had been, he wouldn't have served in the army, and instead would have been exempt as a haredi yeshiva student. But he'd become haredi along the way, which meant he had no automatic deferment, and had continued doing his reserve duty. There were others like him in the IDF, but he was the only haredi in our unit, the great majority of us being secular, with a few "knitted kippa" religious. None of us, I don't think, will forget Buhnik. During our yearly reserve stints, when the officers would ask for volunteers to do extra guard duty, or go move something, or fix something, or do any of the endless, hateful things you do in the reserves, Buhnik was always - always - the first volunteer. Very often he was the only one. He never said anything. He didn't talk to anybody, and I'm not aware that anybody in the unit ever talked to him. The chattiest he ever got was "Boker tov." A WEEK or so into a stretch of duty, after Buhnik had been silently getting up and going to do every lousy task that had to be done while the rest of us remained heavily at ease, the guilt would set in. A volunteer would be needed, Buhnik would get up, and the soldier sitting next to him would grab him, sit him back down, and go off to unload the truck himself. "Enough already, Buhnik, give it a rest," people would say. And Buhnik, in a moment of wild expressiveness, of emotional surrender, would get this little embarrassed smile on his face. Then, for awhile, it would be like a game - volunteers would be needed, Buhnik would get up, a chorus of "Sit down, Buhnik" would be heard, and somebody else would do the dirty job. Then, after a decent interval, Buhnik was allowed to do chores again, but only a fair share. In army reserve duty, the one good thing is the furlough, which, if enough men show up for duty, stands at two days a week. Deciding who goes home on which two days is a cause for hard but fair bargaining among the men. Except if they've got urgent business at home or at work, everybody wants the Shabbat weekend furlough to be with their families. Often it comes down to a coin flip. Buhnik never took part in the unit's bargaining over furloughs. Whenever we decided he should go home was fine with him, he would shrug. We didn't bargain over Buhnik's furloughs. Except in unusual circumstances, he automatically got to go home for Shabbat. We did this for two reasons - because we knew it was especially important to him as a haredi, and because he was such a selfless, dedicated soldier. I SOMETIMES think of Buhnik when the issue of haredi service in the army comes up, as it did earlier this month when the Supreme Court grumpily agreed to let the Tal Law stand, thus allowing automatic draft deferments for haredi yeshiva students to continue. The haredi community, of course, was relieved. Now their young men wouldn't be "defiled" by the godless ways of the IDF, they would be safe from this corrupting secular influence that could lure them away from the fold. Instead, their men would remain free to do God's work. I wonder what Buhnik's community used to think of him. I've heard that the very few young men who volunteer for the Nahal haredi units are looked down on by their community as failures, as disappointments to their families, as mediocrities who joined the army because they weren't smart enough or diligent enough to be yeshiva students. I don't know how smart Buhnik was, but I know he was obsessively studious and, of course, diligent to a fault. As for whether he was doing God's work in the army, I can't say. But he served as a model of commitment and decency in our unit, and maybe even brought out a smidgen of those qualities in us. As much as he could, he raised the level of the Jewish army. Is that God's work? I'll leave it to the haredim, who are no doubt on closer terms with God than I am, to answer that. BUT YOU DON'T need Buhnik to see what a contribution the haredim could make to the IDF, what vital qualities they could bring to it; everyone saw this during the peak years of the intifada when ZAKA, the largely haredi Disaster Victims Identification team, put themselves through the most unimaginable hell gathering body parts for burial. ZAKA has all the attributes of an elite unit - its members push themselves beyond ordinary human limits to do the seemingly impossible, and they do it out of dedication, mutual responsibility to their "comrades," and personal pride. Unlike the Nahal haredi, ZAKA volunteers are heroes on the haredi street, especially with the youth - not only because they do the most challenging mitzva possible, but because they're men of action. Haredim aren't against the IDF in principle - along with the settlers, they're the biggest hawks in the country. They always vote to send Israeli sons and husbands to fight, just not their own sons and husbands. Haredi sons and husbands are serving the nation as yeshiva students, they point out - as if the surgeons, garbage collectors and other civilians in IDF uniform don't serve the nation. As if the surgeons' and garbage collectors' lives are more expendable than a yeshiva student's. The haredim of Israel must be the world's only conscientious objectors for war. The Tal Law was intended to gently ease young haredi men, except for the few genuine yeshiva prodigies, out of the yeshiva and into the army or community service. By last December, some three years after the law went into effect, all of 74 draft-age haredi yeshiva students had joined the IDF. Another 342 were candidates to join. Another 1,090 were working or unemployed. The remaining 45,639 haredi yeshiva students who could've been in the army hadn't budged from the yeshiva. This is an unusually dutiful, hard-working, team-spirited, Jewishly committed population of young men. They could not only be IDF soldiers, they could be outstanding IDF soldiers. They could contribute so much to this society, whose interests they claim to serve. I think of Buhnik, anyone can think of ZAKA. What a colossal waste - for the haredim themselves and for this society.