Guest Columnist: Toward a new gold standard

The hesder program, which combines yeshiva study with army service, would benefit from a closer look at what it is actually achieving.

About this time every year, 12th-grade boys begin contemplating their futures. In the national religious community, the boys are lectured by their rabbis, receive explanations from the school counselors and visit various mechina and hesder yeshivot.
In the end, each young man will decide on his own course; a few will go directly into the army, others will decide to pursue spiritual, physical or emotional growth in a mechina yeshiva, and many will follow the advice of their rabbis and enroll in the hesder program.

Hesder is a five-year program combining yeshiva study and army service. Young men attend yeshiva for about 18 months, then serve in uniform for 16 months and conclude with a little over two years back in their yeshiva. That’s 16 months in uniform as opposed to the standard army service of 36 months.
There is much to be said about the hesder program.
The boys make motivated, hard-working soldiers who are inspired to serve in combat units whenever possible.
Many also take their Torah studies seriously, and because of this, if the slightest chance exists for a boy to fit in, his rabbis and educators will strongly encourage him to join the hesder framework.
UNFORTUNATELY, OVER time many hesder boys become less devoted to Torah study and turn to pursuits that have nothing to do with the army. These boys often spend their “free” time finishing their matriculation exams, studying for the psychometric exam and even starting degree courses at various colleges. Many have side jobs to bring in a few shekels, and some find themselves a wife. These are the three Ms of hesder: matriculation, material gain and matrimony – none of which is part of the social/army contract which brought hesder into existence.
While the normal combat soldier is training, patrolling, fighting missions and living under the pressures and physical rigors of the army, many hesder boys are spending their time on the three Ms, or just plain taking it easy.
And this life of options is not lost on soon-to-be soldiers, many of whom may be truly motivated to serve but see hesder as a comfortable Plan B. For them the game goes something like this: “I want to be in unit soand- so, but if they don’t let me in, I will simply join (or continue with) hesder” – hardly the dedication to Torah study upon which hesder is predicated.
And this confirms the reality with which I am familiar: While some hesder boys are fit to devote the better part of five years to studying Torah, the majority are illsuited to such an undertaking, having neither the patience nor interest to spend their waking hours delving into the Gemara and other religious texts.
OF COURSE, as Jews we have answers for everything, and the national religious community has its answers for hesder, albeit most of them weak and self-serving.
• “Everyone knows there is a huge amount of wasted time in the army. At least hesder boys are learning.”
Time is wasted in many walks of life, in work, in play and even in hesder. If optimal use of time is the issue, religious soldiers can easily spend their downtime learning from a pocket-sized book.
• “Hesder boys are highly motivated and make excellent soldiers. Many have fought and even died for the country.”
True, but this is not unique to hesder, and not unique to religious boys. And let’s not forget that many national religious boys choose not to join hesder. They are arguably even more motivated to give to the nation.
• “Why make a fuss about hesder? When you take reserve duty into account, in the long run hesder boys serve as long as every other soldier.”
This answer is way off. Just do the math. Hesder boys do 20 months less active duty than regular soldiers.
Considering that there are about 7,500 hesder students today, this translates into about 30,000 months of service annually that have to be covered by reservists (some of them even from hesder). It takes a hesder boy 20 years to make up what he missed as a conscript.
• “Hesder is a fair compromise between learning Torah and army service.”
By its very essence, the national religious camp does not see army service as something to be compromised.
It is an important expression of religious dedication to the state, deriving from one of the most basic tenets of Judaism – preservation of life (pikuah nefesh).
• “Every program, every unit has its loopholes. Why single out hesder?” True. But the hesder loophole is so wide you can drive a tank through it. In essence it is a haredi-like entitlement that allows boys to unilaterally shed well over half of their time in uniform with almost no scrutiny as to how they are actually spending their non-army time.
Unlike students who choose to complete university before army service, and who have to maintain an 85 average to continue, hesder boys are free – free to take time off, be home for almost every Shabbat, free to date, work in summer camps, travel and get on with their secular education. For them, it can be a charmed life indeed.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR the abuse of the hesder framework falls ultimately on its guardians – the rashei yeshivot who allow their boys to deviate from their commitment – as well as the lack of serious scrutiny from the outside. It is exactly this environment that has transformed hesder from a program of national responsibility into one of personal opportunity.
And this is consistent with the slow-but-sure haredization of the national religious community, whereby state institutions are to be leveraged for personal gain while separating from the general population.
Is this what the national religious community considers fulfillment of national obligations? Is this what the high-school rabbis have in mind when they speak to their 12th-grade boys? Is this the national religious gold standard for army service? To be fair, there certainly are boys who take their yeshiva studies seriously for the entire hesder period.
This is as commendable as it is impressive. One can still argue as to whether this represents what a national religious boy should do, but you cannot take issue with boys who keep their ends of the bargain.
Now this blunt critique is not a call to disband hesder.
After all, the army sponsors many different tracks for young men and women in which they can offer their special skills. There is the IDF Band, Army Radio and Bamahaneh, to name a few. Having modern-day Torah scholars in the army is arguably even more important than having these other units.
But to restore hesder’s luster, it must become like all other special programs: Enrollment must be limited not only to assure high standards, but to not overly burden the country.
Boys must be accepted not by haredi-like entitlement but by merit, and must uphold the conditions of their service throughout, as verified by formal oversight. If hesder waives more than half a soldier’s time in uniform, he must maintain the highest level of commitment to learning. (And I say, teaching, too. Shouldn’t we have our top young hesder scholars teaching those soldiers who wish to learn?) Only then will hesder become a program of which the national religious community can be proud.
The writer is a mechanical engineer. He made aliya in 1984 and is the father of eight children, including three soldiers.