The revolutionary change following the loss of a haredi soldier

Yossi Cohen’s family embraced their haredi son serving in the IDF.

Killed IDF soldier Corporal Yosef Cohen (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Killed IDF soldier Corporal Yosef Cohen
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
The revolutionary change following the loss of a haredi soldier
It was a shiva house like none other. The ultra-Orthodox Mekor Baruch neighborhood of Jerusalem was lined with white posters with black letters, announcing the tragic passing of “the holy soldier,” Yossi Cohen, killed by a Palestinian terrorist in the line of duty.
“Holy soldier.”
Those are not words one ever sees in a public forum in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. But Yossi’s family embraced their haredi son serving in the IDF. Yossi’s step-father, Rabbi Eliyahu Meirav, with his long white beard and black hat, spoke on television about how he and his wife sent Yossi to the army “with love.” At the shiva, he related how he and his wife escorted Yossi to the enlistment center and made a party celebrating his serving as an Israeli soldier.
While the ultra-Orthodox newspapers did not reference that Yossi was haredi, the ultra-Orthodox news websites covered this extensively. The tone of both Kikar Hashabbat and B’Hadrei Hadarim, the most prominent of haredi sites, was one of pride: Yossi was a haredi soldier. 
It is clear that a transformative experience took place in the haredi community since Yossi was killed two weeks ago. And the positive vibe surrounding this haredi soldier’s death has led to an additional surprising development: Yossi’s friends are strongly considering enlisting as a result of his death.
The number of haredim serving in the IDF has been surging for years. In 2007, just 290 haredim enlisted. Ten years later, more than 3,000 haredim joined. An even bigger change than the 1,000% increase is the age at which ultra-Orthodox youth are entering in the army. Whereas most of the haredi enlistees were once in their 20s and married, today 70% of them are in the 18-20 age range, with 20% enlisting between 20 and 23. Only 15% are married. As the small sample of Yossi’s friends indicated, these numbers are likely to grow in the months ahead.
Another significant change in recent years has been the units in which haredim serve. While in past years they tended to serve in computer, engineering and other non-combat areas, today, of the 7,000 haredim serving, approximately 3,000 are in the haredi combat unit Netzah Yehuda, 420 serve in all-haredi elite combat units and 1,350 serve in regular army units. Yossi’s friends and the many others who will join the army because of the pride being expressed in the haredi community over IDF service will most likely follow Yossi’s example and join combat units as well.
Remembrance Day has always been a complicated day for the ultra-Orthodox population. During the last few years, there have been gatherings among moderate haredi communities to honor soldiers from broader society who have fallen.
Now for the first time in years, the upcoming memorial day will include mourning for a fallen haredi soldier. And this too will no doubt transform the day for a much larger percentage of the haredi community.
The headlines this week are all about the election, and the issue of the haredi draft law will now be pushed off for the 21st Knesset to address. But regardless of elections and Knesset laws, progress is happening on its own.
So while we mourn the loss of Yossi Cohen, let us honor this young man who courageously chose to defend the people of Israel as a proud haredi combat soldier, and applaud his family who have inspired even more haredi enlistment, respect for the IDF and greater unity in Israel.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset.