A Second Look at the IDF

by Eli Julian

The recent comments of General (res.) Avi Zamir regarding the status of religion in the IDF and headlines about the text of Yizkor at IDF ceremonies, are causing quite a few people to dust off that old issue of the charedi attitude towards the army and give it some more attention.

As a charedi soldier in the IDF, the issue is obviously of special interest to me. I would like to infuse the discussion with some up-to-date personal observations by sharing some of my experiences and those of my fellow charedi soldiers.

After having studied for seven years at Yeshivas Toras Moshe, I was finding it rather hard to maintain my family without any significant source of income. I tried my hand at safrus for some time, and also dabbled in chinuch, serving as an Av Bayit in a yeshiva for boys from weak Torah backgrounds. However, I quickly discovered that even though I was relatively good at what I was doing, both those fields had become flooded with the myriad other Avrechim in similar circumstances, making it difficult for all of us to eke out a living.

It was at this point that I heard about Shachar. The name is actually an acronym for Shiluv Charedim B’Tzava (the exact letters don’t really work out, but nu nu ; in English, Charedi Integration in the IDF.

The Shachar program is intended for a charedi man who has spent at least four years already learning in yeshiva past age 18, and has made a decision to discontinue his full-time studies to find a job. The officers in charge of the program have made this point clear to us on a number of occasions: namely, that the IDF is not looking to pull Avrechim out of kollel and send them off to the army, but rather is seeking those people who of their accord have made the decision to go get a job. The program is intended to attract these men to get their job training through the army and then to serve in that professional capacity for some time.

Shachar offers 26 different vocational training tracks. These jobs range from computer programming — the track I happen to be in — to electrical engineering, technical writing and others. There’s even a course for truck driving.
All the units in which soldiers from Shachar serve or train make special allowances to ensure there are rooms, areas etc. for the Charedi soldiers to maintain separation from female soldiers. Those who serve as soldiers in Shachar are not allowed to serve under women commanders.

All the bases on which there are soldiers from Shachar maintain a higher standard of kashrus in general, and are provided with special mehadrin (Badatz Eida Chareidit) main courses for the unit. All Chayalei Shachar are required to attend a one-hour Daf Yomi Shiur a day, and are able to daven with three minyanim every day.

In addition, Chol haMoed is always off, as well as arvei shabbosos and Yomim Tovim.
Many of the tracks require the soldiers to be married. Moreover, those who are married, and indeed even most of the non-married soldiers, go home every night.
The truth is that although I heard about these official standards before I joined, I was still rather skeptical about how they would actually play out in reality. I was more than pleasantly surprised.

In the first week or so of our course, the commander of our unit (an officer of high rank and not religious) came to deliver an introductory speech during which he said that the army wants to ensure that we keep “the Kutzo Shel Yud of Halacha.” If at any point we feel pressured in this area, we should know that it is only as a result of ignorance on their part and they would appreciate it if we would bring it to their attention so that they can resolve the issue.

The commander’s words were put to the test when Yom HaShoah came around. Our course runs on a base with another 2,000 soldiers, mostly not religious. The day before Yom HaShoah, it dawned on those of usin Shachar that since the day comes out during Sefiras Ha’omer any ceremony that included music would be a problem.
Each one of us in the course made our own she’alas chacham. While the majority of the rabbonim responded that since there would only be sad recorded music, participation was permissible, some of the Chassidic soldiers’ rabbonim are more machmir in this area and paskenned that participation would be forbidden.
When we approached our commander and discussed it with him, his initial reaction was “Are you sure? We did make sure to arrange it so there would be no kol isha at the ceremony especially for you guys.” That meant that despite the unfortunate reality that the norm would be for there to be Kol Isha at the ceremony, for our sake the army made sure to accommodate our needs at such a large ceremony. When we persisted, he consulted with his superiors and we were exempt from the ceremony altogether. The following week was Yom HaZikaron, and they arranged for us to have a separate ceremony in order to further be able to accommodate our halachic needs.

This is only one example of a myriad of similar instances where the IDF has changed its own protocol in order to meet our Halachic needs But the general feeling conveyed by all this is It is clear to all of us who are chareidim that the army of today has seriously changed course regarding the religious community.
We’ve been told multiple times by different officers who come to speak to us that what the army is really lacking today isn’t manpower, but quality manpower. That’s what they see in the charedi community; a community in which learning is valued and which maintains a high moral standard both of which are important qualities that the IDF looks for in a soldier. Because of that, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate us.

It’s very unfortunate that while this is the current reality, old stigmas and prejudices based on outdated facts still persist. The myth that the IDF is the only army in the world that issues a mini-skirt or that it is impossible to maintain a religious lifestyle in the army because of all the strictures that make it too difficult to overcome the yetzer harah, are things of the past.

Because of my limited experience within the confines of the Shachar program, it would be dishonest for me to say that the IDF in general has suddenly become “chareidi friendly” in all areas. I really don’t know nor is it relevant. What I do know is that anyone who would like to maintain a Torah observant lifestyle has ample room to do so in the IDF today. The Shachar program is available to anyone who meets the criterion of having been in yeshiva for four years past age 18, regardless of how he got to the army. I personally know people, for example, who had already left yeshiva and were working when the army caught up with them. They were drafted but were still allowed to join Shachar.

I think it is very telling that Avi Zamir said his angry words about how religious the army is getting only after he retired from the army. The obvious reason is that what he said is diametrically opposed to current army policy of making the army a more religious-friendly environment. The programs that he was referring to were not even related to Shachar but rather to the general trend that the army is becoming staffed by more and more religious officers. The very fact that such a trend exists coupled with the army’s efforts at accommodating the special needs of the charedi community should change our community’s attitude toward the IDF. Too many American former avrechim like me have come here wanting to establish a life in Eretz Yisroel but ended up returning to N. America felt it was impossible because the road to any kind of job or training was blocked by lack of army service.
The reality is just the opposite. Where else can you get an education and a salary, and maintain a high standard of Torah living? If we could only break these old stereotypes I think that it would serve our better interests.

I’d like to close with a story that’s especially close to my heart. After I finished basic training, there was a lapse of about three weeks until my specialization course was set to start. After it commenced, the first four weeks of the course were to be taken up with a course in English, which as an English speaker I was exempt from. During these seven weeks, I had the privilege of being sent by the army to learn in the kollel of Rav Yitzchok Zilbershtein Shlit”a in Cholon, and b”H I managed to develop a close connection with the Rov.

How Rav Zilbershtein’s kollel came to be associated with the army is quite a story unto itself. In order to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, an officer needs to leave the army and get a degree, generally at least a Bachelors Degree from a university. There was an officer from Cholon who decided that instead of getting a BA he wanted to learn for smicha at Rav Zilbershtein’s kollel, and so he arranged all the paperwork for the kollel to be officialy recognized by the army. That officer now heads one of the branches of Shachar.

At one point during the time I spent there, Rav Zilbershtein was coming to Yerushalayim to speak at the Agudas Yisroel Yarchei Kallah, so I got approval from my commander to go to the speech instead of going to the kollel that day. Being that I was only traveling locally, I decided to come in a hat and jacket as opposed to my army uniform that I wore daily to the kollel. The next day Rav Zilbershtein called me over. “Why didn’t you wear your uniform yesterday?” He asked me. “I was only traveling locally. I felt more comfortable in my hat and jacket,” I replied. “I think you should have come in your uniform,” he responded. When I seemed puzzled, he continued, “Do you know what a Limud Zechus you are on the Medina? Here the Medina pays you a salary and tells you ‘Make sure to keep your religious lifestyle, make sure that you learn Torah.’ You need to publicize that! I think that whenever you go to a public place of learning, you should wear your uniform.”
For more information on Shachar, please visit their website.

Eli Julian, 28, is originally from Brooklyn, NY. After graduating high school in 2000 he came to Eretz Yisrael to study at Ohr David for a year. He ended up up staying for good, and learning for seven years in Yeshivas Toras Moshe. Eli lives with his wife and children in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood of Yerushalayim.

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18 Responses

  1. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Such an important message to publicize. Yasher Koach!

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Your recent view of the IDF is both positive and enlightening. I think it harms the overall article to piddle about issues and refer to the “myth” of a lack of tzniyus in the IDF — because it, too, is possibly a relic of the past. Apparently skirts were always issued to reach past the knee, according to a lawyer friend who worked with the planning directorate, which oversaw all IDF regulations — but modifications were commonly overlooked. Over the past decade, this has been addressed, he says, and not merely for the religious — but even today, like male soldiers with pierced ears, it may be overlooked on a unit by unit basis.

    Say things are improving. Don’t pretend there was never a problem, or that perfection has arrived. This is certainly a very different IDF than the one many of us remember!

  3. cvmay says:

    I remember Eli from his days in Brooklyn.
    What a tremendous zechus to be living, learning, serving and bringing up a mishpacho in Eretz Yisrael. Thank you for your updated, on-site article about IDF attitudes and possibilities. Baruch Hashem with the increase of Torah Observant aliyah to Eretz Yisrael changes are noticeable in all realms of government and in communities. There has always been ‘Power in Numbers’.

  4. concerned says:

    Thank you for this enlightening article. It gives much hope for the future of all jews in Eretz Yisrael.

  5. Tzei U'lmad says:

    IDF more Chareidi-friendly?…….now what do we do?????

  6. aharon says:

    This post by Eli is heart warming and inspiring both in exposing a much more chareidi friendly attitude of the army as well as the obviously positive impact it has made on Eli’s life. I would not want to be mezalzel it especially since I have not served in the army myself (though my oldest son did just begin). Yet I still think it is very sad that only the hope of employment pushed Eli in this direction as opposed to sense of obligation, ethics, or G-d forbid, Mitzvat Aseh. I hope that attitude may have changed by now a little.

    And while a contribution is a contribution (again – and I am not maligning it) – I do have a somewhat sour feeling that my children will be (in the case of my oldest son and may be in the cases of my other three) risking their lives for the sake of protecting this country as opposed to getting job training. But I am not naive and I think this story as well as many others that have not been published give much hope that the attitudes may be changing – on both sides – and I commend Eli (and Cross-Currents) for publishing it.

  7. dovid landesman says:

    I would contend that General Zamir’s parting remarks reflect the frustration of the old guard with the emerging new reality of the IDF – a reality wonderfully portrayed by the author. That is not to say that there are not very difficult problems yet to be solved; however, there is now good will on the part of the high command to seek resolution and that is to be commended. In addition, the very high percentage of shomrei Torah in command positions – graduates of the mechinot and yeshivot hesder – bodes well for continued progress. It would be interesting – at least to me – if the next campaign platform of UTJ [Degel and Agudah] would include demands to make service easier for chareidi men who seek to fulfill their national obligations.

    What saddens me, however, is that programs like Shachar Kachol, Netzach Yehudah and the soon to be manned unit within the Israeli navy are still forbidden territory to the majority of the chareidi public. Rav Aron Leib remains the lonely man of faith among the rabbanim who exercise influence in the olam ha-Torah. To my mind, many remain mired in the events of the past instead of coming to the realization that Israel in 5771 is not the Israel of 5708. Conversations with and lectures that I have heard from gedolai Torah lead me to conclude that the Israeli olam ha-Torah still does not see itself as bearing responsibility for the development – security as well as financial – of the medinah but prefers to continue the status quo, the coffers of the State treasury supplementing the philanthropic bequests that replaced the kollelim of yore.

    There is a sentence in the article that seems to me to be representative of the problem:
    Too many American former avrechim like me have come here wanting to establish a life in Eretz Yisroel but ended up returning to N. America felt it was impossible because the road to any kind of job or training was blocked by lack of army service.
    Is that not sad; someone has convinced these avreichim that service in the IDF is a no-no – even if it means foregoing building a life in EY.

  8. Adam says:

    May HaShem bless and watch over you and all the other chayalim kedoshim – dati, chiloni and charedi. Am yisrael ECHAD v’chai!!

  9. Allan Katz says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    I have a question about the ‘smichah’ qualification being recognized as equivalent to a B.A
    Is smichah being recognized by all other sections of the army ?

    It would be great if smichah would be recognized as such within the Israeli civil service.
    To do so might require some compromise and flexibility from ‘ Higher learning ‘ authorities and the Torah leadership

    I agree with the job-nick sentiments mentioned above , but at least it is a move in the right direction.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    What a great article! I think that it is imperative that this article gets as wide a circulation as possible so that it will demonstrate to the secular public that more and more Charedim are choosing army service as a means of gaining entry to a meaningful job and that the IDF is exceedingly sensitive to halachic issues.

    The first volume of HaTorah HaMisamachas contains a picture of R Nevenzal in uniform learning with Chayalim stationed in Lebanon, and noted that RSZA had a special hot line of sorts for halachic queries from soldiers. IIRC, RHS spoke to one of the Charedi Nachal units a while back, and sensitive questions re IDF members who were taken prisoner were sent to RHS and R M Willig for their consideration as well.

  11. cvmay says:

    Att: Aharon & Dovid (& others)

    Chinuch for nationalism (or patriotism – more user friendly word in the USA)takes years to foster, establish and incalcate. To want to defend your country & its people takes a personal self-sacrifice of belief that this is an entity that is worth sacrificing for. Mechanchim, Rabbanim, and Teachers who teach Nationalism are role-models in this behavior, encouraging this paramount belief. They are not reaching/touching/connecting/communicating with American avreichim…(on the shores of the USA it is a silent & deleted subject)

    IN SIMPLE TERMS: After the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, most haredi rabbis were neutral on the issue, meaning they allowed & encouraged settlement (in contrast to the chassidic world) while supporting haredi participation in Israel’s political process (for Torah growth). There has never been, except for lone voices, a ‘KOL TORAH’ for nationalist purposes.

  12. rachel w says:

    Can it be (gasp) that not everyone believes that army service in modern times is a “mitzvat asei”?

    And while, indeed, these soldiers may not be actually risking their lives in action, they are working hard on making the army better and safer for those chayalim who are on the front lines. Someone has to do that – don’t you want the job to be done by the best people for the job? Please don’t make it sound like they are just whiling away their year in service to no purpose.

  13. Baruch Friedman says:

    I know the writer personally, and the integrity, openness, and sincerity that come through every sentence of this article certainly match the Eli Julian whom I know.

    At the same time, I’d lke to provide a pssible alternatve perspective on this phenomenon.

    Has the IDF undergone an essential change? Is that what this is all about?

    We Americans tend to be somewhat naive, especially when it comes to Israeli politics. Let’s provide some background. Secular politicians here in Israel make no secret of their consternation over the seperatist, self-contained Haredi society. Integrating Charedim into the workplace, as well as into the general society per se, are major goals for many in the government. The Israeli government sees this as a golden opportunity to expedite the processs of integration. The army is bending itself over backwards to accomodate Charedi “needs” specifically so that these programs will bcome to be seen by Haredim as viable. The hope is that eventually, the gaps between Charedi and secular society will begin to narrow. In other words, the gaps between the lifestyles of those individuals whose lives aredevoted to Torah learning and observance, and those whose lives are devoted to hedonism and consumerism,will begin to narrow – and not because he former wil impct the latter…) One needs to think long and hard ebfore deciding that he wants to strengthen and advocate this initiative.

  14. dovid2 says:

    Baruch Friedman: “One needs to think long and hard before deciding that he wants to strengthen and advocate this initiative.”

    The Israeli establishment is reading the national demographics and are worried about its effect on continued economic development, filling the necessary positions in the economy and military with physically and mentaly fit individuals, etc. Today’s political characters have little interest in charedi life style. They are concerned that in light of the demographic trends, the current charedi life style is not sustainable at the national level. (The truth is that’s not sustainable at the family level, either. There is less overseas charity coming their way. American Jews are hurting.) There will be fewer taxpayers available to support an ever larger contingent of chareidi population, not to mention their unwillingness to continue supporting the chareidi segment. There will be fewer individuals available to show up at the draft centers, while the Arab menace is still at its high. So something has to change. BTW, chareidim are beginning to move in this direction as well. There was a job fair in Yerushalaim. The organizers expected about 500 to 1,500 people. Four thousand chareidim showed up, interested in finding out what’s out there and what it takes to get those jobs. Next time, the job fair organizers may prepare for 4,000 chareidim to visit their booths, but maybe 8,000 will show up.

  15. c says:

    (A well known poltical commentator put it,”)The Charedim can be CHOTVEI MAYIM and SHO’AVEI EITZIM.

  16. lacosta says:

    >>>Say things are improving. Don’t pretend there was never a problem, or that perfection has arrived. This is certainly a very different IDF than the one many of us remember!

    a problem for both haredim and hilonim. haredim will have to find new excuses for medina dodging; hilonim, for haredi hatred….

  17. Tal Benschar says:

    Looks like things are not as rosy as some here suppose:

    “Cadets walk out as female soldier sings

    Ten religious soldiers to be punished for leaving military activity upon hearing woman sing. ‘We know it’s forbidden, but we all left quietly without coordinating it,’ one of them explains.”

    On ynetnews.com

  1. January 3, 2012

    […] By Yaakov Menken, on January 3rd, 2012 A reader sent this in, because the topic was debated here before: The Rabbi in charge of the Shachar units for Charedi soldiers, HaRav Ram Ra’avad, has […]

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