This past summer has not been an easy one in Israel, to say the least. The country barely had the chance to recover from one crisis before being thrown headfirst into the next; it all just seemed to flow seamlessly into one blur of blood, sweat and tears.
It began on June 12, when three teenage boys – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’ar and Naftali Frenkel – were abducted as they hitchhiked home from Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) south of Jerusalem. Throughout the nerve-wracking 18-day search that followed, the entire nation was glued with bated breath to their TV and computer screens. When it all ended with the tragic discovery of their bodies there was an overwhelming sense of national heartbreak.
Then, as they were buried and it looked like things would begin going back to “normal”, there was the kidnap and murder of an Arab youth, Mohammed Abu-Khder, which triggered days of violent rioting by Arab extremists throughout the country. That was followed by the arrest of a group of “Jewish extremists”, and once again the collective sense throughout Israel – albeit in a different way – that our worst fears had been realized.
The investigation had barely progressed before a massive escalation in rocket fire from Gaza triggered Operation Protective Edge – 50 days of relentless fighting and bombardment, punctuated by brief ceasefires which rarely lasted their full course. It ended, finally, with 72 dead, hundreds injured, homes, businesses and communities ravaged, and lingering questions over the government’s handling of the conflict and its controversial decision to accept a ceasefire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
And yet, strangely, few Israelis have been able to avoid noticing something remarkably positive emerge from all the trauma: a sense of national unity unprecedented in recent memory.
Whereas just a few short months ago Israeli society appeared more fragmented than ever – between right and left, and religious and secular – the brutal reminders of the existential threat we all face appear to have given people a fresh perspective.
During each chapter of this crisis-filled summer, Jews across the spectrum mobilized to help in some way, whether via mass-prayers and demonstrations, or raising money for food and supplies for IDF soldiers, or by visiting the families of the bereaved to show solidarity.
But among all the many worthy initiatives, there is one which stands out perhaps more than any other, although few are even aware of its existence.
In the past several weeks, a project was quietly launched to encourage haredim to volunteer for IDF reserve duty – and just one month on, nearly 1,000 haredi men have signed up from across the country.
It’s an initiative which, for anyone following the angry recriminations over the haredi draft bill earlier this year, seems utterly bizarre – and all the more so because it is coming squarely from the haredi mainstream.
"It all started with the kidnapping," explains Yosef, one of the initiators of the project, called Mitnadvim Beyachad (Volunteering Together).
He recalls the powerful sense of national unity, which seemed to melt all communal and political barriers. “Something strange happened to Israeli society.”
“The haredi community felt it too, of course. We watched as so many of our brothers were risking their lives for the sake of Am Yisrael, and we wanted to do something as well – more than just davening.”
And so, a nucleus of five kollel (young married) students in Jerusalem came up with an idea: Why should haredim participate only from the sidelines? What if they could join in the war effort at a time of crisis too, without compromising on their core values?
Yosef was approached soon after, given that he is a relatively rare phenomenon – a fully-integrated member of the haredi community who has performed IDF service and is already enlisted in the miluim (reserves).
Yosef takes great pains to point out that his initiative has nothing to do with the controversy over the military draft.
And while he is not opposed to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (formerly known as “Nahal Haredi”), which was formed in 1999 to cater for haredi soldiers, he is also quick to distinguish between that and his group.
Yosef notes that the majority – though by no means all – of the haredim who sign up to Netzah Yehuda are from the “fringes” of the community, many of whom enlist into the military on their way out of the haredi lifestyle. Many other enlistees are not even from the haredi community at all, but Religious-Zionists looking for a more “religious” environment within the IDF.
In contrast, most, if not all, of those who have signed up for Mitnadvim Beyachad are from the rank-and-file of the haredi community in Israel – married men in kollel, or young single men studying in yeshiva – who have no desire to leave the community, but who are also open to contributing more towards wider Israeli society.
Yosef explains that the opposition to enlisting for full military service is largely due to fears of the “spiritual risks” a long stint in the army would pose to haredi yeshiva students who are not equipped to deal with that kind of an environment. What’s more, there is the sense within the haredi community that they are already “doing their bit” by studying Torah full-time.
But volunteering for a yearly stint in the reserves, even coupled with a few days or weeks of training, simply doesn’t pose the same problems.
“Going to miluim shouldn't be an issue for haredim… it's something no one can be against," Yosef insists.
"There is no risk to the spiritual wellbeing of soldiers, because we are talking about only 12 days, not three years, and we are only accepting married or older men, who are already stable and established,” he says.
The fact that it is something done out of choice is an important factor too.
“Practically everyone within the haredi community agrees the draft law caused animosity, and made less people go to the army, not more,” he insists, adding that he also opposed it.
He notes how prior to the bill there was a steady trend among more “moderate” haredi families to integrate into wider society, for example by sending their children to yeshiva high schools where they would gain a balanced education, including secular studies, and be able to find a job in the future and eventually contribute towards the economy – a goal some see as the central objective of the draft bill. What’s more, there was a steady increase in haredi men seeking non-combat roles in the IDF, such as in intelligence and technical units.
“But when it got turned into a ‘war’, where people felt like there was an attempt to force them to abandon their values, they went back to the extreme as a defensive mechanism.”
“There should be incentives to go to the army – it can’t be done through force,” he states, noting that most haredim would happily go to jail rather than do something they feel is a betrayal of their values.
At the same time, however, "a lot of people understand that it's not 'all or nothing'. Our Torah learning may be our number one contribution to the Jewish people in our eyes, but it’s not the only thing.”
“We're also involved in other good things like chessed (helping those in need), volunteering in Magen David Adom, Zaka, or Hatzalah,” he pointed out, referring to Israel’s major ambulance services. “There are even haredi volunteers in the police force! So the idea that there could be a way for haredim to contribute to the army as well without compromising our values isn’t so crazy.”
“We're coming to show there’s another way to do it. People want to give. Haredim aren’t not going to the army because they’re lazy or scared – it’s purely ideological. And it’s not the army itself that’s the problem either.
“What we are building is a framework to enable haredim to contribute to the army, just like there is in Zaka or the police.”
It’s a message that has clearly resonated. After 30 people signed up initially, an online recruitment campaign posted on haredi websites (there are a surprising number of them in Israel) triggered an astonishing response: in less than a week, 500 people had flocked to join.
A month after it first started, the volume of applicants has slowed down slightly and stands at just under 1,000. Given the group’s nonexistent budget and relatively modest exposure, as well as the raft of technical, cultural, political and societal barriers it had to cross, it’s an impressive feat.
In fact, it’s all taken off a lot faster than its founders could ever have envisioned. Despite having officially launched just over one month ago, a concrete program has yet to take shape – those who sign up at this point are purely registering an interest in the idea, with no obligations.
The army’s top brass, for their part, have been very enthusiastic about the idea, and have been flexible in their offers to accommodate potential volunteers.
“The people who signed up are literally from every background: hassidish, litvish, sefardi, Chabad – a real mixture. And since we opened up and went public online that variety has increased.”
The caveat is that those volunteering must have a valid ptur, or official exemption, from military service. That way, there is no chance the project could backfire, with a would-be volunteer arrested for draft-dodging after attempting to sign up.
But despite the popular support it has received, the topic is still a sensitive one.
Due to fears of a backlash from the more extreme elements within his community, Yosef asked that we not use his real name, and insisted on keeping the identities of his fellow project coordinators anonymous.
That backlash has already occurred – although thankfully, it has not been violent until now (in part perhaps because the project’s organizers have kept such a low profile). But they have received plenty of angry feedback via their online form, ranging from angry criticism to insults and abuse.
“We’ve had dozens of very negative responses – some people saying that we're endangering the Jewish people, that kind of thing.”
But Yosef is adamant that there is “no room for extremism.”
“If the argument was ‘should men go to the army for three years or not?’ that would be one thing – but that's not the issue.
"We’re talking about volunteering for 12 days a year. People take vacations from yeshiva, people go to the beach – so why not take some time out to do something that’s a mitzvah?”
Indeed, the idea is for volunteers to undergo basic training during bein hazmanim (yeshiva vacation), when they wouldn’t be in yeshiva anyway – although the training might last a little bit longer for those performing more advanced roles.
But given that such a limited stint wouldn’t allow for a full combat role, what options are available to volunteers? “Boring” desk jobs (of which there are an abundance in the IDF) are not an option for a volunteer-based initiative either. “It needs to be something people can actually get excited to volunteer for!”
But there are some areas where manpower is desperately lacking, and where such an initiative could have a significant impact.
“We’re having serious discussions with very high-level people in the military,” says Yosef. “We worked with the army to identify where manpower was actually required… where it would lift the pressure off the soldiers in the field.”
“Things like guard duty at bases, or protecting yishuvim (small communities),” he offered by way of example. Currently, as any combat soldier will tell you, a shortage of personnel to man guard posts stretches the army’s resources, and results in soldiers having to endure a punishing rota of guard shifts in addition to their other duties. Volunteers could also be trained as drivers – another resource which is in short supply.
They are also looking into an option for slightly more “advanced” roles, which could require shlav bet (stage two) training, potentially together with new immigrants. That would require a longer period of training and service, however, and wouldn’t be for married men with families.
And buoyed by such unexpected success, they’re thinking even bigger.
“When we expanded to English, we found that we got a lot of interest from people abroad,” as well as “Anglo” haredim in Israel, says Yosef.
A foreign program could be a “more practical” alternative for those who want to give to Israel but don’t want to enlist for the full 14 months the IDF requires for foreign volunteers, known as Mahal.
“We’re not really there yet, but in theory this is more practical… Jews in the Diaspora can come and give a couple of weeks a year, perhaps on a separate program to the haredi track if appropriate.”
The irony of a haredi program providing a new platform for non-haredi Zionist youth to help the State of Israel is not lost on Yosef, but despite his own staunchly haredi ideology he sees the phenomenon in a positive light – a result of the newfound sense of Jewish unity which has emerged from the troubles of the past few months.
“It’s hard to explain, but there’s something different in the air in Israel now.”
Let’s hope it stays that way.