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Haredim and the IDF: Crisis or opportunity

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Project Shachar helps integrate young ultra-Orthodox men into Israeli society, using the army as a route to learning skills needed for employment.

On July 31, 2012, Michael Novick, Executive Director for Strategic Development at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, distributed this letter regarding the JDC's historic role in helping young ultra-Orthodox Israeli men adjust to life in the Israel Defense Forces, a key step in learning the skills they will need to find future employment.

Dear Colleagues:

In less than 24 hours, the extensive military draft exemption of thousands of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) will come to an end as the Tal Law, judged unconstitutional by Israel's High Court, expires. While Israelis on different sides of this issue have turned to the streets to voice their positions, the debate over finding an acceptable, equitable and sustainable arrangement for mandatory army service continues to capture the media headlines. With apprehension building over the introduction of a new national enlistment arrangement, JDC gears up for this historic social challenge. 

Over the years, JDC's innovative approach to addressing Israel's emerging and most salient social needs led it to developing several initiatives which promote the integration of Haredim. In fact, since 2006, JDC has eased the entry of more than 17,000 Haredim into gainful employment, and continues to reach more than 7,000 Haredim each year. 

No other JDC program demonstrates this undertaking as clearly as the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Shachar Employment Program. Created in 2007, Shachar, which stands for Shiluv Haredim ("Ultra-Orthodox Integration") has helped integrate Haredim into Israeli society through their enrollment in the army while learning skills for gainful employment. 

Yitzchak Lenner was raised in the Haredi enclave of Bnei Brak. He married in 2004 and continued his full time Torah studies in Kollel. Soon after, he realized that it was no longer possible to support his growing family on the monthly 2,000 shekel Kollel stipend he was receiving. At that point, he left Kollel and got a job working as a supplier for an Israeli health food company making twice as much as he made in Kollel. Now that he was out of Kollel, however, Yitzchak was no longer exempt from army service, and he eventually received a draft notice. 

Although Yitzchak Lenner knew that serving in the army would help him advance his career, he was nonetheless hesitant to enter the IDF. "I am the only member of my family to enter the army and I didn't want to cause my parents embarrassment," Yitzchak Lenner recalled. "I told my father that I would only willingly enter the army if he fully approved. He was afraid that the army would have a negative effect on the level of my religious observance. However, after speaking to the rabbi of the air force, who assured him that thanks to Project Shachar he had nothing to worry about, my father gave me his full blessing." Yitzchak was trained in software quality assurance in the air force and quickly excelled. Within one week of completing his service, Yitzchak was hired by Matrix-one of the leading information technology and software solutions companies in Israel. 

Today Yitzchak is making over 11,000 shekels a month - almost three times as much as he made in his previous job and almost six times what he was making in Kollel! Yitzchak is very happy on the job. Even though there are very few religious people "I am very well accepted by my coworkers. Religion isn't an issue. They judge me according to the quality of my work. They see that I'm a person and that I'm not trying to provoke anyone. They aren't anti-Haredi-they don't hate us and they know that I'm not the address for conflict."

To date, more than 1,600 Haredim have been recruited into the IDF and 527 participants have successfully completed their mandatory service. Of those graduates, 83% are now employed in the civilian sector and mainstream Israeli companies, or are continuing to serve as career soldiers, including 15 officers. Given the 55% poverty rate among Haredim and the 45% employment rate among Haredi men in Israel, Shachar plays a valuable role in increasing the number of self-supporting families, and reducing the number of welfare recipients in the Ultra-Orthodox community. 

Viewed as a successful model for the absorption of Haredim into the army, and into the workforce, IDF representatives recently recommended to the Knesset Subcommittee responsible for handling the enlistment of Haredim that the number of Shachar participants be dramatically increased in the coming years. 

So, what makes Project Shachar so successful? 

Integrating Haredi soldiers into the army involves accommodating their religious and cultural requirements in a way that is minimally taxing on the IDF. In order for Haredi soldiers, young men who were raised in virtual isolation from mainstream Israeli society, to become an integral part of the IDF, an entirely new framework is needed - and this is precisely what Shachar has accomplished. 

Yaakov, who is the first Chasid from his sect in Rehovot to receive his Rabbi's blessing to join the IDF, defines himself as a pioneer. He describes how his family reacted to his joining the Shachar program with the following story: 

"My grandfather was a great and holy man. He would wake up early in the morning to study Torah, and would continue studying late into the night. Before his death, my grandfather spent a few months in the hospital, and his grandchildren, which he had many, took turns visiting him. 

One day when I was visiting, he asked me what was new in my life, and I decided to tell him that I had joined the army. My grandfather grabbed my arm and yelled 'What happened?! How did they make you join the army?!' Most likely recalling the forced conscription of Jews in Eastern Europe, my grandfather was concerned. 

'No, it's not like that!', I explained. 'We actually learn Torah every day, we eat Kosher food, and I am learning how to operate high-tech communication systems which will help me find work once I leave the army.' 

My grandfather was silent or a few moments. He thought carefully about his next words, and then he said 'Sounds good. A little for this world, and a little for the world to come.'"

In 1947, could Prime Minister Ben Gurion have predicted that the draft deferral of 400 yeshiva students would one day balloon into more than 60,000 exemptions from the military? Of course not. A decision enacted 65 years ago to revive the Yeshiva world on the verge of extinction following the Holocaust has forced Israeli society into a critical conversation about one of the State's most basic values. 

As politicians debate a viable replacement for the Tal Law, JDC's timely intervention in creating Project Shachar has started to equip the IDF to handle the influx of Haredim. By sensitizing the IDF to the broader socio-cultural context in which Haredim live, Shachar has bolstered the IDF's readiness to tackle this challenge. Project Shachar stands out as a hopeful model for Israeli society, successfully removing stereotypes in unprecedented ways. There is no doubt that with the right support, JDC can and will continue to play a vital role in expanding military and employment opportunities for Haredim, in equalizing the national economic and military burden, and in bridging some of the significant ideological and cultural gaps in Israel. 

Please feel free to forward this email to any of your friends and associates who might have interest in learning about and supporting this critically important initiative of JDC and Israeli society.


Best wishes,


Michael Novick



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