The author (standing, second from right) together with his squad (kita). Second from the left is Yehuda W. pictured below after the training, as part of the kitat konenut of the Gur Chassidut.

Joining the War Effort Through the Charedi Draft

BY RABBI ARON WHITE

If you would have told me half a year ago that I would be training for the IDF together with Gerrer Chassidim and graduates of Mir Yeshiva, I would have probably laughed. But October 7th changed many things, and indeed this improbable scenario became my reality in January. 

In the initial days of the war, I experienced a lot of guilt as I saw tens of my friends serving in the army on reserve duty. A few months into the war, I started to hear of friends joining the army through the Charedi draft, completing a short training, after which you can become an IDF reservist. While the program is officially geared towards Charedim, many Religious Zionist olim join as well (for olim, the IDF is flexible about who qualifies as “Charedi”). Thanks to a supportive wife and workplace, I decided to sign up. 

The program is called Shlav Bet and involves two weeks of basic training, and upon graduating soldiers can serve in non-combat roles in the IDF. The vast majority of the army are not combat soldiers, with units like Logistics Corps, Intelligence Corps and countless more requiring many soldiers. Our level of training (technically called rovai 02) is the same level of training that all non-combat IDF soldiers receive, after which we are eligible to be assigned to a reservist unit. Since the start of the war, close to 1,000 people have joined the IDF through Shlav Bet, and graduates of Shlav Bet are today serving in a remarkable range of roles – from fixing tanks and missile launchers, to driving trucks and heavy machinery, sometimes even in Gaza itself. Some graduates are serving in military intelligence, and others are at the bases where captured terrorists are being held. A number of graduates are also serving in the military Rabbinate, and a new program is now training graduates to be members of kitot konenut, civilian security teams, particularly for Charedi cities.

One preconceived notion I had was that the recruits in the army’s Charedi programs aren’t all that Charedi, but it only took a few minutes to see that I was wrong. Litvaks, Chassidim and Shas-nikim formed the majority of our group of 60. The most represented city in the group was Bnei Brak, and some recruits did not join our WhatsApp group because they didn’t have smartphones. My roommates represented the full gamut of people in the program. Eliasaf is a graduate of Chevron Yeshiva who now works as a lawyer. Yehuda W is a Gerrer Chassid from Bnei Brak with six children, whose brother-in-law and father also participated in this program. Avi grew up as a Lelover Chassid; though he no longer has Chassidish peyos, he sends his daughter to Beis Ya’akov. Yehuda H is originally from Manchester, studied at Gateshead and Mir Yeshiva and now lives in Yerushalayim. Mendy is a Chabad Chassid from Tzfat who got married last year.

The program itself involved gun training, Krav Maga, classes about the units and ranks of the army, first aid and more. A major part of Shlav Bet is getting used to the army regimen – wake up was at 5:30am, and from that moment until you went to bed, every minute of the day was planned by the mefakdim (commanders). It is quite an experience for a group of middle-aged men – to have orders shouted at you by a 21-year-old, and to have to do 10 push ups if you are late for roll call! Impressively, the commanders laid down the line on discipline, but also respected the life experience of the recruits. During the first aid training, our mefaked asked if any of the 7 trained medics and first responders in the room had anything to add. It was actually a powerful moment – the commanders created the discipline any army requires to function while acknowledging we have much to offer. 

The two-week training was one of the most meaningful things I have ever done, and the closest analogy I can give is that of a language immersion course. Similar to someone traveling to South America to immerse themselves in Spanish, this two-week experience was an immersion into the language and culture of the IDF, and just like a language immersion course, on the other side one has a different perspective on the world. 

Firstly, my appreciation for what combat soldiers undergo both in their training and in war has increased exponentially. After hours of gun training, jumping up and down with our M-16, our commander Yedidya would sometimes give us a break and teach us about the IDF. As our muscles ached, and he told us about his own training for the Givati infantry brigade, where he had to crawl 300 meters holding a 15-pound Negev, our understanding of what combat training involves deepened immensely. He would break down videos of the combat in Gaza, pointing out the techniques and maneuvers that soldiers were utilizing. From the molehill of my two-week training, I feel I have a slightly better vantage point from which to appreciate the mountain of full IDF training and service. 

Secondly, even the news looks different now – the lists of army units, roles and ranks have gone from an opaque list of words to a meaningful description that tells in detail the actual story of how this war is progressing. Our commanders talked us through some aspects of the operation that freed two hostages from Rafah. Taking the reports one line at a time, understanding the role each unit played, from the Yamam (National Counter-Terrorism Unit) to the helicopter rescue team and more, one starts to understand the war in higher resolution. 

Thirdly, the divide between Israeli and Western culture also became clearer to me. Most Israelis have served for years in the military, and the military suffuses Israeli culture, whereas Western society is largely a post-military culture (in this post-military vacuum, stories like this war are also portrayed through the lens of issues more popular in Western culture, such as race and human rights). The basics of military protocol and strategy, which are totally intuitive to Israelis and form the way Israelis approach this war, are totally missing for a Western media, whose journalists are often totally illiterate in this field. Reading much of Western media, one gets an image of the IDF operation in Gaza as a haphazard, random set of violent acts, all of which harm civilians and some might have some military benefit. This is childishly simple – the amount of strategy, coordination and thought that goes into fighting is remarkable, but requires an understanding of the language of the army. It is remarkable that when it comes to sports, Western countries will have the most experienced former players act as pundits, but when it comes to war, many journalists with no knowledge of the local language, and who probably couldn’t describe even the basic structure of the IDF, are broadcasting their views to millions of people around the world. 

Finally, there were moments that were deeply religiously moving. At our tekes hashba’a, the ceremony when we were sworn into the IDF, our platoon commander read from the first perek of Yehoshua. “Be strong and brave, for you will lead the people to inherit the land that I have promised your fathers. Be very strong and brave, to observe the whole Torah that I have given to Moshe my servant, do not turn right or left from it, in order that you shall have insight in all that you turn to. That chapter is just one of many within Tanach that take on more meaning when you read them while wearing the IDF uniform.

A new chapter for Charedi society?

A major topic of discussion among our group was whether the program represented a change within the broader Charedi society. Currently, only 10% of the Charedi community serve in the IDF, a major point of contention in Israeli society for decades. The war has only exacerbated the tensions. With the IDF in need of manpower, the Knesset is considering increasing the length of army service for soldiers and reservists. Understandably, there is significant political pressure to change the equation of Charedim and the army. Can Shlav Bet be part of a solution?

Brigadier General Ari Singer, an American-born general in the IDF, gave our group a fascinating talk about the history of Charedim in the army, and one of my takeaways from that discussion was that we have to frame this issue in a much wider lens. The Charedi community is a conservative community that many historians say formed its identity as a response to the past 3 centuries of social change. Jews had existed as religious communities for over a millenia, before a series of social and religious changes affected Jewish communities: political emancipation, the enlightenment, and the creation of new Jewish streams such as the Reform movement. The dominant credo of what we would now refer to as the Charedi community was the aphorism of the Chatam Sofer, adapted from a Talmudic line – “chadash assur min haTorah, that which is new is forbidden by the Torah,” thus a strict insistence on maintaining every aspect of Judaism as it had been traditionally observed, without innovation.

As committed Religious Zionists, we sometimes forget just how revolutionary Zionism was 100 years ago. Jews had existed as communities for 2,000 years, and Zionism sought to move the Jewish people from a collection of communities to recreating a Jewish state. This move requires a huge intellectual upheaval, and many early Zionists were explicit in their rejection of Diasporic, communal life, seeking to neatly bridge from the Jewish commonwealth of the Tanach to the new Jewish state (“me’haTanach laPalmach”), while skipping over the intervening 2,000 years. It is not that surprising that there was a conservative reaction to a revolutionary movement that was often explicitly anti-traditional. And it isn’t surprising that the touchstone of this identity battle is around the army, the largest and most significant institution that expresses our new-found statehood.

Once one frames the issue of Charedim joining the army as an issue of identity, and one with roots that are literally centuries old, it is clear that the solution will be a process. It is not reasonable or tenable for tens of thousands of Charedim to avoid army service, as hundreds of soldiers from other communities give their lives to protect us all. But it is also untenable to force thousands of 18-year-olds a year into military service that they are not intellectually or ideologically prepared for. A soldier who doesn’t want to be there is not of much help to his comrades. 

To my mind, the Shlav Bet is definitely not the full solution, but is a significant part of the solution. Having hundreds of Charedi men join the army, willingly and voluntarily, each of these individuals is breaking down the dichotomy others talk about between their religious identity and protecting the State of Israel. At our final tekes hashba’a, a representative of the soldiers, Moshe Maleyef from Kiryat Malachi, spoke – here are some of his remarks:

When the war started, we knew that we had to get up and defend our country. We are proud of who we are. 

We are Charedim, and we are committed to defending Israel. 

We are Charedim, and we are part of Israeli society. 

We are Charedim, we are Israeli, we are brothers. 

Our message is clear – we call on others to join the IDF to defend our country together.

These messages are incredibly important, and if hundreds more Charedim feel they can publicly say this, then it is a significant step forward for Israel. 

 

● If you are interested in joining the Shlav Bet program and have any questions, the author can be contacted at aronwhite@mizrachi.org

Rabbi Aron White is the Managing Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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