[A Psalm] of David. Blessed be the LORD my Rock, who traineth my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (Psalms 144:1).
In biblical times, all men aged 20 to 60, except priests serving in the Temple, were expected to serve in the army. God Himself protected those who fought in His name and in accordance with His commands. Today, the Israeli army is subject to much religious controversy.
Although conscription is in force in Israel, most Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews seek exemption from service under the clause called “Torah is his occupation,” which states that full-time Torah students in Yeshivas are not obligated to serve. The general public, particularly the secular sector, has grown to resent this exemption. The current government seeks to severely limit the use of this exemption and force more Haredim to enlist. the Haredi community sees this as an attack on its lifestyle, expressing concern that army life will negatively influence its youth away from Torah.
To address this concern, the army already has an established all-Haredi battalion, called Netzah Yehuda (also known as Nahal Haredi) and, more recently, the Shahar program which recruits young, married Haredi men for technological jobs in the air force. It is now going one step further. The IDF announced Wednesday that it will open the first Haredi pre-military academy to be funded by the government. The Hararei Zion academy will open in August in the Jordan Valley. Graduates of the program will continue in the Netzah Yehuda battalion.
It should be noted that there is another, privately-funded Haredi pre-military academy, but this will be the first funded by the Defense Ministry.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said about the establishment of Hararei Zion, “We are right now in the middle of a gradual and historic process in which the number of young haredi men enlisting in the IDF is continually increasing.
“We are doing this not by brandishing a sword, but gradually, with tolerance, while having recruited leading haredi figures in the ultra-Orthodox community to help us in this important social process, which will contribute to the IDF and Israeli society.”
At first, the academy will recruit twenty young Haredi men from around the country. The men will be prepared for enlistment and will engage in Torah study and community work in the Jordan Valley. All of the staff will consist of Haredim who have served as officers and NCOs in the Nahal Haredi.
In addition to the pre-military academy, Yaalon announced the opening of a Hesder program for Haredim at Moshav Nehalim, near Petah Tikva. Hesder, which literally means arrangement, is a program which is already popular in the national-religious sector. It combines intense Torah study with army service. The program typically lasts over four years, of which 16 months are spent in the army and the remaining three and a half years are spent studying. Young men in the Hesder program begin their army service together as a group and return to Yeshiva as a group.
The new Haredi Hesder program will combine two years of learning with two years of army service. It will be called Netevei Torah Ve’technologia Hesder Yeshiva and will also offer an emphasis on technological studies. It is being described as a program for haredi boys aged 17 and upwards who are interested in combining “substantial military service, Torah study and the acquisition of a profession in hi-tech, which will prepare graduates for integration into the workforce.”