Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Haredim, the Army and Sherut Le'umi...

I was rather appalled when I came across an article in the Jerusalem Post titled: "Hasidic leadership preparing for 'historic' journey to US to protest Haredi draft".  There are so many things wrong with that headline that I honestly don't know where to begin.  So putting the army issue aside - just for now - I'll tell you a story that happened to me a few years ago.  

My fashion-conscious daughter came to me one day expressing her desire to learn how to sew.  She had - still has - dreams of designing and sewing her own clothing, so I made a few phone calls searching for someone who might be able to teach her.  I finally got the name of a young woman in Kiryat Sefer who could teach her the ins and outs of sewing on a one-on-one basis.  I called her, made a schedule, bought all the equipment my daughter needed to get started and began chauffeuring her back and forth once a week for her private lessons.  This young woman had two toddlers and a newborn and was originally from Florida and she had taken to teaching private sewing classes to support her husband who was sitting and learning.  Soft spoken, she was lovely, clearly talented and she proceeded to teach my daughter how to make patterns, how to cut the material and how to operate a sewing machine.  Over time, we got to talking every time I picked my daughter up and one day she called me out of the blue to ask me a question.  She said that her brother, being much more modern than she, was twenty-five years old and was desperately looking for a shidduch (a mate).  Since I was one of the only people she knew that was "more modern" she asked if I knew anyone that might be right for him.

Being an amateur matchmaker, I proceeded to ask her a few basic questions like: where did he go to school, what exactly was his religious level, what he was looking for in a mate, and of course, did he do the army?

Her answers, in order, were this:  he's sitting and learning part time in yeshiva and had no intention whatsoever of going to university or college, that he was looking for a girl who had a profession so he could dabble in his hobby of music and still sit and learn half a day.  The army question completely stumped her.  "Of course he didn't do the army!" she said rather vehemently, as if my question was preposterous to begin with.  I asked her straight out why she thought to ask me, of all people, to find her brother a mate.  She said that she thought that the single girls in my yishuv might be looking for a guy like her brother.  (Until today, it makes me wonder if our neighbors know what kind of people live in our yishuv and if they understand what it means to be 'Dati Le'umi'.)  I answered as patiently as I could, that I knew for a fact that the girls in my yishuv were (with very few exception) looking for a boy who did go to yeshiva, but also served in the army and had future plans for college or university, with plans on working full time so they could support their families.  I told her that no girl I knew would agree to go out with someone who refused to serve in the IDF and had no intention or working.  I told her that every girl and guy in our yishuv served their country in one way or the other, be it the army or Sherut Le'umi (national service).

There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few seconds and then she said - now wait for it....and I quote: "What is Sherut Le'umi?"

My jaw actually hit the floor.  I remember having to sit down at my kitchen table and asking her to repeat her question.  She seriously had never heard of Sherut Le'umi.  It boggled my mind.  How can you live in this country and NOT know about serving it?  On some level I realized that most of these girls are married off by the time they're 17 or 18 and thus become exempt from service, but not every girl - even in their community - is married at such an early age.  There has to be plenty of young single women who don't get married until their early twenties.  I explained to her exactly what Sherut Le'umi was and then I decided to go for broke.  Putting on my most diplomatic voice, I told her that it has always bothered me that the Haredi girls don't do national service.  I preempted her response by saying that while I know that their leaders are terrified of their girls becoming 'exposed' to the 'evils of the outside world', there were so many organizations within the Haredi community that were in desperate need of help.  When she asked me to clarify, I asked her if her community housed special need schools, or orphanages, or old age homes.  Obviously, she responded with a yes, and I asked her why their young women did not help their own communities? Why they sent (and continue to send) so many of their men out to neighboring communities every night to knock on doors and ask for charity when they could be tapping into their own valuable source of able-bodied volunteers.  I didn't even bother to get into the whole army issue with her because I had overwhelmed her enough with my conversation.  

About two weeks later, my daughter finished her sewing course and I never spoke to her again, but every once in a while, when I recall our conversation, I wonder if I had left any impression whatsoever on this young woman.  Did she forget about everything I said within minutes of hanging up the phone, or did it weigh on her mind throughout the day, enough so that she later engaged her husband in a conversation about what we had talked about?  Her children were still quite small - barely toddlers - so it will be years before her kids get to the age where the question of  national service or the army becomes revelent.  And I wonder, in the next decade, will things change enough within the Haredi community, that serving their country becomes an acceptable - and even positively looked upon - choice?  

Back to this reported US protest - which is a chutzpah, an embarrassment and completely shocking, among other things - it's turned me into a distrustful person.  Whereas, I'm loathe to turn anyone away who asks me for money, I've become rather suspicious now and can't help but quietly question whether my hard-earned money is being turned into actual food for someone's needy table, or whether it's going towards a 'fund' in order to buy an expensive ticket for someone's ill-advised trip to the US to protest the very same organization that protects their families and loved ones from our very dangerous Arab neighbors.  The very same organization that my daughter (and your daughter, and your son, and your nephew etc) is proudly serving.

“The purpose of all of this (the Haredi draft) is to take haredi youth into an evil culture,” Yisrael Eichler (MK from Agudat Yisrael) said.  

Our army is compassionate, peace-loving as much as an army can be, and operates with a strong moral code.  It started a special unit called Nachal Charedi specifically for the needs of the Ultra-Orthodox soldier. The purpose of the unit is to allow these men to serve in the IDF in an atmosphere conducive to their religious convictions, within a framework that is strictly halachically (according to Jewish law) observant.  My daughter, being one of the few religious girls in her unit, is given the opportunity to daven (pray) three times a day.  She is not given these times begrudgingly, but with respect and understanding.  With all the amazing things that our Israeli army does - for its soldiers and for its citizens, the last turn of phrase I would use is 'evil culture'.  


  1. I'm always amazed at how incredibly insular the Haredi community can be. I guess that for a person who's access to TV, Internet, and secular newspapers is limited and who grows up in a school system where teachers and parents and the like toe a very specific party line, it's not so unbelievable (and for an Olah Chadasha who has had less possibility of exposure to wider society then all the more so).
    Nonetheless, the choice that they have made is incredibly damaging and the chutzpah is incredible.

    1. I just found out today (after I posted this) that the Nachal Haredi unit came in second place this year for its excellence in operations...if only more committed Haredi men would join....

  2. This issue is causing so much strife within Israel. The concept of sherut leumi done in the local community of the Hareidim should be encouraged by their own leaders.
    Well thought out and well written as usual!

  3. Extremely well put. Thank you!

  4. Anyone interested in establishing a Haredit sherut leumi, please contact me: rivkabkatz@gmail.com