(Mystical Paths – Reb Akiva)
A few days ago I received this question by email…
I just read your post on Cross-Currents about your son in the IDF. (I didn’t post on Cross Currents, they must have grabbed it from Mystical Paths.) I have two questions.
- I assume and hope your son remained a committed Torah-observant Jew even after he finished his time in the IDF. Did he?
- How many of the soldiers in Nachal Chareidi/Netzach Yehuda are actually from Chareidi (Modi'in Illit/Bnei Brak) homes?
My son accepted the draft into the IDF – the Israeli Defense Forces army, about 2 1/2 years ago. Through prior arrangement, he entered Netzach Yehuda – the “Mighty Men of Judah” infantry battalion. This battalion is also known as Nachal Charedi, meaning it’s geared for ultra-orthodox Jewish draftees. This includes strict kosher food according to high kosher standards (mehadrin), times for prayer and Torah learning, strictly gender segregated units and postings, and ultra-orthodox rabbis assigned for spiritual counseling and supervision of the conditions.
The first thing to know about armies is they excel at killing people and breaking things – that is, after all, their primary purpose. At everything else they do it just barely well enough not to be totally messed up and completely dysfunctional. Barely.
As I previously wrote, his induction and basic training had several screw-ups… as did his eventual role assignment.
My son had no problem maintaining his observance and commitment. While some circumstances were uncomfortable, the environment was NOT corrosive overall. Frankly, while we do not introduce tests on purpose, being pushed a bit on some issues of religious observance forced him to ask some very life-valuable questions - are you willing to stand up for your yiddishkeit? Are you willing to sacrifice for your yiddishkeit?
To get to synagogue, he sometimes had to lose some sleep or go after coming off an overnight duty shift. If it was a holiday, sometimes he had to assert his right to get the time for synagogue (they’re not going to go to the trouble to adjust duty shifts unless you get pushy). He couldn’t drink (alcohol) on Purim or eat every meal in a Sukkah during Chol HaMoed Succot. He had to plan his Pesach seder in advance, and bring components from home a week in advance, to make sure he didn’t end up with sephardi components (which would have been acceptable in the circumstances anyway).
He faced some halachic challenges and learned how to and what questions to ask (of what rabbis), such as fasting while on patrol (when, how long, at what point can you break it, at what point are you required to break it). And yes, the army doesn’t stop functioning on Shabbat. Can you carry your gun, can you operate the radio or the phone? (Interestingly, the unit was equipment with “Shabbos radios” and “Shabbos phones” – devices which work by certain means to reduce the violations from m’dirasa to only m’darabbonim – which makes it permitted in such circumstances.) While the majority of orthodox Jewish religious communities quietly goes about their Shabbat, people who are part of Hatzala (the Jewish religious volunteer ambulance service operated in many Jewish orthodox communities) or Shomrim (the Jewish volunteer security service operated in some Jewish orthodox communities in high crime areas) are already well familiar with such dilemmas of servicing in life threatening situations and how to manage that in the laws of Shabbat. As Israel becomes a more Jewishly religiously observant country – this will be more and more of an issue.
On another side note, my daughter who was NOT in a religious unit was excused from carrying her gun on Shabbat – as the non-religiously-observant soldiers could cover for Shabbat. But my son, IN the religious unit, was NOT excused from carrying the gun or duty on Shabbat – as there was no one to cover for them!
My son is stronger in his religious commitment for knowing he can deal with some challenges, as well as more knowledgeable about the practical issues of doing so.
There were issues with the environment - and actually they have since been dealt with as that unit was dissolved as a nachal charedi unit, no more charedi boys will be headed to that post - after the rabbonim did an inspection of the actual conditions. Yes, the supervising rabbonim are authorized to do such a thing (force the removal of “religious certification”. That doesn't mean that the boys weren't placed in conditions below what one would hope, and that it took over a year for the rabbonim to respond.
By the way, a relatively unknown point - the Nachal Charedi boys only serve 2 years instead of 3. Their 3rd year of service is "learning", which may be education, occupational, or learning learning PAID FOR BY THE ARMY. My son is in this and taking advantage to get education certificates (through charedi channels) for moving into a profession in the future.
From the feedback my son’s given me, I'd probably guess around 50% of Nachal Charedi actually came from charedi homes, another 40% being chardal (chardal = charedi leumi, something more than dati leumi but less than the insular charedi communities).
There is another group which is more problematic... charedi families with off-the-derech children are directing their OTD's into Nachal Charedi as well (so at least they're not in a full secular environment). But this does mean there is a concentration of OTD's in Nachal Charedi. That's the remaining 10%. For some this is a positive thing, as having a purpose and direction and being around young men with a good focus pulls them back in a good way. But there are some angry young men with problems or who are a problem wherever they are. Now away from home and their neighborhood (and dependency upon their parents or yeshiva) they are out to demonstrate their freedom from previous constraints, right in the middle of the “religious unit”, and now have the ability and flexibility to do so. After all, it may be the the religious unit, but the army cannot REQUIRE prayer or Torah learning (or fasting or holiday observance).
So my son “survived”. While we would like to coddle our children, keeping them safe and protected from the big wide world out there – at some point they grow up and leave the warm protective confines of home. The IDF is an army, they are out to make soldiers who are necessary to defend Israel from those who would kill innocent men, women, and children – an unfortunate but necessary job. As such, they did a reasonable job providing a “religious environment” for those who are to be come religious SOLDIERS.
But it is an army, not a kindergarten or a yeshiva. It’s a different world, and is jarring if one is not prepared for it.