Where does a charedi teenage boy who doesn’t fit into the traditional yeshiva framework go? In the past, he’d flip pita in a bakery or load shelves in a supermarket. Today, boys who can’t handle the strenuous regiment of a yeshiva day, or who want to move towards a profession, can begin serving in the IDF in a battalion that caters to the unique needs of a charedi lifestyle.
Nahal Haredi Fills the Gap Nahal Haredi, officially named Netzah Yehuda, is an elite combat battalion in the IDF comprised of charedi Jews. The concept took shape over a number of years as Rav Yitzchak Bar Chaim, a mashgiach, in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, watched boys who were failing in the traditional system drift towards a hopeless future. When he met retired Brigadier General Yehuda Duvdevani, Department Head of Agaf HaNoar VeHanachal, the Youth Mission Division for the Ministry of Defense, the two brainstormed and, in 1999, Netzah Yehuda was born. The first unit of soldiers had 35 young men. Currently, annual recruits exceed over 600 and there are more than 6,000 Netzah Yehuda alumni. The vision of Netzah Yehuda is vast: to educate and support soldiers and alumni who will contribute to the nation’s security and become leaders who will sanctify Hashem’s name and work towards mending the torn fabric of Israeli society. With Boston-born Rav Tzvi Klebanow as director, the Netzah Yehuda Non-Profit Organization interfaces with the IDF and the Ministry of Defense to make sure this vision becomes a reality.
What’s the Problem? “In order for the IDF to provide an environment for charedi boys to perform military combat service without compromising their lifestyle, two big changes had to happen,” says Rav Klebanow, a tall man with a flowing white beard, from his office in Jerusalem. “The base had to be closed to women and a high standard of kashrut had to be enforced,” he explains. Although ninety-five percent of instructors in the army are women (women make excellent instructors), the challenge was met: Netzah Yehuda bases are closed to women. Next, acceptable kashrut standards had to be implemented. Supervising the trucks that leave the army food base to ensure that all products sent to the Netzah Yehuda bases meet the expected standards solved the problem.
An additional challenge involved improving the secular education of charedi boys. “While many yeshiva boys have sharp minds, some skills are lacking simply because they weren’t taught,” says Rav Klebanow. Today, after six months of basic and advanced training, followed by eighteen months of service, soldiers spend their third year following one of several paths: studying aggressively for a year to complete their bagrut (matriculation) and pursue an academic career; pursuing vocational or engineering studies; or, in a small number of cases, studying for a year in a yeshiva.
Recruits to Netzah Yehuda are expected to adhere to three requirements: to observe Shabbat, to wear a kippah, and to refrain from bad language. Taking into account the notorious language that sounds through army bases, Rav Klebanow’s comment rings true: “When commanders from regular battalions come in, the thing that strikes them most is the obvious use of clean language,” he says. Then he adds, “Shmirat Halashon, the laws of proper speech, ensure a basic building block that helps any cohesive unit excel.”
Zissy Gold,* whose son joined Netzah Yehuda, makes the following observation, “Nahal Haredi wasn’t our first choice for Yosef. We wanted him to excel in yeshiva, but he wasn’t able to do so. Now that he has completed his service, I can only say that Nahal Haredi, and Rav Bar Chaim in particular, did much more for him than we could have expected.”