We live in a time when Orthodox Jews can take on practically any kind of employment without having to compromise their religious beliefs, and kosher food is available everywhere, from the finest restaurants to state and federal penitentiaries. But it wasn’t until a decade and a half ago that special accommodations were made for haredi Jews in what one might have assumed was the most obvious place of all – the Israel Defense Forces.
Nahal Haredi – Netzah Yehuda Battalion – was founded in 1999 with just 30 soldiers in an effort to allow haredi Orthodox Jews to perform army service in a setting that would be conducive to their religious observance. Since then, more than 7,000 soldiers have passed through the battalion, with close to 1,000 haredi soldiers in Netzah Yehuda at any given time.
Colonel Yonatan Branski, a former commander of the Nahal Haredi battalion who now serves as the director of the Nahal Haredi Foundation, shared the origins of the unique unit that operates in the Jenin area of the West Bank.
“It all began with a small group of rabbanim, the IDF, and the Ministry of Defense,” Branski told The Jewish Press.
“People were complaining that there were not enough haredim joining the army, but it was clear that if you wanted them to join, special units for haredi service were needed.”
It took about a year and a half for the IDF and a team of rabbis led by Rabbi Chaim Bar Lev to turn those discussions into an actual army unit. A volunteer battalion, Netzah Yehuda is one of the few units in the IDF that relies on recruitment and it is manned by religious young men who want to perform their army service in an appropriate environment.
“The most important issue is that the whole atmosphere be one of kedushah,” said Branski. “What that means is that the battalion is only men, with no women in these units at all. All of the food is glatt mehadrin and there are, of course, minyanim three times a day. Even the way people talk , the language, everything is fit for a haredi young man.”
Despite its small size when it was first launched, Netzah Yehuda grew large enough to be considered a company by its third year. By the year 2009 Nahal Haredi had grown into a full-fledged battalion.
“Back then it was the only haredi unit in the IDF but now things have changed,” said Branksi. “Not every soldier who joins the army can be a fighter. Some have health problems or other issues and they serve in other units as mechanics or intelligence officers. We have another twenty-three units that have small or big groups of haredi soldiers.”
Netzah Yehuda also serves another important role in Israeli society: finding a proper niche for haredi young men who haven’t found their place in the yeshiva world.
“We never try to persuade someone to leave the yeshiva,” said Branski. “We believe that the most important thing for Am Yisrael is limud Torah. But we know that there are thousands who aren’t learning. Some are officially there and aren’t learning while others aren’t in yeshiva at all. In Israel, if you don’t join the army and you aren’t in yeshiva then you are in an illegal situation. Finding a job is difficult, and if you do, it is on the black market.”