During the Sukkot holiday, a time in which the Jewish people are said to sit together under the "sukkah of peace", a celebration took place in Jerusalem to celebrate the next ten years of a project which has been lauded as a major force in uniting Israeli society – through the rubric of the Israeli army.
Nahal Hareidi (also known as the Netzach Yehuda Battalion), was established in 1999 as a way of enabling and encouraging Hareidi-religious men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Containing just 30 soldiers in its first battalion, it now trains over 1,000 soldiers, and even has a reserve battalion.
Until now, IDF service has been largely anathema in the Hareidi world. While religious Zionists have long seen army service as a positive socio-religious practice which protects the citizens of Israel and strengthens the Jewish presence in the country, Hareidi Jews have shied away from national service, citing fundamental disagreements with the secular aspects of the state as well as an unwillingness to swap Torah study for combat duty.
This refusal to serve in the army has not only prevented many Hareidi men from being accepted or eligible for work, but is also a sore point among secular Israelis, who frequently chastise the Hareidi public for not taking equal responsibility for the welfare of the country and citizenry.
Yet with the advent of Nahal Hareidi, men who are interested in doing army service – and receiving educational and vocational training – can now take part under strict religious conditions. Religious Zionists account for 30% of the soldiers, but the remaining 70% come from Hareidi homes.
To accommodate the sensibilities of these men, no women are allowed on base. Female officers do a significant amount of the instructional work in the IDF – but in Netzach Yehuda, only men teach the soldiers. The highest level of kosher supervision is in place on the premises, along with Torah study classes and Rabbinic mentors.
Yet Netzach Yehuda is not just a yeshiva with guns. Over 80% of the soldiers serve in combat positions from their base near the Hamas hotbed of Jenin. In 2008, Netzach Yehuda soldiers came in first place in a sharp-shooting course.
At a dinner at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem on September 27, speakers and honorees lauded Netzach Yehuda for its innovative integration of Hareidi men into the army, which has not only provided participants with new opportunities, but has served as an example of excellent soldiering and national involvement.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, President of the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, New York – who was honored at the dinner and given a Rabbinic Leadership Award, praised Nahal Hareidi has a means by which Hareidi men could develop themselves and make a good name for their community among average Israelis.
"There is an important bridge in Israeli society that is formed by these people… the boys of the nahal Hareidi have proven that there are members of the Hareidi sector who give, give, give," said Rabbi Billet. "[Netzach Yehuda soldiers] understand the importance of giving to the Jewish State, even if the Jewish State is not the ideal state from the perspective of an orthodox Jew, it is still our state, the state that the [Creator of the universe] gave to us, and every day we try to improve it and try to increase its Jewish value, and they support the Jewish state."
Rabbi Billet noted that the program has paved the way for further participation by Hareidi Israelis in army service, not only impressing army brass with the value of Hareidi soldiers, but reducing the negative stigma the Hareidi community has toward army service, and opening the door toward their further participation. An example of this increased détente is the new "Shachar Chadash" program, in which Hareidi citizens serve in technological services in the air force. Already, many have become officers.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Former Chief Rabbi of Isral and the current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, praised the soldiers for fulfilling the commandments of the Torah by learning to be adept soldiers. He made reference to the blessing of the patriarch Jacob to his son Judah, "Judah – you your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies' nape." (Genesis 49:8). "How can [Judah] run after his enemies, to defeat his enemies?" Rabbi Lau asked. "He has to be trained to keep the bow and the arrows in his hand. The bow and the arrows in the hands of Yehuda, according to the blessing of Jacob, our father."
He also quoted a verse from the Book of Exodus regarding going out to battle, and charged the soldiers "[One should not] wait until your enemies will come and when the fight will be in your home… Take the initiative, [fire] the first bullet."