Will Haredim soon join the Israeli Air Force?

Is Israel's Air Force the next frontier for haredi integration into the IDF?

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Rabbi Avraham Borodiansky with haredi service members
Rabbi Avraham Borodiansky with haredi service members
Courtesy of Barkai

An F-16 flying over Israel's skies conjures up many images in the minds of anyone taking notice, one of them is decidedly not an image of Israel's Haredi population. But if Gavriel Hemo and his Barkai program have their way, the absence of that image will soon belong to the past.

In 2012 the Ministry of Defense’s Department of Social and Security Policy approached Hemo with the idea of establishing a program for integrating young Haredi men into the Air Force. Hemo, who served for many years as Deputy Mayor of the Golan Heights Regional Council, is currently chairman of the "Ruach HaGolan" educational network, which runs twelve unique high schools and post-high school institutions with over 2,000 students.

The Ruach HaGolan network includes the Regavim branch of schools, which integrates rigorous agricultural training and work with a full high school matriculation program. The network includes a school that focuses on excellence in science and technology, the popular Hispin Yeshiva high school, as well as the "Adir Bamarom" Hesder Yeshiva program that combines Torah study with high level technology training for service in the Israel Air Force technology division.

The success of Adir Bamarom prompted the Defense Ministry to approach Hemo and Rabbi Yitzchak Laslow, head of the Yeshiva, with the request that they open a similar track for Haredim. Hemo and Laslow rose to the challenge and Barkai was born.

Realizing the opposition they would encounter within the Haredi community, they approached Rabbi Avraham Borodiansky, grandson of the late venerable Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach to take the helm. Although he had a classic Haredi upbringing, studying in the most well-known and respected Haredi Yeshivoth, Borodiansky came with a wealth of experience working with Haredi youth who had fallen out of the system and were trying to find themselves while on the periphery of Haredi society.

Bringing Rabbi Borodiansky on board was a real coup as he provided the requisite Haredi gravitas for the program and naturally limited the scope of opposition. His personal standing as both a Torah scholar and talented educator, as well as his impressive lineage, helped secure the seal of approval for Barkai from important Haredi Rabbinic leaders

"Social changes affecting the Haredi community make Barkai an inescapable necessity. Real leaders understand this," argues Borodiansky. "The Haredi sector of the population has grown dramatically forcing the creation of communities beyond the traditional neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak. This migration along with the internet, the expanded need for employment opportunities, the Aliyah of secular-educated Haredim from Anglo-Saxon countries as well as the ubiquitous “Teshuva” movement, has all forced the Haredim to confront the realities of societal integration."

Borodiansky also points to the Shas political party and the Haredization of much of the Sephardic community as a factor spurring change as well. "Sephardic families from the get go didn't identify with the Ashkenazi yeshiva isolationism and antipathy for army service. Influence was not a one way street. The Ashkenazi yeshivot certainly influenced the Sephardic ones in many areas of study and religious norms, but Sephardic Haredim also projected that there was no contradiction between being Haredi and remaining part of Israeli society as a whole. This influence may have been subliminal, but over time it was and remains significant," he says.

The numbers speak for themselves. After beginning with a handful of students just seven years ago, Barkai now has 130 students and will be starting the next academic year with over 180. "That number could easily double if space was available," says Hemo. "It breaks my heart that we have to turn so many potential students away because we simply have no room. This has to change and I'm sure that with continued success it will. Everyone involved wants to see the program grow dramatically."

"Everyone" includes those who count the most when it comes to government funding: The Minister of Defense, officials from the Prime Minister's office, the Finance and Education Ministries, IDF generals and IAF commanders. During official visits all officials have promised increased funding. The army chiefs have expressed tremendous satisfaction with the program as the need for smart and disciplined technological support staff is acute.

The program is intense and lasts for a minimum of five years. Because most of the students entering Barkai have not completed high school studies, the first year is dedicated to full high school matriculation. "It is important to remember that the students we accept are of a high intellectual caliber," emphasizes Rabbi Borodiansky. "They are very capable academically but have simply not been given the opportunity to learn anything other than religious studies. It shouldn't be surprising then that they can matriculate and achieve a high school diploma in one serious year of study.”

The second and third years of study are dedicated to the specific areas of software and ICT training that lead to a degree recognized by the Ministry of Education in ‘practical engineering.’ Having completed their basic educational training the students go on to serve in the Air Force for at least two years. Students who excel can go on to an additional eight month advanced technological training course in the IDF from which they will continue to elite intelligence units and serve for at least another four years.

Economists and state budget planners in the Prime Minister's office and the Finance Ministry see the contribution of Barkai in what happens with the graduates after their army service. As the Haredi population grows, so does the need to integrate more into the workforce.

Otherwise the number of society's dependents will grow and will also put a greater burden on a shrinking workforce. Barkai's graduates are prepared for social integration and workforce participation immediately upon completing their army service. This is Barkai in the macro, a crucial game changer when it comes to long-term economic planning and sustained growth.

Barkai in the micro contributes towards changing individual lives. Eli grew up in Jerusalem, the youngest of eight brothers, none of whom served in the IDF. "It wasn't even a consideration for them, or for my friends and neighbors. We were conditioned to consider anyone a "freiyer" (loser) who went to the army. The absurdity of it all was the fact that I drifted from yeshiva to yeshiva and spent most of my high school years just hanging out, and that didn't make me a freiyer. My family and friends see me now; growing, accomplishing and getting ready to make a serious contribution and their attitude has changed."

"When I came to Barkai, I was suspicious," Eli admits, "but I very quickly discovered that there was no cynicism here, no pretentiousness. Rav Borodiansky really cares about me and my future as he does of all the students."

Shiloh from Ramat Gan and Elchanan from Be'er Sheva and agree. Like Eli and most of the students in Barkai, they didn't find themselves in the Haredi Yeshiva system and found themselves wandering aimlessly with no direction. Shiloh says "A person without a daily schedule, without goals and an agenda is going to end up in trouble. This is what happens to guys who aren't fit for the typical Yeshiva program." Elchanan adds, “When I came to Barkai I couldn't do the most basic math. How was I going to get along in life, unless of course I didn't leave the four walls of Yeshiva."

Borodiansky and his staff don't minimize the importance of Torah study - on the contrary. They are all graduates of the most prestigious Haredi Yeshivot, and insist on a Haredi environment for Barkai students both on campus and in the army. "But not everyone is cut from the same cloth, not everyone is made to be a Halachic authority or Talmudic master," emphasizes Rabbi Elchanan Ba'agad. "There is more than one way to sanctify God and bring honor to his name. Barkai is a dream come true, and long overdue. These boys will bring honor to Torah through their service to the country, their knowledge, their behavior, the example they set."

Rabbi Nathaniel Ochana, Barkai's spiritual mentor, points to the changing norms the program has engendered. "Parents originally sent their sons here as a frustrated last resort, almost embarrassed that their boys were leaving the traditional mold. But that's changing. A lot of credit is due to the IAF for this. It is not always easy for base commanders to accommodate our requirements, from mandatory Torah learning time to special Kashrut demands, but they really want to see the program succeed and are always ready to go the extra mile. It is true that some of our students still have to change out of their uniform when they come home for a visit, but as our numbers grow and we continue to prove over time that service in the IDF is compatible with Haredi values and lifestyle, IDF uniforms will be celebrated in Haredi Yeshivot and households. The day is not that far away."

One challenge is already a thing of the past. It has been commonplace that Haredim who enlist have a problem with "shiduchim" (finding a spouse). When asked about this, Eli, Elchanan, and Shiloh all smile. "No problem on that score, says Eli, "on the contrary, there are plenty of Haredi girls who are honored to date IDF soldiers who have maintained their Haredi lifestyle."

Barkai has embarked on an ambitious 10 million dollar building project to accommodate the growing enrolment demand. Half the budget has already been pledged by government ministries and the IDF, and the other half will be raised from private donations. Gavriel Hemo is sanguine about the matching funds: "This is the kind of program that the country has been waiting for, and people understand that it's win-win for everyone involved. Here you have increased social cohesion, economic growth, individual prosperity and the country's defense all wrapped up in one. And, let's not forget that it's on the Golan Heights, which the government of the United States of America just recognized as sovereign Israel.”