Click BIG ARROW for a soldier's video about his comrades in the Nahal Haredi
In Israel, where service in the armed forces is every man's -- and most women's -- duty, the majority of Israelis, from secular to Modern Orthodox, have long scorned the ultra-Orthodox "black hats" for avoiding military service by studying in yeshivas.
Now, a battalion of ultra-religious young men, known as Nahal Haredi, is seeking to change this image by combining Torah study with the bearing of arms.
Between 10 percent and 12 percent of the 800 to 1,000 men in the battalion are mahalniks, or volunteers from abroad, with the largest contingents from the United States and France, followed by Russia and South Africa.
Currently, in an unorthodox outreach campaign, the Orthodox rabbis, who worked with the army to establish Nahal Haredi, are planning an advertisement campaign in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain to encourage foreign volunteers who can meet specific standards to come to Israel and join the battalion.
The ad drive is due to begin in July or August and, if effective, will be extended to other Diaspora countries with sizable Orthodox communities, said Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of Nahal Haredi-Netzah Yehuda, an auxiliary that serves as the link between the IDF and the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community. He hopes that Orthodox lay and spiritual leaders in the United States will support the drive.
Nahal Haredi was established in 1999 and was met initially with considerable skepticism by both Charedim and army generals. The beginnings were quite rocky, but now the project seems to be hitting its stride.
What kind of men is Nahal Haredi looking for? According to the organization's Web site the basic requirements are "Shabbat observance, wearing a kippah and a refined speech."
Theoretically, any man (no women, of course) who meets these basic criteria can join the battalion, but in practice, some 70 percent come from ultra-Orthodox homes in B'nai-B'rak and other Charedi enclaves.
Time is set aside for daily Talmud study, and the food is glatt kosher. No women are allowed on the base, but on Shabbat, married soldiers can meet their wives outside the base.
"Nahal Haredi has the highest proportion of Diaspora volunteers of any Israeli unit; they come to us with high motivation, and many subsequently make aliyah," Klebanow said. "Sometimes, they are more Zionistic than native-born Israelis."
Klebanow cited other advantages: "The Orthodox population is going up because of its high birthrate, while the secular population is going down, so if Israel is to have an army in 20 years, it must have more Orthodox soldiers."
To further integrate Charedim into mainstream Israeli society, Klebanow's organization supports one year of college studies for discharged soldiers, while last month American telecommunications tycoon Howard Jonas promised a job in one of his Israeli companies to every soldier in the battalion who completes his service.
This video shows training excercises for the medical team
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