Evening was falling as I walked through Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, searching for a group of haredi guys doing sprints. I figured they wouldn’t be too hard to pick out of the summer crowd, dressed as they would be in black hats with sidelocks hanging, running a 1k around the park circuit. Sacher Park is full of haredim, but not too many jogging in a black bekishe, or suit jacket.

I was wrong. I didn’t find them. It was Sefi, short for Yosefi Zeev — one of two counselors for this particular group of young haredim taking part in the Aharai pre-army training program — who eventually found me. He brought me over to sit in on their session — to join a motley but motivated group of haredi guys my age (21), who are considering induction into the IDF.

Zeev was sporting a typical workout look — shorts and t-shirt, with a small kippah perched on his shaven head. His co-counselor, Gad Shuali, wasn’t wearing a kippah, but is religious as well, as all counselors must be to participate in this haredi pre-army program run by the Aharai non-profit leadership organization.

The participants were a mix of body types, some heavy, some skinny, but the majority were not in great physical condition. None was dressed in typical haredi grab; most were wearing what looked like hand-me-down workout clothes, with outfits ranging from pants and a polo shirt to cargo shorts and third-hand Nikes. But everyone made an effort in the actual workout, said Zeev, helping one another out in the twice-weekly round of sprints, long-distance runs, push-ups, sit-ups, squats and muscle stretches.

The goal of Aharai is to help develop leadership and social skills among youth from the country’s projects, development towns, absorption centers, boarding schools and shelters. The organization, set up 15 years ago, aims to guide them toward serving in the army, which offers them a better chance of ultimately succeeding in society.

This particular Aharai group has been running for a little more than a year, and is designated for haredi young men, teaching them physical fitness skills, and giving them a chance “to leave their box,” explained Zeev.

It’s a very useful initiative — a small bridge between the insular ultra-Orthodox community and the IDF, between a closed, separate world and the rest of Israeli society, at a time of acute friction between the two. Many Israelis are increasingly intolerant of an ultra-Orthodox community they see as sponging off the rest of society, benefiting from the security, stability and the welfare framework while giving nothing in return. Many in the ultra-Orthodox world feel their lifestyle and commitment to Torah study are central to the sustainability of Judaism, and that their traditions are under intolerant assault.

The small Aharai group in the park caters for some of the few young men in the closed world who are tentatively considering even a limited foray, via the IDF, into the open one. After each two-hour workout, the counselors hold discussions on the grass, tailored to the different backgrounds and emotions of the 15 or so participants, talking Torah, morality and, societal obligations. They also organize activities in which the participants have to deal with questions of mutual responsibility, leadership and social justice.

Some graduates of this group have enlisted in the army over the past year, others haven’t, and no one is pushing them in either direction. Zeev, in fact, doesn’t feel the IDF is fully prepared for haredi enlistment.

“The IDF needs to think more about those who want to stay a part of the haredi world (once enlisted) and not just about those who are leaving it (in order to enlist),” he commented.

"When I grow up, I'll be a soldier in the Army of God, not in an army of disbelievers", a sign held up at a recent rally (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)

‘When I grow up, I’ll be a soldier in the Army of God, not in an army of non-believers’ — a sign held up at a recent ultra-Orthodox rally against conscription (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash 90)

It is an astute comment, considering the current upheaval over haredi enlistment in the IDF. The organization is targeting the haredi demographic just as the political leadership grapples with a framework for haredi national service.

The Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law, colloquially called the Tal Law, was passed in 2002 as a temporary mean to legally give army exemptions to haredi yeshiva students, who had already been getting them unofficially. But six months ago, the Tal Law was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court, and as of August 1, will be off the books. The Netanyahu coalition –facing public pressure and rallies for universal conscription, and furious opposition from haredi politicians and their constituents — has failed thus far to legislate a replacement.

Interestingly, some of the Gan Sacher Aharai recruits hadn’t heard about the pro-enlistment rallies, possibly because they don’t require any preaching — they’re already considering enlistment.

Aharai established this group because of the need it sees for encouraging potentially interested haredi kids to reach that point — to at least think about joining the IDF. Each counselor fulfills a multifaceted role — confidant, mentor, personal trainer, and, ultimately, friend. Zeev is positive that the discussions influence the workouts, and vice versa. Once participants complete the physical workout, he said, “it’s easier to try to have deep conversations.”

Aharai nationwide has been running pre-army training programs for new immigrants and underprivileged citizens since 1997. This newish haredi “pilot program,” as public relations head Uri Efroni called it, still has its core objectives being refined at every twice-weekly training session. But it has been so successful that Aharai plans to start three similar groups elsewhere next year.

Moshe Lekutiel Moyale, a 21-year-old haredi from a Moroccan family in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ma’alot Dafna, graduated the course a few months ago and was just drafted to the all-male combat unit, Netzah Yehuda. Ultra-Orthodox soldiers have been drafted to the Netzeh Yehuda Battalion for the last decade, performing “critical operational activity in Judea and Samaria,” said an IDF spokesman.

At the swearing-in ceremony of the haredi IDF unit (photo credit: Noam Moscowitz/Flash90)

At the swearing-in ceremony of the haredi Netzah Yehuda IDF unit (photo credit: Noam Moscowitz/Flash90)

We spoke a week before Moyale’s draft date, as he was returning from his ritual dip in a local spring, velvet kippah on his head and a towel draped around his neck. He claimed “there are a lot of haredi boys similar to me.”

Moyale said he was excited to be enlisting, for the full three years. “Aharai already gave us the ability to get through hardships, so I’m not scared,” he said.

Moyale dropped out of his yeshiva in Har Nof when he could no longer afford it and began working at a grocery store. His Aharai counselors have helped Moyale with every struggle in his life, he said — physical, psychological and financial. He values the program so much that he started his own group of three or four guys in his neighborhood to exercise and discuss life values, and hopes to get Aharai to support it.

Not everyone shares Moyale’s approach on the compatibility of the haredi world and the IDF. Shalom and Yossi — they were both anxious not to be identified further — first joined Aharai for the physical fitness option and are still participating. They gradually grew more committed to the idea of serving in the army… though not sufficiently committed to sign up.

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the haredi IDF 'Nahal Haredi' unit (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the haredi IDF ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Shalom, 23, is the seventh of 11 children and grew up in Bnei Brak. Yossi, 20 and also the seventh of 11 kids, grew up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. Yossi said his family was relatively “open to other [non-haredi] ideas,” but every one of his siblings is either learning in yeshiva, or married and getting compensated to learn on a full-time basis.

They both attend the Mir Yeshiva in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and described the Mir-dominated streets that surround the school. With an estimated 6,000 students, making it one of the largest yeshivas in the world, the Mir has great sway in the neighborhood. Simply as a function of its size and financial clout, it can control closing time in the surrounding stores and encourage local markets to sell cups of Coke for one shekel each, instead of pricey cans of soda, for poor yeshiva students.

Yossi found out about Aharai when he used to run in Sacher Park and once stopped to chat with a friend in the park’s outdoor gym. Kids in the group called them over, and he felt an immediate connection, he said. He brought Shlomo along the next time he went. Both remarked that the Aharai commitment begins with the physical fitness activity, but ends up involving much more.

They both commented on the new experience, for them, of talking openly about personal stories and feelings with people they’d never met before. While many of the Aharai haredi participants are from very similar backgrounds, even slight differences can seem monumental in the insular haredi world. Yet the army-oriented aspects of the Aharai group have helped create bonds and friendships for the Sacher Park crowd, they said.

“When someone helps me keep going during a run, then I have more reason to listen to his opinion [in a discussion of values],” said Yossi, “even if he’s six years younger and has learned less Talmud than me.”

Shalom and Yossi aren’t jumping to be recruited, but Yossi said he that if he stops learning in order to earn a living, he will first donate some time to the IDF.

Shalom added that those who don’t learn, should serve. For these two young men, the ideal is learning, while being a soldier is a lesser option. At the same time, the Aharai program offers “a small window outside of the yeshiva framework,” said Shlomo.

After the recent training session ended, two other Aharai boys, who are set to enlist shortly, stayed in the park to study from a math textbook, setting it on the seat of a motorcycle owned by a now non-haredi friend. It was now close to midnight, after a long night of exercise and discussion, but they needed to study and review the material in order to do well in an exam at the army recruitment center. As one of them explained, they’d never learned math in school.