In this undated photo, Rabbi Shimon Hartman, center in white shirt, with Haredi soldiers from Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)
Main image: Rabbi Shimon Hartman with Haredi soldiers from Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)
'It was important to him to contribute to the Jewish people'

A yeshiva that preps Haredi men for IDF service mourns first graduate to fall in battle

As Israeli society debates mandatory ultra-Orthodox enlistment amid war, Staff Sgt. Bezalel Kovach’s life and death present a new view of what it means to belong to the community

Main image: Rabbi Shimon Hartman with Haredi soldiers from Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

On Wednesday, May 22, Staff Sgt. Bezalel Zvi Kovach, 20, was critically wounded while fighting in Gaza. Four days later he succumbed to his wounds at Soroka Medical Center.

Kovach was the first to fall in battle among graduates of Chedvata, a yeshiva that prepares Haredi men for IDF duty.

If fatal casualty rates are an indication which segments of society are doing their fair share in Israel’s defense, the Kovach family’s loss is a step toward balancing inequality between ultra-Orthodox or Haredi and non-Haredi Israelis.

“The soldier Bezalel Kovach fought in Gaza out of a commitment to being a part of the Israeli story, and he embodies the educational legacy I want for our students,” said Rabbi Yonatan Reiss, who created and runs Chedvata.

In recent months, as the uncompromising Haredi political leadership’s opposition to a mandatory military draft threatens to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Reiss, a member of the Belz Hasidic movement, has been making frequent media appearances on Israeli TV dressed in full Hasidic garb with long sidelocks framing his face.

Lawmakers early Tuesday voted 63-57 to apply “continuity” to a bill from the previous Knesset dealing with the military service of yeshiva students, reviving the contentious legislation amid the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

“As a member of the Haredi community, I can tell you that we excel at volunteering and that’s really wonderful, but volunteering is not the same as taking responsibility, with all due respect,” said Reiss.

“The day members of the Haredi community commit, truly commit to three years of service, to being a part of what’s happening here — as Bezalel did — the day they start serving their nation… or even commit to working in a hospital, wherever they feel comfortable, wherever they feel their Haredi identity is respected, that’s the day you’ll see Haredim in the labor market, that’s the day Haredim will be fully integrated and that’s the day they will understand what it means to be an integral part of the Jewish people,” he said.

Kovach’s funeral was conducted in strict accordance with the traditions of Jerusalem’s Perushim (separatists) community, founded by disciples of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, who immigrated to Israel from Lithuania in the 1800s.

The three-volley salute, flower bouquets and other obsequies of IDF burial protocol were absent. The funeral was conducted at the Givat Shaul cemetery, not at Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery.

Kovach’s battalion commander, Lt. Gen. Shlomo Shiran, gave a eulogy before a mostly male crowd, some dressed in black suits and hats, others in olive green military uniforms.

Staff Sgt. Bezalel Zvi Kovach, left, with Rabbi Maj. (res) Shimon Hartman. (Courtesy)

One of the mourners present at the funeral was Yehuda Segal, a close friend of Kovach who grew up in the same Haredi neighborhood, learned with him in the Chedvata Yeshiva and served in the same battalion, Netzah Yehuda, that was designed to cater to Haredi customs.

Segal said Kovach, a squad commander, was the most selfless person he had ever met.

“He was the type of guy who you could wake up at three in the morning and he would be there with a cigarette and a can of Coke and encourage you,” said Segal. “He had this amazing spirit, totally selfless, always there for others, especially his soldiers. It didn’t matter whether that person was Jewish or non-Jewish. ‘So what if he is a gentile,’ he would say when guys pointed this out to him, ‘Hashem [God] created him too.’”

Segal recounted how, while visiting Kovach’s family during the week of Jewish ritual mourning, he met a young Haredi man who had never heard of the Netzah Yehuda battalion.

“I told him how we combine commitment to Judaism with army service, the holy with the profane, contributing to the nation with learning Torah — that the two don’t contradict each other,” said Segal.

“He looked at me like he couldn’t believe what I was telling him. I showed him pictures of Bezalel — I guess he thought he would see someone with dreadlocks and earrings, and suddenly he sees a guy in uniform wearing a four-cornered garment with fringes, sitting during guard duty learning [the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev],” said Segal. “The guy said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was possible.’”

Segal noted that in the days between Kovach’s injury and his death, prayer rallies for his recovery were held in Kovach’s strictly Haredi Ramot Dalet Jerusalem neighborhood.

“It can tell you that there will be guys from the neighborhood, and not just one or two, who will follow Bezalel’s example and enlist. Attitudes are changing,” said Segal.

‘Parasites’ who ‘desecrate God’s name’

But if Haredi attitudes toward military service are changing, the pace is glacial.

In all, there are fewer than 300 students enrolled at Chedvata’s different programs. Another 60 graduates are serving in the IDF.

Students study Talmud at Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

Based on data provided by the Israel Democracy Institute and statements made by IDF officials in Knesset meetings, despite annual population growth of four percent — the fastest of any group in Israel — Haredi IDF enlistment has remained relatively steady since 2018 at about 1,200, just 10% of those eligible for service in 2023. And many of these men come from the fringes of Haredi society — yeshiva dropouts, children of newcomers to Orthodoxy, boys from modern-minded families with high school matriculation, new immigrants from non-Haredi communities.

Despite attempts by the IDF, public figures and social activists — both Haredi and not — to encourage IDF enlistment, a painful chasm separates those Israeli families who live in fear of the knock on the door from an IDF death notification officer and the vast majority of Haredi families who don’t.

Since the 1950s, a political arrangement anchored in a series of laws and government decisions has allowed Haredi men to postpone mandatory military service until they are too old to be drafted. They need to declare Torah study to be their full-time occupation and commit to remaining unemployed. The state provides those who study with modest stipends. Yeshivot are supposed to be audited for attendance. But tens of thousands of able-bodied men are said to be fictively registered at a yeshiva in order to receive funds but never set foot inside.

For the embattled Jewish state, this arrangement has become increasingly untenable.

Israel faces myriad military threats: the war in Gaza, escalation on the Lebanese border, drone and missile attacks by Iran-backed militias in Yemen and Iraq, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the uptick in Palestinian terrorism in Judea and Samaria. Overwhelming defense burdens are being shouldered by those who do serve — along with their spouses, children and parents, who must cope with the economic, physical and emotional stress of having a loved-one away from home for prolonged periods of time exposed to existential dangers.

Since October 7, 299 soldiers and one police officer have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip. About the same number of soldier deaths took place during the October 7 invasion, when thousands of terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel, the vast majority of them civilians, and kidnapped 251 to the Gaza Strip, where roughly 120 — many of them soldiers — are still being held.

Illustrative: Family and friends of Israeli soldier Master Sgt. (res) Nahman Natan Hertz, 31, attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 7, 2024. Hertz was killed in a Hezbollah drone strike on Metula (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, over 60,000 Haredi men between the ages of 18 and 26, many of whom fit for military service, avail themselves of the Torah-is-my-profession exemption. Not all devote their productive hours to Torah study.

The discrepancy has led to public outcry.

A video of hundreds of military-age Haredi men sitting in Ramat Gan’s National Park on the evening of June 1, watching an open-air screening of the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund went viral on social media. Comments included, “Parasites,” “Desecration of God’s name,” “My son is serving and didn’t get permission to watch the game,” and, “So soccer takes precedence over studying Torah?”

In 2017, the High Court of Justice, based on a quasi-constitutional Basic Law ensuring equality before the law, declared the status quo to be unlawful because it discriminates against the non-Haredi population.

Since then, consecutive governments have successfully petitioned the High Court to delay wholesale drafting of Haredim, arguing success depends on cooperation of the Haredi community’s political and spiritual leadership.

But this cooperation has not materialized and the High Court is not willing to wait any longer. At the end of March, the High Court shot down a government request for another 30-day extension and issued an interim order to cut state funding to Haredi yeshivot.

On June 2, a special panel of nine High Court justices heard the government’s legal advisor argue in favor of deferrals for Haredi young men, claiming it was the IDF’s sole prerogative whether or not to conscript them and that the court should not interfere.

“Word games” and “going around in circles” were the way several justices described the arguments, with some appearing to mock the legal counsel’s claims. The IDF’s dire need for manpower was a central concern of the justices, who seemed to favor an aggressive move to conscript Haredi men, but have not yet ruled on the matter.

As the High Court justices and the government’s legal advisor traded arguments in Jerusalem, dozens of Haredi men blocked Route 4 at the entrance to the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, in protest against attempts to conscript them.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024, during a hearing on Haredi enlistment in the IDF. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The two Haredi political parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — would sooner resign, and thus topple Netanyahu’s government coalition, before implementing a High Court decision to forcibly draft Haredi men.

A different approach

The quiet, tree-lined, all-male Haredi campus where Chedvata is located seems far removed from all the legal and political controversy surrounding Haredi conscription. Nestled inside a residential neighborhood in Gan Yavne, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Tel Aviv and purposely distant from any Haredi community so as not to arouse opposition, the campus includes an extension of Ashkelon College offering Haredi men practical academic degrees such as accounting, business or computer sciences. Also on the campus is Derech Haim Yeshiva, which, like Chedvata, prepares young Haredi men for the IDF.

But whereas Derech Haim’s students all have the educational background and proclivities to complete a computer sciences degree, Chedvata caters to a more diverse student body. In addition to a computer science degree, young men at Chedvata can also obtain a practical engineering degree in computers.

The two tracks are part of the hesder (arrangement) yeshiva framework in which religious soldiers are permitted to shorten their military service and combine it with Torah studies. Besides Derech Haim and Chedvata, all the other hesder yeshivot, which number more than 60, cater to modern Orthodox students.

Chedvata also offers a combat track like the one completed by Kovach and Segal. Called Tzavta, it is a pre-military academy where young Haredi men receive seven months of preparation before enlisting.

But Chedvata’s two technological tracks, which prepare students to integrate into one of the IDF’s high-tech units, are the most popular.

Students sit in front of Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

“I didn’t want to end up working in a supermarket trying to support a wife and children with rent to pay and no future,” said Baruch Linshe, 23, who grew up in the Seret-Viznitz Hasidic community in Haifa, and is completing his final year of studies to become a practical engineer.

“My message to Haredi guys who are where I was four years ago is this: don’t throw your life away sitting around doing nothing, sleeping during the day and wandering around at night, without a purpose or a goal,” said Linshe, who is presently undergoing tests and interviews to get accepted to one of the IDF’s sought after high-tech units.

“I’m contributing to the country and I’m also preparing myself for life,” he said. “By the time I finish my IDF service, I’ll have both theoretical training and practical experience and will be able to find a good job.”

Rabbi Maj. (res.) Shimon Hartman, 41, the educational head of Chedvata Yeshiva, said that unlike the students at religious Zionist hesder yeshivot who, he said, tend to be motivated by ideology, his young men are very pragmatic.

“If I offered a teaching degree, like the religious Zionist hesder yeshivot do, instead of a high-tech degree, I would be sitting here alone,” Hartman said.

Hartman said the IDF encourages his graduates to specialize in the field that most interests them so that they can excel.

“You can choose from Full Stack, Cyber, Data, AI and QA — there are plenty of IDF units with technology needs,” he said.

Eclectic backgrounds

The yeshiva is housed in a former synagogue. Students learn Torah during the morning hours and pursue their academic studies in the afternoon and evening. Men who are in the combat track do physical training or learn colloquial Arabic in the afternoon and evening.

The students who spoke to The Times of Israel come from diverse, often eclectic Haredi and quasi-Haredi backgrounds.

Avreimy Grinblat, a first-year student in computer science at Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

Avreimy Grinblat, a first-year computer science student, grew up in the Haredi settlement of Kiryat Sefer. His parents, whose own parents embraced Orthodoxy later in life, belong to the Breslov Hasidic community. He graduated from the Hasidic Midrasha, a groundbreaking high school that combines a high-level math, science and English curriculum with Torah studies.

Grinblat admitted that it would be “embarrassing” to return home in uniform to his Haredi neighborhood.

“But I want to be open about what I am doing and not feel as though I have to hide anything,” he said.

Grinblat suggested that his choice to do IDF service could hurt his matchmaking chances.

“I am looking for a woman who is like me, someone not classically Haredi,” he said.

Natan Anter, also a computer science student, whose parents — also latecomers to the Haredi lifestyle — wanted him to complete high school matriculation, said he debated between Chedvata and doing a prestigious 10-year IDF Atuda training program that combines an academic degree and a stint as a career soldier.

“I had really good grades and I could have attended Hebrew University, but I chose Chedvata even though the academic part is not the highest level because I wanted to learn Torah and strengthen my religious identity in a place that is both open-minded and demanding,” Anter said.

Other students included Eden Biton, who grew up in a Chabad community in Hadera and Liam Amram of Netanya, who grew up in what he called a traditional family but embraced a Haredi identity as a teenager.

Baruch Linshe is in his final year of studies for a degree as a practical engineer in computers at Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

Grinblat, Anter, Biton and Amram are not from the Haredi mainstream. They arrived at Chedvata as a natural extension of the education they received at home, which included secular studies. Without young men like them, Chedvata’s small student body would be even smaller or it would have to accept yeshiva dropouts who lack motivation. The right balance between serious young men with a secular studies background and graduates of the Haredi school system is important for Chedvata’s success.

“A lot of thought and energy goes into striking the right balance,” said Reiss. “We can’t maintain a yeshiva that only has guys who dropped out of the classic Haredi framework. We tried, but it doesn’t work.”

From AWOL to the officer in charge

Reiss, 35, served in the IDF’s Information and  Communications Technology (ICT) Corps, eventually taking responsibility for Haredi soldiers in the unit. But he did not plan to serve. He got married at the age of 18 and left Israel for Brazil with his wife to teach Torah. While in Brazil he started an export business.

At the age of 26 — by then a father of three children — Reiss returned to Israel, where he was promptly arrested for going AWOL. After an initial attempt to avoid serving, he reconciled himself and decided to make the most of his time.

Reiss rejects the idea that he is a catalyst for change in the Haredi community. Rather he sees himself as riding the back of organic processes taking place within Haredi society.

“We see ourselves as an educational framework for those who want to join the IDF, not a conscription service. Not everyone is cut out for it — the truth is that most people within the Haredi mainstream are not built for army service — but for those who are, Chedvata ushers them through a significant educational process which prepares them for the secular world while fostering a strong Haredi identity, something that is not talked about so much in the mainstream Haredi community,” he said.

Rabbi Yonathan Reiss, founder of Chedvata Yeshiva. (Courtesy)

When an unmarried Haredi man joins the IDF it often means he has already left the mainstream Haredi community. And exit costs are high, which explains why not too many Haredi young men are rushing to the IDF induction center.

The story of Linshe, who grew up in the insular Seret-Viznitz community in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood, is instructive. His first act of rebellion, which set him on a trajectory toward IDF service — and exodus from Seret-Viznitz — was his rejection, at the age of 17, of an arranged marriage organized for him by his family.

“Out of 25 boys where I learned as a child, just me and another two are not married,” he said.

For several years he learned at different Hasidic yeshivot while volunteering for Magen David Adom and other organizations.

Another turning point for Linshe was when he bought a smartphone.

“My parents were very unhappy, it is not their way. But they eventually learned to live with it,” he said.

Unlike friends of his, who were expelled from their homes for owning a smartphone, Linshe’s parents were more tolerant, perhaps because six of Linshe’s seven siblings are older and less impressionable.

Gradually Linshe stopped learning at yeshiva and started working full-time for Magen David Adom as a salaried ambulance driver.

“Whenever I would have a call on Shabbat, kids in the neighborhood would shout at me ‘shegetz,’” Linshe said, quoting a pejorative word for a non-Jew.

Because he postponed IDF service under the pretext that he was learning Torah full-time, it was illegal for Linshe to work. He recalled being fearful of being caught.

It was at this time that Linshe discovered Chedvata through a friend.

“If not for Chedvata I would never have joined the IDF. I didn’t have a clue how to go about it,” he said.

Chedvata helped prepare Linshe for the secular environment in the IDF and provided him with a framework for learning a profession during what he calls “the most meaningful years of my entire life.”

Linshe said that today he could not find a marriage match with a compatible woman within the Seret-Viznitz community.

“They’d want to marry me with someone who nobody else wants,” he said.

But Linshe said he has reconciled himself to his life decisions.

“I want a wife who thinks like me and I want something better for my children. I want them to receive a religious education, but one that will prepare them for the labor market,” Linshe said.

Like stepping off a cliff

Most Haredi men are not willing to pay the price of giving up their network of family and social connections and all that is familiar to them to venture into the unknown.

Chedvata Yeshiva founder Rabbi Yonathan Reiss, left, speaks with a student. (Courtesy)

Reiss estimated that of more than 60,000 Haredi men between 18 and 26 who are indefinitely postponing IDF service because Torah is their profession, about 30% have completely dropped out and “don’t even know how to find the yeshiva where they are registered as full-time students.”

Reiss recommended starting with these young men. But instead of dragooning them or demanding quotas, he suggested a two-step program: First, carefully audit attendance at yeshivot where young Haredi men claim to be learning.

“Institutions that lie about attendance should be sanctioned,” said Reiss. “When their budgets are on the line you’ll see how quickly they will get their act together.”

The second step is to provide state funding, rent-free buildings and other resources to projects like Chedvata that help prepare Haredi young men for IDF service.

Hartman, who does reserve duty as an IDF rabbi when he is not teaching and guiding his students at Chedvata warned against high expectations.

“You’re not going to see tens of thousands of students leaving the yeshivot to join the IDF,” said Hartman. “The guys at Ponevezh and Hebron learning 16, 17, 18 hours a day you will continue to see. That’s not going to change. The question is what happens to the guys who don’t learn?”

Hartman said that Haredi parents are more sensitive to the needs of their children than in the past and are, therefore, more open to alternative educational options. And the IDF is increasingly seen by non-Haredi Israelis and by Haredim as a gateway to economic advancement, whether through professional training, special perks, financial aid or pensions.

“Using coercion won’t work, though, it will only strengthen Haredi opposition. Besides, it is not practical. There are tens of thousands of Haredim with an exemption. What are you going to do, put them all in jail?” he said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak on May 11, 2010 (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Hartman lamented that political dynamics prevent a more pragmatic approach.

“[National Unity head and former defense minister] Benny Ganz used to support a plan for integrating Haredim that did not include quotas and coercion, but he’s become more hardline because that’s the popular thing to do and that’s what will bring him more votes,” Hartman said.

“And the Haredi parties will never agree to conscription for Haredi men, even those who aren’t in yeshivot. From their point of view, it’s a slippery slope, you let some guys enlist and the next thing you know you’ll have a landslide,” he added.

Reiss, who has the moral backing of Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the leader of the Belz Hasidic movement, has ambitious plans for the future. He started Chedvata six years ago with a NIS 2 million (roughly $500,000) personal loan and six students.

This year, Chedvata opened a new yeshiva in Nesher, near Haifa, that caters to a predominantly Sephardic population, many of whom came to Orthodox Judaism later in life. He plans to open two more yeshivot next year, one in Netivot and one in Jerusalem.

In addition, he opened a yeshiva this year in Jerusalem for an elite group of yeshiva students who study Torah eight hours a day to fulfill their requirement by law and in the evenings complete a degree in computer science from the Open University.

Leading Haredi rabbis signed a ban against attending the yeshiva that was published in the Haredi daily Yated Neeman.

“I was certain the guys wouldn’t show up, but they did,” Reiss said.

Reiss said he has no regrets about founding Chedvata and opening a track for Haredi men to join combat units, even after the tragedy involving Kovach, who was killed by friendly fire.

“I could have led a simpler life as a businessman,” said Reiss. “But it’s part of my commitment to the state. And that commitment has only strengthened in the wake of October 7.

“Bezalel didn’t have to serve. Due to personal difficulties, he received an exemption from the IDF. But he fought to get accepted to a combat unit. He asked me to help and I did. It was important to him to contribute to the Jewish people. When he became part of the offensive in Gaza he was aware of the risks and I am very proud of him and of every student who chooses to fight,” Reiss said.

“It’s very painful and sad, but we are living here in the State of Israel and if somebody doesn’t learn Torah then serving in the IDF is part of the Israeli story, part of sharing the burden,” he said.

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