The outgoing government has actively promoted, and legislated, army service for ultra-Orthodox youths, along with encouraging more members of the community to enter the workforce, and presumably the next government will continue those policies. But the IDF is way ahead of the government.
For the past eight years, the army has been running the Shahar program, which provides ultra-Orthodox enlisted men not only with the opportunity to fulfill their army service, but also to learn technological skills that could help them in the outside world.
In fact, said Lieutenant D (as per IDF regulations, his full name cannot be published), some of the early graduates have already gotten jobs. “I don’t know if any of them have come up with ‘killer apps’ yet, but I do know that dozens of soldiers who have gone through Shahar have entered the workplace and are honorably supporting their families in high-tech work.”
Shahar, a part of the IDF’s C4I Directorate, is the tech-oriented “little brother” of the much more well-known Nahal Haredi program, which deploys ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the field, on patrols and in combat duty. Shahar is for perhaps the less adventurous but more career-minded. Recruits get a six-month crash course in programming, network administration, communications, and other areas that the IDF needs tech workers for. After the course, they are sent to tech and intelligence units, where they work on improving communications and developing solutions for field units using new equipment and protocols.
The “Haredi” part of Shahar (the word is a Hebrew acronym for “integrating Haredim”) includes features without which ultra-Orthodox soldiers would find it very difficult to serve. The food is strictly glatt kosher and mehadrin; recruits get time to pray and learn Torah (at least an hour a day); and there are no female instructors in any of the classes (currently there is no female component to Shahar, although that could change in the future, said Lt. D).
While Nahal Haredi units often attract teens looking for adventure, Shahar’s recruits are generally a bit older – many of them are married, and many of them are frank about why they are there. “There is a lot of Zionism in many segments of the Haredi community, a lot more than people realize,” said Lt. D. “But what drives them to take the leap and join the army is the prospect of learning skills that will be worth something in the workplace.”
The vast majority of Shahar recruits are graduates of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva system, where only minimal time or attention was paid to secular subjects (some of the recruits, said Lt. D, have to go through remedial classes in math and English in order to qualify for the computer course), and although they remain in the ultra-Orthodox community, they look to the IDF to gain the skills needed to support a family.
“Some are single, some have kids, but most of them are older,” said Lt. Dan. “Currently the oldest one we have is 28.”
Lt. Dan sees nothing wrong with the fact that his charges are “using” the army to learn career skills. “The truth is that today there are a lot of options for members of the Haredi community who want to learn skills, even advanced skills. There are numerous college programs that are tailor-made for Haredim, and they are openly sanctioned by the rabbis, so there is less risk of criticism or condemnation by more conservative members of the community.”
While numerous rabbis have told him that they support Shahar, said Lt. Dan, none will come out and openly give their approbation. “The fact that they are here shows that there is a desire to serve and help the Jewish people defend itself, and they realize they are taking on social risks by coming here.”
Like in the Nahal Haredi, Shahar soldiers sometimes face harsh reactions in their home communities, and sometimes they are given permission to leave the base without wearing their uniform. With that, Shahar is a very popular program, and there is a waiting list to get in.
Which raises the question of whether it’s worth it for the IDF to run a program like this in the first place. Clearly, Shahar is more than a unit for Israeli defense; it’s a social policy tool, designed to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to join the army – and Israeli society.
“It’s not for me to say whether this is a good idea or not, but the IDF is for all Israelis,” said Lt. D. “We do it because we are supposed to. There are prejudices and potholes, but then there are tensions in almost any social situation. That we can take soldiers who don’t even know the ABCs or basic math and turn them out eight months later as top-flight programmers whose work saves the lives of other soldiers is to me very special, and reason enough to be proud of this program.”