On a Thursday in late February a few hundred soldiers waited in a grass field in northern Israel to receive their brown Golani berets. They had walked 70 kilometers and were about to be officially made combatants in one of the IDF’s top brigades. Girlfriends showed up with yellow flowers in their hair. Parents waved and jumped and snapped photos of their sons. But “Motti,” a short, clean-shaven private, looked solemn as he waited for his platoon commander to punch him in the chest and set the beret on his head.
He is from the heart of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, an area he calls “the Kasbah.” As a son of one of the most extreme and separatist sects in the ultra-Orthodox world, he was raised to do one thing and one thing only: study. All day and all night. From age three until death.
There were no playgrounds in his youth. No tag, no ball games, no horsing around. There was heider and yeshiva ketana and yeshiva gedoila. He learned the Bible until third grade and then began his life’s work, studying the Talmud. To parents and peers he was on the path of the righteous: an ultra-Orthodox student heading toward marriage, children and a life of Talmud study.
But Motti had a problem: he wanted to join the army.
On Independence Day, he would listen to the radio in secret, relishing the stories of battle. In school, he preferred King David and Judah Maccabee to the sedentary sages of the Talmud. “I always wanted to defend the Jewish people,” he explained.
At age 16 or so he was helping his mother with her Passover cleaning, perhaps the most physical work he did all year. He rolled up his sleeves. Noticing his immodest behavior she sniped, “Why don’t you leave it all already and join your beloved army?” he recalled.
At the time he had no such plans, but as time went on and marriage and adulthood loomed, he decided to take a step from which he knew there would be no return. He called the induction center. He did it, he said, not because he was having a crisis of faith. He simply wanted to serve and that, his father told him, “is something I will never accept.”
The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Tal Law, which essentially granted all ultra-Orthodox men an exemption from military service, was unconstitutional. The state would have to come up with a more equitable way of dealing with the thousands of draft-age ultra-Orthodox youth who failed to serve, the court said.
There are units in the army that cater to the rigorously Orthodox. There are even several hundred ultra-Orthodox recruits in the army. And there is a tenuous and gradual shift within the ultra-Orthodox community, a realization that the cross-the-board exemption for all ultra-Orthodox students is unsustainable. But to the majority of the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel the army represents all that is wrong with secularism. It is, as they say, “tuma” — a filthy, degrading, corrupting impiety; an institution to be avoided at all costs.
“We will hand over our lives for the existence of the Torah,” United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said Sunday, hinting that death would be preferable to army service.
A weighty decision
For those thinking about leaving the ultra-Orthodox world and joining the army, the stakes are high and well defined: There will be no return. Their families will be lost to them. They will not attend their siblings’ weddings and they will not taste their mothers’ food. For some, there is telephone contact and clandestine meetings. Time can help heal the wound. But for Motti, who now leads a secular lifestyle, there is nothing at all.
Motti’s speech comes in reluctant bursts. His narrative is jumbled. And rather than articulate the tension and dread that accompanied his decision and eventual departure, he sinks into the couch in his Jerusalem apartment and connects his iPhone to the stereo. There seems to be some pleasure on his face at the sound of his father’s voice but he denies it. “No,” he says, “not at all. I’m just playing this for you to hear.”
The conversation that he played took place in his family’s car in November 2010. Motti recorded it on his phone. “This is the only way I can actually talk to you,” his father said, “with the doors shut” and nowhere for Motti to go.
The conversation revolved around twin marital matters: a rushed marriage proposal for Motti and his sister’s upcoming wedding. Motti’s father wanted him to accept a suggested match. Motti told him that he wanted to wait until his sister was married so as not to overshadow her celebration. Unspoken for much of the conversation was the underlying truth: Motti’s refusal had nothing to do with his prospective bride or his sister. He intended to leave the ultra-Orthodox world, and his father knew this. In fact, Motti’s plans were in place. The only thing keeping him back was his loyalty to his sister. “If I would have left then they would have called off the wedding. For sure. They almost tried to call it off after the fact,” he says.
Motti first came under suspicion after having been seen in the company of a secular man on Jaffa Road. Perhaps the man was recognized as Tziki Aud, the founder of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levine in Jerusalem — and perhaps not — but in any case, the information was relayed to his parents.
On the seventh of the Hebrew month of Kislev, seven days after his sister was married, he left his house at three-thirty in the morning. He packed his possessions, mostly underwear and socks, in a garbage bag
Motti’s father took drastic action. Without informing his son, he arranged an exemption for him, an army diagnosis that found Motti mentally unfit for service. “Just to make sure I would never have the option of going to the army, they got me a mental discharge,” Motti says.
For some, those are hard to come by. But for the ultra-Orthodox, who have other means of exemption, they are given with little to no resistance. “They hand them out like hotcakes,” according to Aud, who is in constant contact with Motti, attending his army ceremonies and assisting with the endless difficulties that face an 18 year-old soldier whose family remains hostile and who lives on his own in what remains a foreign world.
The army makes contact with Israeli teens at age 16. They are called in for a physical and psychological screening. “Those who know already at that age that they want to join the army and leave the yeshiva are trapped,” Aud says.
Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are at the most dangerous age, Aud explains, “because they can’t yet approach Hillel.” Hillel is a nonprofit organization that provides housing, counseling, a social network and financial aid for formerly ultra-Orthodox university students and soldiers. But it will not make contact with anyone who is not yet eighteen years of age. Until that point, deputy director Yair Hass said, they are the responsibility of their parents and their societies. “It’s an ideological decision,” he said, acknowledging that there was “a problematic window” during those crucial years before the draft.
Those who are too young to be eligible for Hillel’s help, Aud says, sometimes find themselves “homeless or on drugs or [working in] prostitution.”
Avi, a formerly ultra-Orthodox man from a more moderate background in Bnei Brak, is a friend of Motti’s. Like Motti, he too was deemed mentally unfit for service. His experience, which Motto escaped, is nonetheless enlightening.
The army sends ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students a letter every six months demanding that they update their service deferral on account of yeshiva study. Avi never received the letters. The army scheduled a draft date. His parents consulted an adviser in the community who recommended a private psychologist. If that didn’t work, he could always have his yeshiva status restored, but this, the adviser suggested, would be the path of least resistance.
The psychologist met Avi along with his parents, who did most of the talking. They said he flies into a rage if he isn’t served coffee first thing in the morning and that he is incapable of being in a room with more than a few people. Both assertions are bizarre, as Avi is soft-spoken and gentle and has spent most of his life in a dormitory yeshiva. Nonetheless, the psychologist wrote an expert opinion, which he addressed to the draft board.
“They paid a lot of money for that letter,” Avi said.
Several weeks later he was called before a psychologist at the induction center, where he was told that he was unfit for service. “At the time I was glad,” Avi said.
Today, after sending countless letters retracting his earlier testimony, he has managed to raise his profile from a 21 — mentally unfit — to a 64, which means that he is capable of service but not in a combat unit. Eager to serve in an elite unit, he plans to appeal until his record is changed to a perfect 97.
In the dead of night
Motti, who has a police record that he refuses to discuss, didn’t even have to appear before a psychologist. His exemption was arranged without him being in the room.
Still, his parents remained nervous. There was talk in the yeshiva that he kept an “unkosher cellphone,” the kind that can send text messages and connect to the internet. And so, at age 17, within days of this discovery, they tried to both lure and trap him with the promise of a bride.
The girl was 16 years old. She was terrified. But Motti was in even worse condition. “It was the scariest thing that happened to me in my entire life,” he says.
The two were brought into a room, where they spent several minutes together, hardly exchanging a word. Several days later, his father cornered him in the car for the conversation that Motti recorded. “Time is not working in our favor here,” his father said, pushing him toward a quick marriage. Acknowledging Motti’s reluctance to steal his sister’s thunder, he had a suggestion: “It could be done in secret.”
Motti’s excuses grew ever more feeble, until finally his father began to plead: “You can do whatever you want within the community. You can work. You can have a car. There is no reason for this… please, my heart is being ripped apart, my soul is being eaten.”
The conversation ended with Motti agreeing not to do anything without first speaking to his father.
And then, on the morning of his sister’s wedding, the army called his home.
Faced with questions, Motti categorically denied having been in contact with the army. His parents, he said, “chose to believe” him. He was biding his time.
On the seventh of the Hebrew month of Kislev, seven days after his sister was married, he left his house at three-thirty in the morning. He packed his possessions, mostly underwear and socks, in a garbage bag.
Motti knew where he would go — to the Hillel safe house — and he had the telephone number he needed in his phone, but he was scared that his father would wake up or that he would be apprehended on the street.
He wasn’t. But days after taking shelter at Hillel he began to receive threats. On November 19, 2010, he received a text message asking if he’d gotten “a haircut,” implying that he had shaved his sidelocks. “I’ll surprise you yet,” the message said. Several days later he received a text message from the same number, from people Motti calls “the modesty guard” of Mea Shearim. They knew the exact street address of the safe house and, in response to Motti’s boasts of not fearing death, they wrote, “We can help you die.”
Avi, who fled Bnei Brak on the 400 Bus and who is also secular but maintains limited phone contact with his mother, said he still opens his door every day in fear.
Motti, who comes home with a Tavor rifle, contends that what he has been through makes him a better soldier. The 1,440 shekels he receives per month from the army as a lone soldier — double the normal combat soldier’s wage but still only 380 dollars — is perfectly ample for his needs. The additional 1,500 shekels he receives for rent, 500 of which comes from Hillel, is sufficient. He does not bemoan the cold home and empty fridge that he shares with two other soldiers. He washes and dries his laundry in machines that the parents of the soldiers in his platoon bought for him. And when dangerous situations arise, he says, the commanders always say “give it to Motti.”