Inside story'Everybody now realizes we’re in the same boat'

Not just prayers: War sparks unprecedented mobilization by ultra-Orthodox Israelis

Some 2,000 volunteer IDF soldiers are at the forefront of an effort that some hope will change the minority’s relationship with the rest of society long-term

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Pini Einhorn hugs a child at a shiva in Israel in October 2023. (Courtesy: Pini Einhorn)
Pini Einhorn hugs a child at a shiva in Israel in October 2023. (Courtesy: Pini Einhorn)

When war broke out, Pini Einhorn and Moishe Roth found themselves suddenly out of work.

The popular Haredi musician duo canceled all the concerts they had lined up for what was supposed to be one of the busiest times of the year, just after the Jewish autumn holidays.

Einhorn and Roth initially channeled their free time toward joining countless Israelis delivering food to soldiers and residents of the south. But the surplus of volunteers made the pair look for alternative ways to contribute, said Einhorn, a 34-year-old father of four.

So they decided to do what they know best: playing music for groups of people. In just a few days, the pair have visited over 100 houses of mourning in hopes of helping console families in the depths of sorrow as they observe the traditional seven-day shiva bereavement period for their slain loved ones. While musical instruments are generally prohibited by Jewish law during mourning periods, the two sing hymns when requested.

Their activities are part of an unprecedented push by Haredim, who by and large avoid army service, to contribute to the war effort in myriad ways — including by volunteering for the military.

Occurring at what is arguably a low point in relations between secular and Haredi Jews in Israel, some believe these new expressions of solidarity will help lead to long-term changes in each side’s attitudes toward the other.

Pini Einhorn, right, Moishe Roth, left, and a volunteer of Am Israel Chai in Jerusalem preparing to bring toys to children of bereaved families on October 15, 2023. (Courtesy: Pini Einhorn)

“The Haredi public is mobilized in an unprecedented way,” said Yitzhak Pindrus, a lawmaker for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “Everyone is doing something in addition to praying,” he told The Times of Israel.

At least 2,000 Haredi men have signed up to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, according to Eliyahu Glantzenberg, a 38-year-old Haredi community activist from Petah Tikvah near Tel Aviv.

A high-tech professional working for the Freesbe branding agency, he launched an initiative together with the former top rabbi of the Israel Air Force, Moshe Raved, through which Haredim could sign up to be recruited into the army.

On Saturday, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Hagari said the IDF had received more than 2,000 requests from Haredim in recent days. They will begin to be drafted as volunteers on Monday, he said.

An abbreviated basic training is set to open for hundreds of them, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit told The Times of Israel.

“It’s to fill gaps: drivers, programmers, cooks. Whatever’s necessary,” said Glantzenberg of the recruits.

The list of volunteers is growing as people from the Haredi world spread the word in synagogue and on WhatsApp groups, among those Haredim who use smartphones.

Haredi women and male yeshivah students younger than 26 are generally exempt from military service thanks to a controversial status quo agreement. In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated the legal exemption and ordered the government to pass a new conscription law. The government has extended the non-conscription policy and Haredi politicians have sought to pass legislation cementing the exemptions.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger and against legislation intended to enforce ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many Haredim believe that studying Torah helps protect the Jewish people and even the state, while serving time in the army would dilute adherence to their strict ways of life and lead impressionable members of the community astray. Among non-Haredi Jews, this is often perceived as draft dodging by a group that refuses to integrate into mainstream society.

At the same time, authorities make no effort to recruit most Haredim who should legally be drafted, according to what Amir Vadmani, head of the IDF Manpower Directorate’s Planning and Research Department, told a Knesset committee in May.

“The undisputed reality is that the army did not want to conscript Haredim,” Glantzenberg said. The war “could change this: It is already making the army need more manpower and it’s making Haredim more interested in serving.”

Israel was changed forever on October 7, when Hamas killed about 1,400 in a brutal incursion into Israel, and kidnapped at least 200 more.

The resulting war is “changing the dynamic of Haredim vis-à-vis the army and vice versa,” Glantzenberg said.

Yanki Farber, left, and Gal Hirsch, a reserves Brigadier General who heads the effort to retrieve Israeli hostages in Gaza, speak on January 28, 2019 in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

It’s not the first time a war has had that effect. In 1991, as Iraqi Scuds rained down on Israel, many Haredi families brought the outside world into their homes for the first time in order to receive warnings and news.

“That’s when many Haredi families brought in radio transistors,” Yanki Farber, a prominent Haredi journalist, wrote last week in Behadrei Haredim, a Haredi news site.

Whereas subsequent wars hardly affected the Haredi public, the Hamas massacres “featured Haredi victims, in Ofakim and Sderot,” he wrote. In parallel, stiff opposition to attempts to pass a law exempting Haredim from army service convinced Haredi politicians that the legislative effort was a nonstarter, Farber said.

A volunteer with the Hevra Kadisha burial society cleans up blood outside the home of David and Rachel Edery in Ofakim, Israel on October 9. (Times of Israel/Canaan Lidor)

The scale of the atrocities penetrated the insular Haredi public, which largely shuns television and the internet, because of Zaka, the predominantly Haredi emergency service whose volunteers were among the first on the scene to witness the horrors, Farber noted.

In addition to the first responders, whose role has been highlighted in the media, hundreds of additional Zaka volunteers have prepared most of the terror victims’ bodies for burial.

“I have been doing this my whole life, but what I’ve seen here will haunt me forever,” said Reuven Reuven, a 41-year-old volunteer from Motza Ilit, about Kibbutz Be’eri, the scene of one of the October 7 attack’s most brutal pogroms.

Reuven Reuven, a volunteer with the Zaka first-response organization, exists Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel on October 11, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Some radical Haredim have continued to harass and even assault other Haredim who serve in the army, which the radicals perceive as an immoral action.

One extremist was arrested on Monday in Jerusalem for accosting a Haredi man in uniform. But the war has further delegitimized the radicals’ position, according to Glantzenberg.

“Everybody now realizes we’re in the same boat,” he said.

Pindrus, the lawmaker, is not convinced that the war will bring about greater unity between Haredim, whom many seculars view as backward freeloaders, and seculars, whom many Haredim view as godless heathens undermining Jewish life.

“I’d love to tell you positive things about imminent fraternity,” he told The Times of Israel. “But we have entered an enormous event, whose magnitude, duration, and fallout are all completely unknown to us. We may emerge more united. We may come out even more divided. It all depends on God’s will and our choices.”

United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus chairs a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on June 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But signs of change seem to be everywhere, including a recorded speech by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager, a top leader of the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty in Bnei Brak. Addressing the relatives of some 200 abducted Israelis in Gaza, he switched from Yiddish, the language he almost always uses for public addresses, and told them in fluent but heavily accented Hebrew: “We are one people, the people of Hashem,” meaning God.

Haredi women are also part of the effort. Michal Orzel, a Haredi mother of five, went to donate blood as soon as she heard about the massacres. “We’ve never seen such an attack. It shocked me to my core and the immediate reaction was to donate blood for the first time in my life.”

Giving blood was only the beginning of Orzel’s work in connection with the war. Relying on help from her husband and other women from her community who are taking care of Orzel’s children, she now spends her days visiting families of injured or killed soldiers and terror victims.

“I come to each family, find out what they need,” she said. “Whatever I can do, I do. If it’s something I can’t do, I use my contacts in my community to find the right solution.”

This, Orzel said, is “standard practice” in Haredi communities, where members pool resources and run charity networks to mitigate relatively small incomes.

“Haredi communities have this built-in charity infrastructure that, before the war, few seculars have been exposed to,” Orzel said. “Now I feel that for the first time, secular Israelis are seeing this aspect of our community.”

The blackened facade of Liora Touito’s building in Netivot, Israel seen eight days after a rocket hit it, killing three people on October 7, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Einhorn and Roth, the musicians, have parlayed their celebrity status in Haredi circles into raising millions of shekels toward buying gifts for orphaned Israeli children. The duo set up a nonprofit, Am Israel Chai, and have been distributing the toys at dozens of shivas, where they also perform for mourners in their living rooms to alleviate their pain.

Pini Einhorn arrives at a shiva in Netivot, Israel on October 15, 2023. (Courtesy: Pini Einhorn)

On Tuesday, Einhorn visited the Netivot home of a family that lost three members in one rocket strike, the hundredth shiva he has attended since Hamas terrorists launched their murderous rampage on October 7. Raphael Fahimi, his son-in-law Netanel Maskelchi, and his son Raphael Meir died in the explosion.

“There’s nothing you can say except: ‘I love you.’ We came with a load of toys for the siblings, we sang some quiet hymns with the relatives and we left heartbroken,” he recalled.

Raphael Fahimi, left, Netanel Maskelchi and Raphael Meir Maskelchi. (Courtesy of the Maskelchi family)

After that encounter, “I was sitting on the couch at home, and I felt I couldn’t get up and go to another shiva,” said Einhorn.

Despite the dip in energy, his visits have continued.

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