Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.
More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.
The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.
More extreme charedim take the view that Israel is an unkosher secular state, hostile to Judaism. They will not fight for it, die for it, or contribute anything to it. (That doesn’t seem to stop them from living off the fat of the land.)
Finally, there are those in the middle who take a more pragmatic view. Israel’s army is big enough. It doesn’t need the charedim. Besides, they will make poor soldiers. Why bother?
Not being a general, I cannot comment authoritatively on this view. But as a father who has a daughter who just completed her military service in Israel as a lone soldier, I ask a different question: what is best for the charedim themselves?
It is no secret that the charedi community is sinking deeper and deeper into poverty. Many charedim live lives bereft of the dignity of self-sufficiency. This is not because they have no secular training. I believe it is because the absence of volunteerism suffocates their sense of entrepreneurship.
Many Chabad youth in Israel lack secular knowledge but still serve in the military. Even more go on two-year “emissaryships” throughout the world, spreading the light of Judaism, working with disabled children, staffing Jewish community centers, and teaching in nurseries and schools.
For two years, from 19 to 21, I served a Chabad emissaryship in Sydney, Australia. Those were the two most important years of growth in my life. Far away from home, I learned independence, studied with scores of teenagers, put on large communal events, and made friends for life. Being forced to engage a community as an adolescent made me take risks and overcome the fear of rejection.
Last Sunday’s New York Times ran a front-page profile on the benefits that accrue to Mormon missionaries who are posted throughout the world. The article focused on how the church has just opened its missions to young women between the ages of 19 and 21, like the men, and was immediately inundated with more than 35,000 applications. On these missions, young Mormons learn languages, transcend parochialism, and become industrious and entrepreneurial in trying to make their mission successful.
Chabad does not missionize non-Jews, and the ethics of such efforts on the part of the Mormons is beyond the scope of this column. What is the focus is how years of national service, be they in the military or community, are essential to character formation and independence. The charedim are missing out.
While the charedi love of Judaism and devotion to tradition is admirable, Judaism is not authentic when it is focused mostly on the self.
While the Israeli military arguably is the most important incubator of Israeli entrepreneurship, as the book “Startup Nation” says compellingly, many charedi leaders fear an erosion of religious observance in the military. But what is their excuse for not sending out their youth for two years of national service that assists Israel and the Jewish people?
Our nation is under threat not just from Iran’s nukes and Palestinian terror. Assimilation is gnawing away at the very heart of the Jewish people. The dismal Pew Research study that showed American intermarriage and assimilation reaching 6 out of 10 Jews was devastating. Charedim are, in theory, the best educated Jews. Surely they can go out, teach, and help reverse that trend.
Charedim capable of military service should serve where needed. Once the quotas are filled, the rest should commit to two years of national service. This need not disrupt their Torah study. In my two years in Sydney we were required to study from early morning till the afternoon. We devoted the rest of our day to study with others, communal programming, visiting the elderly, and teaching at schools. My son Mendy, who put in his two years in Frankfurt, Germany, had a similar schedule.
But let us American Jews who criticize the charedim at the very least confess our own hypocrisy. As we watch this debate from across the Atlantic, what programs of national service are our own children engaged in? Are American Jewish parents more concerned about their own kids’ volunteerism and character-building in the gap year after high school, or just in acing the SATs and getting into a good university? We can’t look down at charedim for not serving while all we focus on is getting little Johnnie into Harvard.
The time has come for a year of national service for every American high school graduate with the Jewish community leading the way.