The strictly Orthodox soldiers

A member of Nachal Charedi

A member of Nachal Charedi

Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, a former computer design engineer from Boston, might seem like any emissary who comes to the UK to raise funds for Orthodox causes. But his is unique: he is director of an organisation which provides spiritual and educational support to Nachal Charedi, the Israeli army's battalion of strictly Orthodox soldiers.

For many years, and despite the Hesder Yeshiva IDF units, one of the major causes of tension between religion and secular in Israel has been the exemption of Charedi youth from army service.

When the idea of a Charedi unit was first mooted, Rabbi Klebanow said, "it was nothing less than a dream without a lot of hope for fulfilment".

But it has grown from an initial 30 boys in 1999 to 1,000, recruiting 500 a year.

"It gives them an environment where they don't have to compromise on a religious way of life, and at the same time they are full fighting soldiers," he said.

To get off the ground, the army had to ensure that it could meet strict religious requirements, particularly in two respects: kashrut and ensuring there were no women involved. "That was not a trivial thing," Rabbi Klebanow observed. "Ninety five per cent of the army's instructors are women, be it for shooting, driving jeeps or medic courses."

Besides those challenges, the project also had to overcome "tremendous antagonism" from within the Charedi community. Today, the Nachal Charedi battalion is stationed near Jenin in the West Bank, specialising in counter-terrorism work and often out on night raids.

The soldiers, Rabbi Klebanow explained, add "fighting power" to the army, which is no small matter given the future make-up of Israel's population.

More than a quarter of Israeli Jewish children who entered primary school this year are now Charedi: so the IDF is likely to have recruit further from among the strictly Orthodox if it is to maintain its manpower.

"This is a nationalistic project that will take a number of generations," he said. "When we started, did we think we'd ever be here? No. Not only do we want to be a lot more, we want to be a brigade."

But the programme also has another aspect which is important for Israeli society. In the third year of service, Nachal Charedi recruits undertake an intensive vocational or academic programme that will provide skills enabling them to find a job after the army - skills largely untaught in the Charedi school system with its minimal secular education.

Originally, Nachal Charedi used to recruit drop-outs or shababnikim, a derogatory term meaning boys who sit on railings. Now its appeal is broader, attracting "boys who for whatever reason are not cut out to sit and learn all day, of whom there is a growing population".

Each year it also recruits a number of boys for the machal programme, the 14-month army service scheme for diaspora volunteers. Some come from Orthodox Zionist families in London.

"It's a wonderful thing for a diaspora boy," Rabbi Klebanow said. "Not only does it make a man out of him as a soldier but it commits them to Eretz Yisrael."

    Last updated: 12:32pm, March 17 2011