Soldiers who enter the Israeli army come from a tremendous variety of backgrounds: religious and secular, Jews and non-Jews, native Israelis and immigrants. That diversity is part of the reason the IDF plays such a critical role in integrating Israel’s different populations.
For soldiers from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) households, that diversity presents particular challenges. Haredi society largely discourages service in the IDF, and those who don’t seek a religious exemption from serving in the army are often less prepared for military service than their non-haredi peers.
In the midst of Israeli society’s struggle to find an effective way to bring more soldiers from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds smoothly into the ranks of the IDF, the new Tiferet Arazim mechina (pre-military academy) was created to help haredi and formerly haredi young men prepare to serve alongside soldiers who do not come from ultra-Orthodox communities. Tiferet Arazim is one of the many pre-military academies that prepare Israeli young adults to succeed in the IDF. The academy is located on Moshav Tarum, in the hills west of Jerusalem, and provides its participants with skills and a support system to help put them on more equal footing with soldiers who come from backgrounds that encourage and expect enlistment in the army.
The first group of participants at Tiferet Arazim is religiously diverse, with some having previously veered from the faith and observance of their childhood. For some, the mechina offers them the structure that they had previously lacked, helping them build up the self-discipline they will need to thrive in the IDF. For all of them, this is an exercise in forging a group dynamic, working together with those who are similar and those who are different as they prepare for their upcoming enlistment.
Inspired by His Brother
Eighteen-year-old S., a participant in the preparatory program at Tiferet Arazim, comes from Bat Ayin, in Gush Etzion. He explains that when he was born, his family was in the process of becoming religious. Today, one member of that family stands out as the inspiration for his IDF service.
“My brother was injured in Operation Protective Edge [the war with Hamas in the summer of 2014],” S. recounts. “His experience strengthened my resolve.”
S. explains that he had previously planned to participate in a professional training program, combining IDF service with an academic degree. Ultimately, however, he decided to enlist as a combat soldier, following in his brother’s footsteps.
His thoughts on his experience so far at Tiferet Arazim?
“We’re 18-year-olds building a group. This is the first session. To build a group is not a simple thing. There are difficulties. There are disagreements at first, but eventually you come out of it with something amazing. We’re forging a path for thousands of guys who will follow us. We’re sort of pioneers,” he says. “I feel satisfaction, and that gives me the motivation to stay here at the mechina.”
Reflecting on the challenges to the group dynamic, he describes how each week one participant is responsible for commanding his peers in challenging situations.
“It’s an amazing learning tool, and it enables us to test how a guy in a group commands others, commands the group. On the one hand, it could hurt the group and the staff, because you need to challenge them to push their limits, and that’s not easy,” he explains.
On the other hand, he says, “[T]he group has insane abilities. That’s in part because it’s a built-up group, just like you would strengthen a muscle by building it up. The group is becoming a very flexible and strong muscle.”
A Long Road Back
Although N., a friend of S., grew up in a nearby community, he has taken a circuitous and sometimes bumpy road to the Tiferet Arazim mechina. Raised in an ultra-Orthodox household, he grew up studying in religious schools. Whereas his parents – who were not born Orthodox – chose this lifestyle for themselves, as an adolescent he struggled to find his way in the haredi world. He even lived for a time as a homeless person in Tel Aviv.
After a period living in a hostel, he spent two years in a rehabilitation center. There, he says, with the help of supportive staff members, “I found my way in life, in faith, my aspirations.”
From there, he returned home for a time and then decided to enlist in the IDF.
“There were a few reasons for this,” he explains, referring to his decision to enlist. “The first reason: Torah study helps the Jewish People, but I want to help the Jewish People in the IDF without going against my religion. It doesn’t matter where I wind up in the army, as long as I help the army.”
Now at Tiferet Arazim, he’s glad to have the chance to bond with his peers who are also in the midst of preparing to serve in the IDF.
“How do I feel at the mechina? I feel good. I connect with most of the guys. I’m on good terms with them,” he says. “At the mechina, I get to experience more. The difficulty is to be with everyone and not to be condescending. It’s a real challenge, and it’s important to be with everyone, because that’s the way of socialization, forming a group, communal living.”
The easy part of life at Tiferet Arazim, he says, is the physical exercise. “It’s not difficult in my view,” he says, since he worked out while living at the rehabilitation center. “There is always some difficulty in physical activity, but I know what I’m preparing for in the army.”
And what exactly is it that he’s preparing for?
“I’m at the mechina so that I’ll be able to do my service for the Jewish People and in the best way I can. And it’s a good idea to prepare. You have to prepare for enlistment and meaningful [military] service. If you show up unprepared, you’re in for a shock,” he says. “I want to arrive ready in order to do a lot for the [Jewish] People and the state.”
Earning His Way
Like his friends, A. comes from a religious background – in his case, half Modern Orthodox and half ultra-Orthodox – but he says that much of his extended family is secular.
Unlike some of the participants, however, he is in his 20s and has already spent time working and renting his own apartment – while saving money and working out to prepare first for the mechina and then for his enlistment.
“I used to work all night – 12 hours each night,” he recounts. “I would go to sleep and then wake up and go to work out. There were days when I didn’t sleep so that I could make a living. And I saved up for the time when I would spend at the mechina.”
Today, A. considers himself “religious but not ultra-Orthodox.” At Tiferet Arazim, he says, he has made friends with future soldiers from a wide variety of backgrounds.
And his aspirations in the IDF?
“I want to go to an elite infantry unit,” he says. “I want to do something important, to protect the country. But I also want to do something for myself, to reach my full potential.”
That combination of communal living, national military service, and personal growth is exactly what the Tiferet Arazim mechina is there for. As the stories of S., N., and A. show, every participant at the mechina has followed their own path to get there – but now, their role is to work together, help each other, and prepare cooperatively to succeed in the IDF.
Most of all, they are helping blaze a new trail for other haredim and former haredim, showing that with the right preparation, people from an ultra-Orthodox background can thrive in the IDF.
This article was originally reported in Hebrew by Nathan Roi and was produced in English by Daniel Temkin.