Historic Ultra-Orthodox Paratrooper Unit Turns Torah Learners Into Warriors

In an historic move, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is preparing to open a special ultra-Orthodox paratrooper unit. Paratroopers (Tzanchanim in Hebrew) make up an elite unit in the IDF.

The Ministry of Defense is actively continuing its campaign to draft ultra-Orthodox people (Haredim in Hebrew) as part of their efforts to integrate this population into mainstream Israeli society.

Succeeding as a paratrooper involves a strenuous selection process. Most Israeli families are proud when their sons are accepted into Tzanchanim. However, for Haredim, joining the IDF carries a negative stigma.

Since the founding of the State of Israel, there has been an understanding that it stands on two legs. One leg is made up of the IDF and the other consists of those who pray for its welfare and study God’s word in yeshiva (religious seminaries).

Although conscription in Israel is officially compulsory for 18-year-old Jewish, Druze or Circassian citizens, about 50 percent of people in these populations receive exemptions. These include Arab and Bedouin citizens as well as those who refuse to serve for political or “conscience” reasons, those with”low motivation”, citizens with a criminal record, students studying in yeshiva, or those with physical or psychological limitations.

Special considerations are also made for artists and musicians. Therefore, yeshiva students who declare that “Torah study is their artistry” (Torato Omanuto in Hebrew) can delay conscription or possibly avoid serving altogether as long as they continue their studies. This is possible under the Tal Law.

Many religious Jews do serve. Since 1999, Jews who fall into the Religious Zionist sector, as opposed to Haredim, have served in the IDF through units called Netzah Yehuda. These special units combine advanced Talmudic studies with military service. Soldiers in Netzah Yehuda are often singled out for being the most highly motivated and highly decorated soldiers in the IDF.

However, Haredim tend to have more rigorous religious requirements than Religious Zionists. Therefore, the new ultra-Orthodox units will have stricter rules for keeping kosher than the usual army standard (all army food is kosher), serve on bases free of female soldiers, as Haredim do not mix with with the opposite sex unless they are family or married, and provide extra time for prayer and Bible study.

In 2012, Israeli politician and former news anchor Yair Lapid pushed for an “equal share of the burden” for all Israeli citizens. Many Haredim consider Lapid’s plan a possible “spiritual holocaust” to disrupt their Jewish studies and insular way of life.

“Establishing the ultra-Orthodox IDF unit successfully is no easy task,” explained Dr. John A.I. Grossman, Chairman of LIBI USA, the only official fund of the IDF. “There are many unique needs to this population and LIBI is on-board to make this transition as smooth as possible.”

Brigadier General Yehiel Gozal, CEO of The LIBI Fund, explained to Breaking Israel News that LIBI treats all ultra-Orthodox soldiers as lone soldiers, a term used for people with no family in Israel or for people estranged from their families.

“Often, Haredim are ostracized from their families for joining the army,” Gozal said. “It is not our job to judge. But, it is our job to help as much as possible. LIBI does this through providing housing, giving shopping vouchers, especially before the holidays, and providing anything soldiers need which fall outside of the army budget. For example, we are now raising funds to build a synagogue in the area where the religious soldiers will be living.”

In 1974, just 2.4 percent of enlisted soldiers received a religious exemption. By comparison, in 2025, religious exemptions are expected to reach 12.4 percent of the total population. This disproportionate increase is viewed as creating an economic and security burden on other sectors of the Israeli population.

“We have found that many Haredim want to serve in the army if special considerations are made to accommodate their religious needs,” continued Grossman
. “LIBI does not get involved with the political side of this discussion. It is our job to ensure that every soldier has what they need to succeed once they join the IDF.”

3,200 ultra-Orthodox men are expected to draft in 2017. The first round of draftees to the ultra-Orthodox paratroopers unit will enlist this November. Should this unit succeed, similar tank units will be established.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan has lead the initiative to draft more ultra-Orthodox into the IDF. In a statement reported by Ynet News, Ben-Dahan said, “There’s no doubt that this is a positive step in terms of IDF service for the ultra-Orthodox. Them joining the paratroopers battalion – one of the most prestigious in the IDF – is an important milestone in their full integration.”

With Rise in Worldwide Terrorism, IDF Foreign Recruits Also Rising

The Israeli army (IDF) was originally established through Jews from all over the world volunteering to protect the Holy Land. This tradition continues until today.

This month alone, the IDF is welcoming close to 500 volunteers from 21 countries. According to the Defense Ministry 2016 statistics, 45 percent of foreign volunteers are from France, 29 percent are from the U.S. and 5 percent are British. These recruits are considered “lone soldiers” (soldiers without family in Israel or native Israelis who are orphans or estranged from their families) even if they have not made aliyah (immigrated to Israel).

Brigadier General Yehiel Gozal, CEO of The LIBI Fund, the only official fund of the IDF, explained that Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization which facilitates the integration of new Israeli residents into Israeli society, cannot help people who volunteer to serve in the IDF if they haven’t officially made aliyah.

“That is where LIBI steps in,” he said. “We ensure that volunteer soldiers are treated as well as lone soldiers. After all, they are dedicating their time and lives to help Israel.”

LIBI does all it can to enhance the lives of Israeli soldiers by providing for soldier needs which fall outside of the IDF budget. “LIBI strives to level the playing field for all soldiers,” shared Dr. John A.I. Grossman, Chairman of LIBI USA. “With lone soldiers, we support all of their needs including paying for the flight to see their families, holiday meals and shopping vouchers, especially before Rosh HaShana and Passover, supplementing education and medical care and more.”

There are presently over 6,000 lone Israeli soldiers requiring extra services to integrate into the Israeli army and society. These include Israeli military programs which mentally and physically prepare foreign volunteers for army service, study of Hebrew and Jewish history, visits to military heritage sites, and tours around the country.

This is the second consecutive year in which French recruits overshadow those from the U.S. “The situation in France is at crisis levels, both politically and in terms of security,” continued Gozal. “Young people feel an obligation to fight terrorism. But, they prefer to fight for the Jewish homeland than in the French military.”

Gozal pointed out that once someone serves in the IDF, they frequently commit to making aliyah. Their family often follows.

Noam Atlan, a 19 year-old from France, will soon become an IDF combat soldier, leaving his family behind in Paris. He is following in the footsteps of his father, who served in the Golani Brigade in 1989. “After serving, my father returned to France,” he told Ynet News. “But, I want to stay in Israel.”

Atlan intends to stay in Israel after the army and study business management at the Netanya Academic College. Asked if his entire family will follow his path, Atlan replied, “We’re already talking about the entire family coming here and immigrating when my siblings finish school. My brother wants to follow in my footsteps, to enlist and come to Israel.”

Approximately 80 percent of army volunteers serve in combat infantry units for at least 18 months. Many choose to extend their service even longer.

“The Israeli army is the pride of Jews and non-Jews all over the world,” said Grossman. “LIBI is devoted to helping these young men and women succeed in both the army and the Holy Land. After all, they are Israel’s future.”