Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Soldier Faces Ostracism

In Israel, nearly all Jewish citizens are required to serve in the military or perform national service when they turn 18. An exception is made for the Haredi, ultra-orthodox Jews who see military service as immoral. But some Haredi do serve.

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In Israel, secular and religious citizens remain sharply divided over the issue of military service.

All of Israel's Jewish citizens must serve in the military or perform national service when they turn 18, except Haredi, or ultra-orthodox. Most ultra-orthodox men choose deferment and instead get state support to study in religious schools. For the small number of young Haredi men who do decide to serve in the armed forces, the choice can often mean alienation from family, friends, and their strict religious community.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has the story of one such young man.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Twenty-one-year-old Youni Pouzin(ph) should feel at ease this day. He is back on his home turf seeing a best friend he has known since preschool. They're meeting in the suburban Tel Aviv neighborhood where they both grew up and where their large families still live.

Mr. YOUNI POUZIN: Maybe go and come this side over here.

WESTERVELT: Rail-thin and short, with a boyish face, Youni wears his crisp green Israel Defense Force uniform with pride and confidence. But back home here, he moves cautiously, anxiously, like a teenager sneaking out after curfew. Youni meets his friend not openly in a cafe or restaurant but in the garage of an apartment building.

It's Bnei Brak, a deeply conservative ultra-orthodox neighborhood, and most here view soldiers like Youni as corrupting outsiders who've lost their way spiritually. Youni's friend Rafi - he doesn't want his full name used - asked for the meeting to take place away from the busy street, deeper into the shadows.

RAFI: (Through translator) We can't really meet here in this area because his parents won't accept it.

WESTERVELT: His parents won't accept it, your parents may not accept it, but you do. Why do you have to hide? I mean, we're kind of hiding right now to meet with your friend. Why?

RAFI: (Through translator) I'm not afraid, but people will look at us or look at him and stare at us, and you want to feel comfortable when you're meeting. You want to feel free.

WESTERVELT: So freedom this day is a dimly lit parking lot. Welcome to Youni's world. Bnei Brak is on the edge of Tel Aviv, but it feels miles away from the secular beach side bar and bustle of Israel's largest metropolitan area. Youni's friend Rafi describes the chasm this way.

RAFI: (Through translator) The problem is that people here, when they see Youni in a uniform, they think that he's secular now and that he is not a good person anymore, and that is a problem. But I know that is not true. I know he still keeps his faith while serving in the army.

WESTERVELT: In this neighborhood as a teenager, Youni exhibited the kind of rebellious behavior typical of many teens. He snuck out, sometimes drank alcohol with friends, listened secretly to non-Haredi music, and watched late-night car races in Tel Aviv. He flirted with girls. Cigarettes were smoked. I was naughty, Youni says with a slight smirk, it was nonsense.

But within this tight-knight religious community, such actions were seen as shameful and wild. But to most in the neighborhood, none of that was nearly as shocking as Youni's decision to join the Israeli military.

Mr. POUZIN: (Through translator) In Haredi society, the army is the last thing you should be doing. Nobody here goes to the army. It's completely opposed to their beliefs. To them, even wasting a year on drugs is better than going to the army.

WESTERVELT: His parents were hurt and angry. They saw him as unfaithful to the stern religious and cultural norms of his upbringing. Practicing with his rifle instead of reading the Torah was seen as a deep betrayal. But at first they made a tentative peace with his decision, he says, when he joined the only ultra-orthodox unit in the Israeli military.

Never mind, Youni says, that only one-third of those in that unit were actually Haredi. The rest were religious young men who wanted the separation from women and strict kosher meals the unit offered. After less than a year, Youni badly wanted to be in a regular combat unit. He switched to an elite infantry battalion. For his parents, that was the last straw. His mother and father, and most of his 11 brothers and sisters, now completely shun him.

Mr. POUZIN: (Through translator) They slam the door in my face. They just won't accept me the way I am. They have cut off all ties of me.

WESTERVELT: My friends called me a dupe, he says. You sucker, you could be working and making money or studying in Yeshiva, his friends mocked, but you joined the army? Many friends no longer talk to me, Youni says; some won't even look me in the eye. It's as if I no longer exist. The army, those are my real friends now, Youni says wearily. And it's been a messy, alienating break with his family.

His army decision continues to reverberate. A male suitor for one of his six sisters tried to break off the engagement when the suitor's family learned about Youni.

Mr. POUZIN: (Through translator) They thought, maybe his family isn't Haredi enough. Look at the son. They worried they wouldn't be accepted by the community. It was very hard to keep the mass together. Now my 23-year-old brother is meeting girls for possible marriage; I just hope I haven't ruined his chances for a good match.

WESTERVELT: Occasionally, one sister who's married and lives in Jerusalem lets Youni come over for Shabbat dinners, but she does it on the sly, never telling their parents.

Driving around Youni's old neighborhood, he points to the synagogue where he used to pray. Nearby, Haredi men in their traditional black robes and wide hats bustle about as women shop before the Sabbath sundown. Don't turn down there, Youni pleads when we pass by his old street. He looks at the neighborhood with a hint of uncertainty and sadness in his voice.

Mr. POUZIN: (Through translator) I feel uncomfortable here, like I'm a stranger suddenly in my own society. People here ignore me. I have become secular. But I know what's important is in my soul, what's on the inside.

WESTERVELT: Despite the huge personal price he's paid, Youni insists he has no regrets. The army's completely changed me, he says. I have direction now and structure. Youni hopes to get his high school diploma and eventually go to college to study business after he is done with his army service in just a few short months. He'll then be an Israeli reserve soldier for the next 20 years.

I sense my 12-year-old sister is a little like me and may go in my path, Youni says hesitantly. I just hope, he adds, that if she does, my parents don't take it as hard as they took my decision.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Bnei Brak, Israel.

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