A while back on Twitter I got into a conversation about why most Haredim don’t go into the army. Intermingling of the sexes was mentioned as one reason, and questions came up about the conditions of hesder students. My son E., who entered a hesder platoon last April, agreed to answer a few questions.
Hesder means “arrangement.” It was designed as a way to allow religious men to enter the army under conditions that make it easier to remain religiously observant, and learn in yeshiva as well.
Throughout the interview E. refers to the hesder students as beinishim, an acronym of bnei yeshiva or yeshiva students.
What is the hesder program? E: Beinishim (hesder students) serve for 1 year and 4 months, and for another four months if they take an officer’s course. They spend at least a year in yeshiva before enlisting, and another two years learning after their army service. The hesder program is five years long. You can’t start to work or study until the five years are finished, except for part-time jobs on weekends and vacation.
Do the beinishim enter the army as a unit? E: There are two types of infantry platoons: machlakot meuravot (mixed platoons) and machlakot beinish (hesder platoons). A pluga, or company, consists of three platoons.
Beinishim can belong to two different types of companies:
1. All three platoons in the company are mixed. Each platoon contains about ten beinishim and 20 other male soldiers. The idea is that there is a minyan (quorum) for prayers.
2. One of the platoons contains only beinishim. Then the other two platoons in the company will not contain any beinishim.
I serve in a combat, non-infantry platoon. We are now training with a whole company of beinishim. After training, the platoons will all be mixed, but each one will contain a group of beinishim.
What accommodations are made for beinishim? E: The rules of the army apply to all soldiers who declare themselves religious, no matter where they serve: They get time for prayers three times daily, kosher food, and they can’t be asked to do non-emergency tasks on Shabbat. Everyone can do kitchen and guard duty.
If you are part of a beinish platoon, you plan your schedule around prayer times. But if you are in a mixed platoon, it’s more complicated. In either type of platoon you may need to fight to get your davening (prayer) time. But in some ways, a mixed platoon has less of a problem with davening times—it’s ten people out of 30 so the tasks can still be accomplished.
What about contact with women? E: Beinishim live on bases with female soldiers, and you see women in the dining room as well. There is opportunity but no need for contact except for professionals like doctors and mashakiot tash*, who are always women. The army does encourage you to get friendly with the others on your base.
In some training bases, women don’t enter the army on the same recruitment schedule as beinishim. This is especially true where there are mixed platoons of beinishim and other male soldiers. If you’re not a beinish you could have women in your platoon. Beinishim don’t have female officers, but they have females training them as long as it’s not for physical exercise. I’m okay with it.
There could be female officers or trainers in the other non-beinish platoons in your company.
Many people ask why these idealistic young men only serve for a year plus, when others serve for three years. There is definitely a push, both within and without, to increase the length of time served by hesder students. However, the question remains as to whether demanding more of hesder students will push some of them to enroll in a yeshiva gevohah and follow the haredi track of serving even less or not at all. While hesder soldiers do serve a shorter time, they have a higher rate of reserve duty and usually make up the time later.
*Mashakiot tash meet regularly with soldiers to make sure that everything is okay. My boys tell me they are always asking whether their parents are divorced, in debt, etc.
Feel free to ask questions and if I can’t answer, I’ll pass them on to my son. But you can skip the wisecracks about our financial and marital status.