The barrier separating the synagogue from the classroom is composed of diagonally positioned wooden beams. A peek through the small spaces between each layer reveals a stack of opened volumes of Talmud. On the other side, just ten steps from the cabinet housing the Torah scroll, one can find an open Quran. The classroom is filled with yeshiva boys who are practicing the incantation of the muezzin while at the same time pondering the laws of kashrut. A few minutes earlier, they updated their Arabic-language iPhone application before retiring for afternoon Mincha prayers. At the end of the day, after a lecture on the philosophy of Rambam, they return to the room and turn on Al-Jazeera.
Welcome to the pre-military AMIT academy in Rosh Pina, a unique institution that for the last 17 years has been educating and training yeshiva students for army service in intelligence units and for future stints in spy agencies. It is a factory for churning out spies. The unusual back and forth between prayer and intelligence duties will continue once these young men are recruited to units like the IDF's 8200 electronic surveillance unit which is responsible for cracking codes; 504, the Military Intelligence outfit; or the unit under the auspices of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. From there, they will move on to staff jobs and field positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Mossad.
They are active in research, recruiting and instructing agents, surveillance, translation, covert operations, and counterespionage. Among the graduates of the academy is a man currently serving in a senior position in the Shin Bet, who recently married a religious girl from the same unit. These skullcap-wearing Jews — observant religious youth with noticeable tzitziyot (the fringed garments worn beneath their shirts) flapping about — are likely to find themselves dispatched to missions in enemy territory within a few years, or living in a distant land under an assumed identity.
Meanwhile, they don’t yet have to face the dilemma of whether to wear tefillin (phylacteries) in Saudi Arabia. Half of their day is devoted to the study of Torah — Biblical studies, Talmud and Jewish law, Jewish philosophy and beliefs, and Hasidism. The other half is spent learning Middle Eastern studies and high-level Arabic. This is the only civilian institution that offers training and instruction of this kind specifically geared toward religious students.
More Muslim than the imam
The school is completely civilian in nature, but the Intelligence Corps is involved in determining the curriculum. It also provides a small number of teachers to aid in Arabic instruction.
“There is a strong bond between the corps and the academy,” said an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. “The Intelligence Corps is monitoring the students’ progress and it oversees their integration into the corps. The students are recruited into intelligence positions, and later on in their service they move up the chain and are promoted to the most sensitive posts.”
The academy preps the students for their pre-conscription exams. It takes them on trips to army bases around the country and treats them to lectures from senior Intelligence Corps officers.
Every year, 30 new students enroll at the academy after finishing with high marks and passing a careful screening and selection process instituted by the IDF. In the past, intelligence officials requested the academy’s administrative office to provide them with a list of students who possess foreign passports. One can imagine what awaited these individuals. The head of the academy, Rabbi Avraham Davidovich, sealed his lips when I asked him about this.
Davidovich is the chief rabbi of Rosh Pina and a religious judge in the conversion court, as well as a former intelligence official. He is also the author of a siddur (prayer book) intended for secular audiences that was recently published. It is titled "Elecha Tefilati" (“My Prayer to You”). He founded the pre-army academy, which is housed in a beautiful wooden structure that blends in flawlessly with the breathless, majestic Galilean landscape. It sits at the foot of Mount Canaan, with Mount Hermon hovering in the background.
“Those who complete religious studies usually do not enlist in the Intelligence Corps,” Davidovich said. “This is because there is barely any Arabic instruction in the religious sector. This is compounded by the sense of alienation felt by many in the religious community toward the Shin Bet, particularly due to the activities of its Jewish Division. As a result, the religious enlist in droves to all of the important units, except intelligence units.”
A few years ago, the academy held a Quran reading contest against an imam from a local mosque. A religious student of Ashkenazi extraction from Jerusalem won first place. The student read passages from the Quran more accurately than the imam. As part of their regular education, the students take five units of Arabic for their high school matriculation exams, finishing with an average grade of 90.
“The studies are intensive,” Davidovich said. “In eight months, students learn more than what they learned in all of their years of high school combined.”
The Middle Eastern studies curriculum includes a course on the history of Islam, the history of Arab countries, and the memorization of passages from the Quran. “They don’t learn the stories of Muhammad as a religious duty, but simply as a tool, for knowledge,” said the academy's director, Rabbi Eli Yosef.
"We're surrounded by Arabs and we must understand them"
With their jeans, iPhones, and laughs, one cannot help but appreciate the innocence of the students' youth. Who knows where these youngsters will end up in a few years’ time? Barak T., a native of Nes Tziona, sits near a long, narrow table humming a song in Arabic. “Nus al aj’ni,” he said. “We will get to heaven.” His older brothers performed their military service in 8200. “Around the Shabbat dinner table, we blurt out comments in Arabic as if it were second nature,” he said.
Orel T., a Rehovot native who auditioned for the Israeli version of "American Idol," where he performed a dead-on imitation of singer Margalit Tzanani, gesticulates with his hands while giving a fire-and-brimstone speech in Arabic. His near-perfect mimicking of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is as chilling as it is accurate. “I came here to prepare myself for army service,” he said. “I want to strengthen my knowledge of Torah, just as I want to increase my knowledge of Arabic.”
The day is jam-packed and comprehensive. Aside from intensive studies, there are also grueling physical activities. The students volunteer for auxiliary police duty and also tutor immigrant students from Ethiopia. At the end of the day, they relax in front of the television. Avichai prefers the Lebanese channel, while Yonatan likes to put on Al-Jazeera. Another student intently follows an Arabic version of the animated series “Digimon.”
“Religious education points students toward the elite units where soldiers are trained to conquer hills,” Davidovich said. “I go from yeshiva to yeshiva and I tell the youngsters there that while they train every day and pray, they don’t need to apply what they train for on a daily basis. In the intelligence units, soldiers fight day in and day out. The fact that you can freely walk around shopping malls and come out alive is not because our neighbors have suddenly turned into lovers of Zion, but rather it is a result of an intelligence war.”
“Yes, we do get laughed at sometimes for being 'jobniks' [noncombat soldiers],” said Yonatan C., a student in the academy. “But in religious society, people have already become accustomed to unusual enlistments and jobs. There’s a mix of sacred duties and day-to-day duties, science and Torah, music and Torah. This whole story about us learning Arabic has yet to catch on. We live in a country surrounded by Arabs, and we must understand them.”
“It’s critical that we know the language of the enemy and the culture and customs,” said Ari K., a settler from Kedumim who has already learned by heart the prayers he has heard from the muezzin in a nearby Palestinian village. “I am not learning Arabic to chitchat with the neighbors, but to know the enemy. If it wasn’t for the benefit of the security of the State of Israel, I wouldn’t learn it. As for serving in the Intelligence Corps, the guys from my community tell me all the time that it is a service for jobniks. Where I come from, everybody is Rambo. They’re either in some elite commando unit, or in a combat unit. It’s insane. What can you do? A guy who is in Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit] and who has a knife between his teeth looks better in pictures than some nerd with headphones.”
Not combat, but just as important
D., who is 32, is a member of the academy’s third graduating class. He is a fluent Arabic speaker who served in 8200. He was later assigned to a sensitive unit in the Shin Bet before taking up a post as a senior researcher in the Military Intelligence research division. Now he also holds a sensitive job at the National Security Council. A married father of two, he lives in Bnei Brak. He is ultra-Orthodox, through and through. Alongside his work in the intelligence agencies, he also leads “a life of Torah, almost as intense as that of a yeshiva student.”
“I manage to devote between two and three hours per day to Torah study at a kollel [a yeshiva for married men] in Bnei Brak that has an organized curriculum,” he said.
And a yeshiva student like you finds himself almost like a James Bond figure, but without a minyan of religious people around you, obviously.
“It can get lonely. A religious guy serving in the Intelligence Corps sometimes feels like a lone wolf. You see guys going together to hesder platoons [for religious conscripts] and serving in religious battalions, and you get jealous of the support structure that they have around them. So this forces you to develop a professional approach and to make a clear separation. I do my job, and that’s where it ends. Nowadays, religious soldiers are beginning to get closer to the corps, and a lot of the credit should go to the academy. Suddenly groups of five, six religious soldiers come together to the same base. Then, when they move up the chain of command, everyone is put in a different place. But at the initial stages, there is something very strong about the guys who come from the same place, the same religious institution [the academy].”
Why is there a need for such a religious institution?
“High school yeshivas don’t invest in Arabic instruction. A religious high school student studies Torah and Jewish-related topics most of the day, and core curriculum subjects like technology and the humanities the rest of the time. It’s not as if the rabbinical educational establishment has singled out Arabic as something that should not be taught, but the curriculum has been shaped in a way that there is no room for Arabic studies.”
“Religious guys are not as exposed to the possibility of serving in intelligence,” said D. “Most of them aim to get to the combat and operational units, since those have the best reputations and are most popular. This has been consistent through the years. The combat course is a safe stock to invest in if you’re a religious student. When I went to intelligence, the guys perceived it as a jobnik-like position, but eventually they realized it was high quality. In the afternoon, army chiefs make use of the work that you do in the morning. You feel as if you made a significant contribution, and that makes up for this ‘stain.'”
No oil tycoons or blondes
We visit another graduate of the academy in Jerusalem. Now 30 years old, Tzachi G. originally came to Rosh Pina to search for peace, quiet, and art. He came to the academy after completing his studies at the prestigious Horev yeshiva. He would eventually be assigned a position in the military that would require him to gain a fluent knowledge of Arabic.
“It was pretty strange for my Ashkenazi family,” he said. “I come from a family where almost everyone votes for right-wing parties, and all of a sudden I bring home songs by the Egyptian singer Ehab Tawfiq, I walk around the Old City of Jerusalem, I’m conversing with Arabs. The more you know, the more you enter a process where you less and less see Arabic as the language of the enemy and more as a language of our neighbors. Your worldview shifts somewhat to the center. You know that there is terrorism, but you also begin to see those who do not engage in terrorism.”
A beautiful intelligence officer fell in love with him, became religiously observant, and married him. They have two children. Today, Tzachi runs an Internet site, Terrorgence, devoted to intelligence analysis of terrorist threats in Israel and abroad. As a religiously observant man, he has had to deal with a number of unique dilemmas posed by his lifestyle. “I had to get used to the fact that Shabbat is almost a regular work day,” he said. “You’re doing things, talking on the phone, consulting with others, typing nonstop, almost like it was a regular day, except that there are times when you find time for prayer. At first, I would ask myself how the importance of these matters is decided and how it justifies violating Shabbat. When I asked my rabbi, he told me that I needed to treat everything as a possible threat that justifies violating Shabbat and that it is impossible to know what is truly urgent and which phone call will save lives. He instructed me to treat Shabbat as any other day.”
“Of course!” exclaimed Davidovich, nearly rising from his chair. “All of the great Torah sages say that Shabbat should be violated in such cases. If someone is serving in the Intelligence Corps, and that person needs to use the telephone or computer or car on Shabbat, this is observing Shabbat according to Jewish law, since the saving of lives trumps Shabbat. When you are on a shift, you must perform your duty to the best of your ability. If that means writing, then you write. If that means calling, then you call. One of the most difficult things for an intelligence man is when the shift ends, and he needs to close the door and flip the switch and act as if it were Shabbat. This is a challenge — knowing to live in a world that transitions quickly from one thing to another. That brings out a man’s true character because he must know how to lead such a complicated life.”
Davidovich’s small desk is filled with letters and notes from academy graduates who seek his advice on religious dilemmas. These questions tell whole stories. Many of the questions delve into moral issues.
“There are questions about human life, about the treatment of Arabs, the fear of harming civilians during counterterrorist operations,” he said. “Someone asked me about an operation that would lead to the exposure of an intelligence source — which would result in that person’s death but also prevent future attacks. These boys have a very strong moral compass. One of the graduates prevented an operation that would have led to the harming of civilian employees of the Hamas government who were not engaged in terrorism, because in his view the operation was illegitimate.”
Have you already been asked about getting permission to marry a foreign woman?
“That’s Hollywood. I haven’t had a question like that from a student of mine. As much as I appreciate movies, most of the soldiers in the intelligence units are in office jobs. They don’t operate under the alias of an oil baron from a sheikdom in the Gulf who lives with a blonde bombshell in Paris. Having said that, it’s a question of life or death. If someone is required to conceal his identity, obviously he mustn’t reveal his Judaism. So he won’t wear tefillin and he won’t wave a lulav (palm frond) on Sukkot or light a menorah on Hanukkah.”