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Friday, February 21, 2014
Serving in the IDF, with no regrets
Since 2010, there has been a 43% increase in
the number of religious women serving in the Israel Defense Forces • The
IDF is making special efforts to give these women the chance to serve
in meaningful roles.
Private Avia Gahali, 20, is
one of a growing number of religious women to serve in the Israel
Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
In recent weeks, the issue of enlistment for
religious Zionist young women has once again breached the walls of the
nationalist-religious community into the wider public consciousness.
While some conservative rabbis have gone public with their opposition to
the idea, one can also find a number of fascinating instances which
attest to the phenomenon's growing popularity.
Last month, when Professor Asher Cohen from
the political science department at Bar-Ilan University came to lecture
before a group of IDF Education Corps officers, he was forced to wait a
bit because approximately half of the assembled cadets -- or, female
cadets, to be more precise -- were in synagogue in the middle of prayers
ushering in the new Hebrew month of Shevat.
"The interesting thing about it is that this
issue doesn't seem to preoccupy the establishment by one bit," Cohen
said. "There is a growing trend of greater involvement in Israeli
society on the part of the religious Zionists who are more and more
moving into positions of power and influence, and the enlistment of the
religious girls is just another indicator of this."
"Some of the complaints against the army are
based on experiences that people had when they first got to know the
army 20 years ago," he said. "It was an army which I wouldn't trust with
my daughter. But the army of today is undergoing a revolution. There
are also important rabbis whose approval gives this legitimacy."
One of those rabbis is Chaim Navon of Midreshet Lindenbaum and the chief rabbi of the Shimshoni congregation in Modiin.
"In my view, the question of drafting girls
into the IDF is not a halachic one," he said. "It's strictly an
educational issue. There are educators who tell their female students
that according to Jewish law, it is forbidden for a girl to be under the
authority of a man who is not her father or husband. But there is no
such law. Many of those who oppose [female conscription] acknowledge
"Still, every case needs to be examined
individually," he said. "I don't think that girls need to serve in field
units. This, in my view, should apply not just to religious girls.
There are important, vital functions to carry out on the home front,
where religious girls can serve under conditions that are conducive to
their lifestyle, in large groups, and under the influence of Torah
Are the attacks against religious girls who serve in the IDF liable to cause damage?
"It's legitimate for an educator who opposes
female conscription to state his position, but I would expect two
things," he said. "First, there needs to be an accurate, forthright
appraisal of the problems and not a concoction of religious
restrictions. Secondly, one cannot insult the girls who chose to serve.
Every new phase of a person's life is an experience that is liable to
"Nonetheless, from my experience, when girls
go into the military after a period of Torah study and as part of a
concentrated group of other religious girls, they are not influenced any
more negatively then girls who perform national service. There are
times when the opposite is the case. I have many female students in the
army, and I'm proud of the way they are handling their service."
It seems that more and more religious girls
are enlisting. In the last four years, the number of religious girls in
the military has nearly doubled. Last year, 1,616 religious females were
drafted. In 2010, the number of 935.
"The young, religious girls do everything in
the army," said Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, who serves as women's
affairs adviser to the chief of staff and who also enlisted into the
military as a young, religious girl. "They are indispensable. At any
given moment in the IDF, there are thousands of religious girls."
What is the IDF doing to encourage more enlistment by religious females?
"Before enlistment, we are in close contact
with Aluma (a nongovernmental organization that prepares young women for
military service). In the Meitav unit [where soldiers are first
inducted], a special department was created for the placement of
religious girls according to their personal information and backgrounds,
so as to find a suitable environment for them.
"During the service phase, there are a number
of functions. We have Captain Einat Cohen, an officer whose job is to
handle all matters relating to religious women in the IDF Rabbinate as
well as to liaise with religious girls. Her phone number is posted
everywhere and she is asked questions that are then passed on to the
Rabbinate -- questions regarding placement, married women who have
conflicts in scheduling monthly visits to a mikveh, halachic questions,
etc. Aside from this, there is also a hotline run by the IDF Rabbinate.
The Rabbinate has taken very significant steps in the last two years
because we encouraged this.
"There are other units in which female
officers are responsible for the religious girls. In the Intelligence
Corps, there is a female officer whose job it is to find uniquely
qualified candidates for Military Intelligence, Capt. R. Many religious
girls want to go into the special units in the corps, and it takes time
until they receive replies to their applications due to the lengthy
"In these instances, Capt. R. expedites the
responses to the religious girls. As such, the army computers have given
a special designation known as 'bat heyl' which is given to every girl
who has completed the state-religious school system, very similar to the
designation given to lone soldiers. This requires the commander of the
unit to interview her and to give her extra attention."
What difficulties does the army encounter?
"Despite all of the army's efforts, I am angry
because the state-religious education system has closed its doors to us
and to Aluma as well. As someone who came out of the religious Zionist
community and reads the newspapers on Saturday, I am outraged. What
bothers the rabbis is the fear that the girls will become sullied in the
army. This is ignorance. This insults the integrity of the girls
serving in the IDF.
"The public pronouncements from the chief
rabbis are also hurtful. I have no intention of calling into question
their integrity, but I assume that these statements stem from a lack of
knowledge of what is really going on. I saw the letter sent by Safed
Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu to a religious girls' school in Modiin in
which he wrote that it is strictly forbidden to permit the IDF or Aluma
into the institution. From my point of view, this crossed the line. This
wasn't a halachic ruling or edict."
The brigadier-general did admit that none of these issues has any effect on the girls.
"The train has already left the station long
ago, and the girls are enlisting," she said. "So let's guide them in the
correct manner. We'd be happy if people got behind the girls so long as
their education is one that inculcates values and is sincere, and not
one that will deny them important information. A poll commissioned by
Aluma among 25-year-old religious girls who completed their army service
revealed that over 85 percent of them either maintained the same
religious lifestyle and devotion to Torah or saw that devotion
strengthened. This result didn't surprise me."
Still, how do you reach these girls?
"We get a sense from the girls on the ground
that they want to know more. Some of them are exposed to the Aluma
organization, and home meetings are arranged through word-of-mouth."
Sharon Brik-Dashan is the director of the
female religious enlistee program at Aluma, which was created to "enable
religious girls to perform significant service, to be a part of the
Israeli nation within the frameworks that are appropriate to them.
"We are a database of information for the
religious girls who enlist," she said. "We gather as much reliable
information as is necessary about tasks in the army and we advise them
accordingly. There are girls' schools that open their doors to us, and
on the flip side there are girls' schools that want nothing to do with
us. In the middle, there are girls' schools that are opposed to military
service, but the educational staff is aware of the girls who chose to
enlist and who recognize the importance of giving them proper guidance.
Today, there isn't one school whose girls do not enlist, and the heads
of the schools and the rabbis understand this."
Corporal T., 20, an intelligence investigator who resides in Jerusalem, is a religious girls' school graduate.
"I came up through a very conservative,
elitist school which is in favor of contributing to the state but only
by way of national service," she said. "According to the school's
guidelines, enlisting in the military is forbidden since it contravenes a
ruling by the Chief Rabbinate."
"When I told my parents that I wanted to
enlist, they didn't like the idea, but they are learning to accept it.
When I announced this in school, I was called in for conversations with
the teacher, the guidance counselor, and the principal. I felt as if the
way the teachers were treating me had changed."
Are there moments when you regret your choice to enlist?
"I have no regrets. If there's a problem, the
thought process should be on how to deal with it. I had various
difficulties. In the army, it was hard for me not having religious girls
with me. There is no Shabbat atmosphere and I need to create it myself.
Nonetheless, I have never encountered unfair treatment from my
"One incident that I remember well took place
at the funeral for my friend's mother. I got to the funeral wearing an
army uniform, and I knew that the teachers from the religious girls'
schools were going to be there. I remember how I hid, since I was so
scared they would see me. It's really embarrassing how in one place I
could proudly walk around in the uniform while in another place I need
to hide from the others."
"At the end of the funeral, my teacher spotted
me and chastised me for being in uniform and without a skirt. She
reminded me of our chat from the girls' school about enlisting and she
wondered to what extent I would stand behind the statements I made to
her at the time. For all intents and purposes, she intimated that I
didn't live up to my word. I told her that I was firmly rooted in the
belief that I was doing the right thing, and that it was her choice to
judge me or not."
Do you think this is still the prevailing attitude there?
"I think they are less extremist in this
regard. They understand that this is a trend in the community. I
suggested that the teachers at the girls' school give out my phone
number to girls thinking about enlisting, and one of the teachers said:
'Do you really think I'll give your number to one of the girls?'"
When I ask Corporal T. if she feels as if she
has gained more by virtue of her army service, she replies: "There's no
question I've grown stronger, and it's also because of the fact that I'm
wearing pants. I really believe in what I'm doing. When a secular
person asks me what I'm up to, I'm compelled to open up a religious book
and understand. I've grown more committed religiously because
everything I do is done with no regrets, and people respect this. They
change their minds about religious people."
With the grace of God
Similar sentiments are expressed by Corporal R., 19, who serves as an investigator at Military Intelligence.
"When I got my initial call-up notice, I
didn't rule out the possibility of enlisting, and my parents supported
me," she said. "The only condition was that I should receive a position
that has no equal in national service and that it would not infringe on
my religious lifestyle. I got my education at a very religious girls'
school. I felt that if I revealed [the fact that I was going to enlist],
I'd be the black sheep of the school. Out of 110 girls in my class,
just four enlisted, and this is the most to ever come out of one class
in the history of the school."
What difficulties did you encounter in the IDF?
"On the day of my induction, I asked for an
ankle-length skirt, but we didn't get one. We began making phone calls,
and we reached Aluma. They connected us with Captain R., and within
hours we received our skirts. There are more difficulties, but I have to
say that they pale in comparison to the acceptance and tolerance we
experienced in the army."
Before Capt. Shiran Amos, 23, an assistant to
an officer in the Operations Branch of the Etzion Brigade, enlisted in
the IDF, she attended the Tzahali pre-army preparatory academy, where
she decided she wanted to be a guide in the Armored Corps.
"I felt I needed to prove that I was going to
do significant service, aside from the deep desire to contribute to the
country," she said. "I felt secure from a religious standpoint when I
got to the army. I wasn't scared to stand in front of 20 combat soldiers
while teaching them nor was I scared to go into the tank with them. The
biggest challenge was in my current job, the operational one, where
there is no difference between a regular weekday and Shabbat, except for
the kiddush. This decision came about as a result of understanding the
need for the job, and this just intensifies for me the significance of
Private Avia Gahali is a 20-year-old combat
soldier from Kiryat Ekron. After she was given the blessing of her
school's rabbi, she decided to enlist. "Somehow I got to Aluma and told
them that I want to go into combat," she said. "They told me there
wasn't much time, but two weeks before my induction they managed to get
me a spot in the tryout, and I was accepted."
The operational battalion in which she serves
is made up of female combat fighters -- one-sixth of whom are religious
-- and their job is to gather intelligence from the field as part of a
unit, over a period of time in difficult conditions.
"It's the belief that is very strong in me," she said.
"I feel that God is telling me that he is with me all the time. One can
pray here in front of the mountains. It's as if the prayer that goes, 'A
song of ascents, I raise my eyes to the mountains from whence will come
my help,' was written for those moments."