As tensions roil between religious male soldiers and the Israeli military establishment, a small but growing group of female religious soldiers believes it may be able to build bridges of understanding and religious tolerance within the IDF.
This year, the number of religious women enlisting in the IDF is expected to be up from last year by nearly 25%, reaching a total of 1,500 soldiers, according to the army’s human resources branch.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of students graduating from religious high schools will still accept draft exemptions and go on to do national service instead. Those who do choose to enlist are diverging from the norms of their community, if not challenging them outright.
For some, the messages they received were not subtle. Some women talk about finding articles in weekly Torah pamphlets distributed in synagogues, telling religious girls not to enlist.
“In my high school they told us it was 'asur' (forbidden) and a very bad thing for religious girls,” says Tehilla Meged, who enlisted to an intelligence unit in 2007. “I think they still don’t know there that I did it anyway.”
But for these soldiers, there were more important factors. Many of them wanted a different sort of intellectual stimulation than they thought they could get in the welfare and education jobs that make up most national service positions, and thought they could contribute more in the army.
Others felt it was important to serve alongside the majority of the nation, for the sake of their own development and in many cases to satisfy a sense of mission.
One woman traces her choice back to experiences in high school and before. “As an immigrant, it was something especially significant for me to be a part of and to contribute to,” explains Abigail Levitt, a British immigrant who has been in Israel since the age of seven. “Then we went to Poland in 11th grade and that made me want to do the army more.”
The final reason for some, however, was that they just couldn’t understand why not to enlist. Elisheva Goldman enlisted after a year of intense study at the Beit Midrash for women at Migdal Oz.
“The law in Israel is that every citizen needs to go to the army, unless they have a religious problem. I didn’t have a religious problem; therefore there was no reason for me not to go.”
Religious men are disproportionately represented, both as soldiers and officers, in combat units, and therefore often serve as part of large groups of religious soldiers. In contrast, religious women are underrepresented in the army as many choose Sherut Leumi (National Service) to fulfill their national service obligation.
Frameworks do exist for religious female soldiers who wish to serve as part of a group with their religious peers.
“Tarbut Toranit,” for example, is a program which trains religious soldiers, including Levitt, in the education corps as teachers for schools and absorption centers. Another option for a female recruit who wishes to serve with religious peers would be enlistment as part of an organized group (in Hebrew a “garin”).
Girls who enlist together in garinim serve together as instructors or in intelligence units.
Many, however, are the first and only religious soldier in the offices where they serve, in contrast to their religious male counterparts who are more likely to serve with religious peers. It is also more common for female soldiers to serve in jobs that allow them to leave the base every night.
As a result, these women face distinctive problems coordinating army service and religious practice. For example, not all synagogues on army bases were built expecting women to be attending, and if they do have women’s sections, they are often too small. Although in theory there are army skirts available as an alternative to uniform pants, some women just couldn’t get their hands on them immediately.
Meged points out that even something like wearing pants instead of a skirt for the first time can be scary. It may not seem like a big deal but the change comes at the same time as so many other adjustments that even a change of wardrobe be overwhelming.
According to IDF rules, religious soldiers in training courses must be granted time to pray, with a quorum in a synagogue if possible. However, because women traditionally do not hold their own group service, time for prayers is not always built into the women’s schedules or is scheduled when the rest of the group is working at something else.
Some religious women, such as Goldman, choose to pray before the other women woke up, so as not to leave their part of the morning clean-up to others.
Yet for many the primary issues were social. “I was a little different,” says Efrat Gerber-Aran, who served as an intelligence analyst and was the only religious soldier in her office. “But I fit in pretty quickly and people respected me and liked me as I am.”
The religious women’s choice to enlist didn’t only present challenges to themselves though. Goldman for one understood that for many people religion can have negative associations. “I was surprised when people were angry about things I requested for religious reasons,” she explained. “I understand that it’s because of their hard feelings about Judaism and it was nothing personal.”
Meged faced more pointed aggression. “In the course there was one girl who liked to follow me around yelling profanities; she thought it was funny. She would have conversations loudly about things I didn’t want to hear about.”
Changing religious soldiers' experience
Mostly, however, the women were welcomed respectfully. Gerber-Aran describes a tradition in her unit, that whoever is about to be discharged hosts the rest of the group for dinner at his or her home.
The first time it happened she spent the evening hungry but by the second time the group made sure to prepare a “kosher corner” with disposable dishes and store-bought food. Pretty soon, the “kosher corner” was an inseparable part of the tradition.
Meged also was able to make changes. “The rabbi of the base wasn’t very active and there was unnecessary 'chilul Shabbat' (Sabbath desecration). So I wrote a letter,” she remembers. “They really wanted to help; it was just that nobody had told them about it until then.”
Both women describe other opportunities they found to provide a spiritual influence as well. Meged started adding articles about the weekly Torah portion to her unit’s regular social emails. The list grew to nearly 60 people, many of whom were not religious and many of whom she had never met.
Along with a few other religious soldiers, Meged helped to establish a weekly study group which, two and a half years after she was discharged, is still strong with nearly 30 people attending regularly. She appreciates that there’s a religious social life on the base now.
Sara Kessler describes how this kind of thing changed the experience for religious soldiers on the base. Her sister enlisted four years after she did to a similar job on the same base.
Because someone, perhaps Meged, had established a weekly study group a year before Kessler’s sister began, the religious community was organized and Kessler’s sister was able to find friends who shared her experiences.
Gerber-Aran left a similar legacy. After a few months in her job, she began organizing a weekly “Kabbalat Shabbat” (“welcoming in the Sabbath”) event before everyone left for the weekend. After she returned from a half year away in Officer’s Course, the custom was still in place.
“I think that more than a few people saw me as representing ‘the religious’ and I hope I represented them well… I think I managed to introduce my friends to Judaism in a slightly different way than they had ever seen it before. And I’m glad for that.”
Meged doesn’t need to hope. When she left the army, one of the women serving with her gave her a farewell note thanking her.
“She said I was the first religious woman she had met and she learned a lot being with me and values the religious so much more. She said it’s important that religious girls go to the army; that it’s a service to the nation, not just the military.”
Some, like Gerber-Aran, say that the well publicized tensions between the army and its religious combat soldiers don’t affect religious women.
“I don’t see the great importance of women singing at ceremonies,” she said “but I also don’t think it’s important enough for religious men to fight about.”
Others, like Meged, take a more active approach to the controversy over the more stringent modesty requests from religious soldiers.
“Of course if it limits what we can do, that affects us; but that’s all girls, not just religious ones. And we can explain. People don’t understand that women’s singing is actually a halachic issue, not something that came out of Iran.
"Of course, it’s not to be taken to an extreme and it’s a 'chilul Hashem' (desecration of God’s name) to walk out of a ceremony. But we can talk about it from the girls’ side, so people are willing to listen to us. In general from my experience, people are more comfortable asking girls about things. Maybe we’re less intimidating.”
“The religious female soldiers can provide a more moderate perspective,” Levitt concludes. “They can bridge the gap between the sides. People have a lot of respect for them.”