Serving faithfully: US religious girls in the Israeli army
Every year, hundreds of young Jewish American women choose to leave the Orthodox homes they grew up in and make aliyah in order to defend the State of Israel. ‘It’s a great mitzvah and an honor to serve in the IDF as a religious soldier,’ one explains; ‘I wanted to be part of the huge power defending Israel,’ says another.
It began in 2009 with the enlistment of 62 young women from religious homes abroad, and reached its peak in 2016 with 322 observant female soldiers who made aliyah in order to enlist, and there are many more on the way. According to figures compiled by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, 1,732 religious girls have immigrated to Israel and joined the army since 2009, and the number of women recruits is recording a sharp rise every year.
For Israeli youth, conscription is compulsory, and is sometimes even considered a burdensome duty. For these girls, the enlistment is a dream come true, as 17-year-old Nava Chameides of The Bronx, New York, explains: “I heard about the IDF at school, in summer camp and in my congregation. I met soldiers, I read the news and I watched videos about the army, but it all seemed far away until my first visit to Israel.
“I chose military service over national service because of my first experience in Israel,” she recalls. “It was in the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. During my stay in Israel that year, I felt constantly protected, as IDF soldiers were defending me. That was when I knew that I wanted to do my share to guarantee that the people living in Israel would be safe.”
This affinity to Israel is even more surprising when it comes to 20-year-old Ora (Angelic) Jin, who first stumbled upon Judaism when she was a teenager. “My parents were born in Haiti and moved to the United State when we were young. My parents got divorced when I was a teen and my mother felt she didn’t belong to the church. She did feel she belonged to the synagogue, and started drawing closer to Judaism. We converted in an Orthodox court when I was 14. Today I observe Shabbat and keep kosher and walk around with a skirt. The idea of making aliyah was born when I went to a Zionist seminar.”
While Jin did a year of national service, that isn’t stopping her from planning her IDF enlistment. “I want to serve in the IDF. National service is not enough. I think the army is the best way to contribute and acclimatize. It rewards you and it’s a fulfillment of a personal target of mine. I want to serve as a soldier teacher. My parents didn’t want me to go to combat service, and I didn’t want to worry them.”
Do your background and look give you a hard time in Israel?
"Slightly, because people ask questions to make sure that I’m Jewish. People look at me like ‘why are you doing this?’ But I think they see my determination and are convinced that it’s the strongest proof of my Zionism. I’m also thinking about meeting an Israeli guy here and starting a family. As a soldier, I will maintain a religious lifestyle. My rabbi was very happy when I informed him I was going to enlist.”
Jin, Chameides and hundreds of other young girls immigrate to Israel every year with the help of the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, in cooperation with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA, and serve as part of the Lone Soldiers Program of Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) in the US and Panama.
“We put an emphasis on following and detecting new trends among the immigrants and adjusting our services accordingly,” says Nefesh B’Nefesh Executive Vice President Zev Gershinsky. “In recent years, we have detected a rise in the number of religious girls wishing to make aliyah in order to join the army or do national service. We appreciate these girls for their decision to immigrate and make a contribution to the state, and we welcome the opportunity to support them and help them during their service and after their release, in order to improve their integration into Israeli society.”
‘My friends thought I was joking’
“I was riding the bus, on my way home, on my first Memorial Day in the army,” recalls 21-year-old Deena Felsenthal of Los Angeles, California, who served as a weapon instructor in the Kfir Brigade. “The moment the siren began, the driver stopped in the middle of the highway and got out of the bus to stand for the moment of silence. I stood in the middle of the road next to the driver and next to other random people, and I felt like they were all part of my family. It was a kind of connection I can’t explain in words.
“It was so surreal wearing the same green uniform worn by so many soldiers who fell in our land’s defense. I thought to myself, ‘My soldiers are just like those soldiers,’ and then it hit me that I was training soldiers who defend this country.”
Why did you decide to enlist?
“I wanted to be part of the huge power defending Israel, even if it’s just as a small screw in a huge machine. I felt that I was qualified to serve in the IDF and that I had no personal or religious reason not to enlist. The IDF is not the same army of the 1950s. There are plenty of opportunities for women to make a difference in the army, in a safe and respectable environment.
“The IDF welcomed religious soldiers. I will even go as far as saying that they want to draft religious soldiers. You have prayer times, the food is kosher and they promote respect for each person’s religious beliefs. Life in Israel entails living with Jews of all types and denominations, and with non-Jews as well. I believe that religious women can both gain and contribute a lot to Israel’s extensive community by serving in the IDF.”
This feeling is shared by 21-year-old Hannah Defore of Los Angeles, who served as a fighter in the Home Front Command. “My unit specializes in urban warfare, chemical warfare and rescue. In other words, we serve as combat soldiers in conflict areas, and at a time of war we are busy rescuing and defending our people.”
Weren’t there moments when you felt the service didn’t match your lifestyle?
“I totally loved my service and I am so proud of myself for being a ‘religious girl’ every moment I was in uniform. There is nothing like walking around the city wearing a skirt with the rifle hanging on my shoulder,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s the best feeling, and I wouldn’t replace it with anything. I just hope that the number of religious girls who choose to enlist will keep growing, like it should. It really is a fantastic experience.”
But not everything went smoothly. “My parents and the people around me were surprised at first,” Defore admits. “My friends thought that I was joking. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who would leave everything behind and join the army. At first, there were many negative reactions. I think that many women, even religious girls, dream of being soldiers. We are often told that the army is not our place, and we simply give up on that dream. I often receive messages from religious girls who tell me that they would like to enlist and ask for my advice.”
So there is no problem being a religious woman in the army?
“Every time someone comes to me and argues that the IDF is not a place for religious girls, I avoid disagreeing. The IDF made many changes in a short period of time, but there is always room for improvement. It’s a great mitzvah (good deed) to serve in the IDF. I see is as a great honor to have served as a religious soldier. It’s totally possible.
“Besides,” she adds, “because I participated in a seminary till the day I enlisted, I received wide religious support throughout my service. There were definitely moments when it was harder for me to be religious, but I had an amazing support system. I plan to open my own seminary one day as a home for girls who want to enlist.”
Felsenthal is even more determined and says the military environment had no effect on her religiousness level. “If anything, it made me feel more connected to Judaism. I felt that people really respected me as ‘the religious girl’ in the base. People asked me questions about Judaism, and for some it was the first time they had discussed it with a religious woman. I liked being friends with people who I would not have met earlier and learning about Israeli culture through the glasses of secular and traditional Jews.
“Clearly, sitting alone in a dark room and performing Havdalah on my own while everyone around me listens to music and talks on the phone is not an ideal way to spend Shabbat, but knowing that I am welcoming the Shabbat dressed in green uniform, in a base filled with soldiers who are observing such a great mitzvah, turned the Shabbats in the base into my most meaningful Shabbats.
Twenty-year-old Eliora Korenblit of New York has an answer to those who may argue that the IDF is not the place for religious girls: “Most rabbis who speak against girls going to the army have never experienced what it’s like, so they basically can’t provide you with the best answers. I think that in life you always do things with people who may not share your values, but that shouldn’t affect you or the way you choose to live your life. Religion is a key power in my life, and that will never change because of the environment I am in or the people I am with.”
Twenty-year-old Maya Neiman of New York is actually concerned by how the non-religious environment will affect her, but that did not make her give up on military service. “At the end of the day, it depends on me. If I am sufficiently strong in my beliefs, the army won’t destroy me,” she says. “If I am destroyed, God forbid, that only thing that will destroy is that I allowed something to destroy me.
“I have spoken to many girls who serve in the army, and one thing that one of them stressed to me stood out: It’s true that it’s a non-religious environment, but who says you won’t be in a non-religious environment somewhere else? A college in America, a job. Eventually, you will face the challenge, so it’s your choice where you want to face that challenge.”
Twenty-two-year-old Abigail Balas of New York, who served as a fighter and commander in the Artillery Corps, provides quite a calming answer to all these fears, precisely because her service as a commander and fighter challenged her lifestyle as a religious woman.
“My job in the army was a 24/7 operational job. Work didn’t stop on Shabbat. There is no option of observing Shabbat one hundred percent in the position I served in, but it never challenged my religiousness or made me consider to stop being religious.”
Did you IDF service affect your religiousness?
“It strengthened me even more, but I feel you have to be stronger. It’s not for everyone. I didn’t wear a skirt. At the reception base, they told me to hurry up and ‘grab a pair of pants.’ It was complicated, but I’m a fighter, and if I fight so a girl is allowed to wear pants. I have a fighter’s certificate, and people would think I was weird if I walked around with a skirt and a weapon.”
Things were much easier for 18-year-old Maya Burjak of Boca Raton, Florida. She has an older sister who has already immigrated, and besides, she expects life in Israel to make a few things simpler in some aspects.
“I have been thinking about immigrating to Israel since I was nine. The number of female religious soldiers is growing, the stigma against religious women in the army is decreasing, and we live in a liberal world. The biggest dream is to serve in the IDF and start a family, and it’s easier to meet a Jewish boy in Israel.”