On a wing and a prayer

The graduation last week of the army’s first female religious pilot-navigator highlights a significant rise in Orthodox women choosing to serve. It’s proving a revelation for enlistees and the IDF alike

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Religious 12th graders during a pre-army training week (Photo credit: Courtesy: Avichai Deri/ Aluma)
Religious 12th graders during a pre-army training week (Photo credit: Courtesy: Avichai Deri/ Aluma)

Lt. T, the first female religious pilot-navigator to graduate from the IAF’s flight school, received her wings last Thursday at the Hatzerim airbase.

As a graduate of a religious high school, she, like most of her peers, had initially declared herself devout, received an exemption from the army and volunteered for two years of national service, teaching at a religious girls’ school and serving as an instructor in a religious youth group. This is the path most Zionist religious girls take and the one favored by the majority of the schools and rabbis. T, however, came to feel that she could contribute more to the country, reversed her earlier “devout” declaration, and subjected herself to the draft.

“I don’t think that women need to go to flight school — I think that they can,” she told The Times of Israel in an email. “I recommend that any woman, religious or not, give it a shot. If they call you in, if you pass the tests, it means that the army thinks you can do it. So go ahead — try.”

That approach has hardly been endorsed by the religious Zionist educational system. Of the 120 registered high schools for girls, only 40 even allow army representatives on campus. Some schools ask applicants to sign a commitment that they will not wear pants or join the army. Most invite representatives from the national service authority while barring the army, even alumnae in uniform, from presenting the increasingly diverse options open to religious girls in the military.

Religious girls, though, are showing an increased interest in the IDF. The army’s manpower division revealed in December that the number of girls attending this year’s annual event for religious female 12th-graders was three times higher than for the inaugural event three years ago.

This past year, 1,728 religious girls, roughly a quarter of the graduating class of national religious girls’ schools, joined the IDF. That number represents a 32 percent rise over the past four years and a slight bump up from pre-Gaza disengagement numbers. And beneath the surface, many believe, the change is even more dramatic. “Numerically, there is no major shift, but what has changed is the motivation,” said Irit Twig, the head of the “serving in faith” program at Aluma, an NGO that advises religious girls on military service. “In the past, more of the girls were looking to get out of the [religious] sector. Today the girls that join the army are from the top schools, with a solid identity and a desire to contribute.”

Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, the former chief rabbi of the IDF, told the Makor Rishon newspaper last year that, “in my opinion, this is a growing phenomenon.”

If so, it goes against modern rabbinic rulings. In 1951, as the Knesset considered the universal draft law, both chief rabbis of Israel ruled that “the drafting of women, even single, into the military system, in any sort of manner, is absolutely prohibited.”

No major ruling has overturned that decision, despite Maimonides’ opinion that a commanded or obligatory war — a war fought to secure control of the land of Israel or to save Israel from “the hand of a tyrant” (other rabbis define it differently) — compels the participation of all, including “a groom from his bedchamber and a bride from her wedding canopy.”

A soldier knitting during a class in the army (Photo credit: Ofir David courtesy of Aluma)
A soldier knitting during a class in the army (Photo credit: Ofir David courtesy of Aluma)

Today, the Zionist religious community, on the matter of female army service, finds itself torn between two competing forces: the increasingly severe rabbinic rulings regarding women in the public arena and the community’s adoration, even sanctification of the IDF.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a senior figure in national religious circles, said in November 2011 that male soldiers should walk out of any army performance that included women singing “even if there is a firing squad outside and they are going to shoot you to death.” In October 2012, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the head rabbi of the settlement of Beit El, ruled that “a woman cannot serve as a member of Knesset. It is immodest.”

Even voting, he said, was problematic.

On the other hand, religious Zionism, the most overrepresented group within the IDF’s male officer corps and among special forces soldiers, prizes distinguished army service to an even greater degree than most.

When Maj. (res.) Naftali Bennett beat out a respected professor, a journalist and popular radio personality, a veteran politician, and a famous rabbi for the leadership of the Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party in November, it was in no small part due to his background as an officer in a special forces unit. This adoration has seeped through the gender barrier. “If you tell boys their entire lives that they should go to Sayeret Golani [the brigade’s elite recon unit] and you say to the girl, ‘You can’t go,’ well, in 2013, that doesn’t cut it,” said Twig.

In Israel, one of the few countries in the world with a mandatory draft for women, girls receive a first summons to the army at age 17. Religious girls, on the basis of the rabbinic ruling, can declare themselves observant and are granted an automatic exemption. More than 40 percent of the Jewish girls in Israel are excused from army service in this manner. The religious Zionist girls, representing more than a third of that group, then volunteer for one or two years of national service, often working with children, the elderly and the disabled.

To some, it is the only way to give back to the state and remain in a religiously modest, segregated society, living with girls and working under women. To others, it is an affront to their Zionism and their ambition — as women — to pursue a career path in what can be, in and out of the army, a male-dominated world.

In school

Shoshi Leshem, a 12th-grader at a religious girls’ school in the West Bank, said that her school would “rather” that the girls went to civilian national service but that it is “pretty open” and “not at all typical” in its approach toward military service.

Around half of her class is considering army service, she estimated, and with the deadline for religious declaration being 90 days prior to one’s draft date, the discussions are passionate. “People are talking about it all the time,” she said.

At 17, Leshem declared herself religious and received an exemption for what she characterized as perhaps “not legitimate” reasons – a desire to maintain her freedom and an understanding that the army, by definition, eclipses the freedom of the individual. “I think I could be in the army,” she said of her ability to remain religious and in accordance with Jewish law while in uniform. “And whoever thinks they can, should be out there.”

She noted that in civilian national service, girls are often called to work with secular people but that the interaction is only one way.  “You are helping them,” she said. But in the army, which she said she was leaning toward joining, the interactions would go both ways.

For other girls the decision-making process is complicated by the school they attend. Noa Buchman, today a religious medical school student at Ben-Gurion University, was asked to sign an agreement upon entry into seventh grade at the Horev school in Jerusalem, one of the flagship high schools of the religious Zionist movement, with hundreds of students and a relatively hard-line Orthodox ideology. “I had to sign a document that said I was not going to wear pants and I was not going to go into the army,” said Buchman, who went on to serve as a commander in the education corps.

No army representatives were allowed on campus to talk about military service and, she said, the teachers hinted that there were many cases of sexual harassment in the army. When she asked to bring a social worker to the school to discuss sexual harassment in the post-high school environment, including in national service — where some contend it is as likely as in the army — she was told that it did not exist within that framework. In addition, she said, it was “a known fact” that if a girl chose to join the army, her sister, if she had one, had no chance of being admitted to the school.

Other former and current students confirmed that the state-funded school operates in roughly the same manner today, although they said that ever since the former principal’s daughter enlisted there has been a slight change. “Mostly in that it is discussed more,” said a former student whose sister still attends the school. “But the bottom line is exactly the same.”

The Horev school, ranked in the top five schools in the country scholastically, did not return a call for this article. At Tzvia Yerushalayim, another competitive religious girls school, the secretary checked with the principal and said, “The ulpana’s policy is not to address educational matters across the pages of the newspaper and so it will not be possible to discuss” the matter of religious education and the army.

Soldiers and students who went to the army through Aluma (Photo credit: Ofir David/ courtesy of Aluma)
Soldiers and students who went to the army through Aluma (Photo credit: Ofir David/ courtesy of Aluma)

The Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls, the polar opposite of Horev within the confines of top-notch religious girls’ education, educates its students toward Orthodox feminism and encourages them to take leadership positions either in the army or the national service. Other girls, from schools in between the two, described a more hands-off approach.

Sara Cohen, a former psychological evaluator for the IDF and a graduate of the Tzvia school in Jerusalem, said that “the army was never presented as an alternative. They ignored it entirely.”

Michal, a pseudonym, currently serving in the intelligence corps and a resident of the West Bank, knew that she wanted to serve and received support from her homeroom teacher throughout her senior year but her school, Ulpanat Lehava in Kedumim, never openly discussed the option of military service.  “When one of the graduates, a girl who was an officer, asked to come to speak at the school,” she said, “they wouldn’t allow it under any circumstances.”

In many schools the girls are given “disinformation” about the army, Twig contended. They don’t tell them that military service is reprehensible or that the army is preternaturally predatory toward women but rather that the role of women is limited and unsatisfying.  “They say that all girls do is make coffee and that they will be ‘circle NCOs’,” she said — “in charge of wiping away the coffee rings on the table after meetings.”

In uniform

Cap. Ravit Noy, a religious, pregnant mother of one, an officer who wears a hair covering in the Orthodox style and is a product of the religious educational system, is the commander of the Bat Chayil section in the IDF Manpower Division. She deals solely with the placement of religious girls in the army. “They don’t get help in school, in the community, or from their family,” she said.

Cap. Ravit Noy, second from right, at the Tel Hashomer base where she serves (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Cap. Ravit Noy, second from right, at the Tel Hashomer base where she serves (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

In the past, the civilian organization, Aluma, was the only source of information for religious girls. Today, the army and Aluma work together to get a twofold message out to religious girls: the army wants you and is willing to accommodate your needs.

The army has good reason to seek to draft from the pool of religious high school girls. In a 2009 study, the Ministry of Education found that six of the top 10 schools in the country, in terms of matriculation results, were religious girls schools.

Boys schools, from the same community, did not make the list.

For this reason, and in order to compete with the more flexible national service options, the army has changed its approach.

Today the IDF cooperates with three seminaries, in Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the Negev, and allows graduates to serve together in a group, like their religious male peers. This track, which includes a full two-year service, is open to women who want to serve in the education corps and intelligence corps.

Those who want to serve closer to the front lines, as tank instructors or air force flight simulator operators, for example, can sign up along with several friends and the army will arrange for them, in a rather unusual accommodation, to be drafted together, at the same time and to the same unit.

Cap. Noy said she assesses a prospective draftee, gauges her openness to the secular world, and guides her accordingly. “If I see it is difficult for them I will send them to a more protected place,” she said, such as the education corps’ Torah-teaching track.

All religious girls, she believes, should serve with at least several friends, such as a foursome that broke new ground and joined the mixed male and female Karakal battalion several weeks ago.

Sara Cohen did not receive that advice. She signed up for the prestigious psychological evaluator position in the IDF – the soldiers who screen all recruits – and found herself the lone religious soldier in an 18-week course in a closed base. “Mostly I encountered appreciation and consideration,” she said. “The girls would make my bed when I went to pray and they didn’t want me to have to stay on the base on Shabbat and do guard duty,” even though it is permissible according to Jewish law.

Nonetheless, army service raises a lot of questions. On Aluma’s open forum, girls wonder if they should choose skirts or trousers on their first day in the army (Aluma says pick whatever makes you most comfortable and you can always switch); if they should shorten the skirts or leave them at the original and cumbersome ankle length (keep one long, for winter, and shorten the rest a bit); and whether the army will ever roll back its ban on tights under skirts during the winter (“we’re working on it”).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chatting with Lt. T, the first religious flight school graduate, on December 27, 2012 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chatting with Lt. T, the first religious flight school graduate, on December 27, 2012 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)

Of course the questions do not stop there. Some girls, in mixed courses such as medic training, have to wake up male counterparts for guard duty. Others have to decide what to do on Shabbat, if the TV is on in the room and cellphones are ringing nonstop. Lt. T revealed in a recent interview with Yedioth Ahronoth that, although she generally observes the prohibition on touching men, she decided early on in the course that she would navigate alone at night with a male partner, allow her commander to position her hands on a grenade during training and allow the flight technicians to perform their jobs and strap her into the cockpit seat before take-off.

Lt. T will spend most of her service in a flight suit and is therefore not recognizably religious from afar. Noy said this could be a relief as soldiers wearing skirts or head coverings are often forced to fill the role of “God’s defense attorney.” The experience can “make them more religious,” she said, but it can also be trying.

Michal, the soldier in the intelligence corps, chose trousers for that reason. “I didn’t come to the army to represent the religious world,” she said.

To her, certain elements of her encounter with secular soldiers were surprising. “Some of them have never heard of the Exodus from Egypt,” she said. Others could be considered pious, she noted, if they kept a few more commandments between man and God.

More than anything else, though, she felt that the army has prepared her for civilian life as a religious woman. “Girls who don’t go into the army are left out of the Israeli dialogue,” she said.

Buchman echoed that message. As a commander of soldiers from the former Soviet Union, she said she not only was exposed to parts of society she hadn’t known but also realized how easy it is to be accepting of others and how readily accepting they were of her. During high school, in which she was exposed to only “a small sliver of society,” the message was not only to avoid the army but also to ensure “maximal sheltering” during national service.

“We were told it’s so dangerous to live among the secular,” she said, noting that today friends cook dinners at her house so that they will be kosher, “but in my opinion, army service was a steppingstone to living in a diverse society.”

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