Religious Affairs: Heroines of the home front

With an all-time-high percentage of religious-Zionist men in combat units, their wives are left to cope.

yonatan nataniel 248.88 (photo credit: IDF)
yonatan nataniel 248.88
(photo credit: IDF)
Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, the Bnei David Military Yeshiva, located in Eli, a settlement in Samaria, has known both joy and sorrow. In one of the first casualties of the war (Capt.) Yoni Netanel, 26, a graduate of Bnei David, one of hundreds presently fighting in Gaza, was killed by friendly fire. He is survived by Ziona, his wife of one year, and their three-month old daughter. There is also celebration. Three boys and a girl have just been born to Bnei David graduates all presently fighting in Gaza. In some cases, the husbands were unable to be by their wives' sides for the births. (Lieut.) Matanel Maliach, who serves in the Givati Brigade's Reconnaissance Company, heard about the birth of his daughter while on duty in Gaza. Edna Nechama's husband, Hezi, barely arrived in time for the birth, returned to battle immediately afterwards, and appeared again in Eli for the circumcision, before heading back to Gaza. "It is no big deal," said Edna. "His not being home is not new for me. I support him totally and I don't expect him to stay home. He has an important job to do." Hezi will soon be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, when he will take command of the Givati Brigade's Reconnaissance and Demolition battalion. SINCE ITS founding 21 years ago, Bnei David has graduated 2,200 young men from its one-year, pre-military program. Over half of them became officers, the vast majority in combat units. More than 100 went on to become middle-to-high ranking career officers in combat units. Many are fighting in Gaza. Ofer Vinter is the commander of the elite urban warfare unit, Duvdevan. (Lieut.-col.) Avi Blut is commander of the Paratrooper Brigade's Battalion 101. "G." is the commander of a squadron of Apache fighter jets. Dozens of other Bnei David graduates are serving in command positions. Bnei David is producing some the IDF's most outstanding career officers, sparking a literal revolution in the role of religious-Zionist men in the IDF. According to informal data (the IDF does not have separate data on religious soldiers), anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of graduates from officers' training courses are wearers of "knitted kippot," at a time when their percentage of the total population is around 10-15%. But no less important has been the impact on religious-Zionist women, who have had to support the military careers of their husbands. These women have had to cope with the long stretches of separation, while knowing the day-to-day dangers of combat service faced by their husbands. Over the years, Eli has created an entire support system to help career officers' wives cope with the emotional and logistical difficulties of raising large religious-Zionist families, while their husbands are off dedicating most of their waking hours to protecting the country. "This afternoon, I had to pick up one of my children from kindergarten," said Edna Nechama, who gave birth less than two weeks ago. "I have a one-and-a-half year old in the house who I am not allowed to lift. So I called Sussa." "Sussa" is the nickname for Ya'acov Elkana Yosefov, a Bnei David graduate who receives a salary from the Yeshiva to run errands, fix things, or do anything the husbands normally do for their wives. Sussa arranged to have someone pick up Edna's child from kindergarten. Ilana Peretz, whose husband, (Maj.) Elad, is commander of the Paratrooper Brigade's Demolition Company, said that she and her husband moved to Eli six months ago, because they needed the support offered by Bnei David. ALTOGETHER THERE are about 70 families headed by career officers living in Eli. Most of the husbands are graduates of Bnei David. Most are presently serving in Gaza. "Many women are not cut out for this way of life," said Ilana, who has three daughters. "Others have the strength. I know that I would not be able to manage without all the support I get from my parents and from the community here in Eli." Ilana said that, in addition to Sussa, there was also a lot of spiritual and emotional support. Group trips are arranged for the families of career officers, and special workshops on child rearing are offered. Every week, various rabbis give inspirational talks that combine religious faith with Israeli patriotism. Last week, OC Chaplaincy Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronzki spoke to the women. "If not for the faith, the classes, the Torah values instilled in us, all the ideals and the belief in this way of life, the general atmosphere here that is so supportive of the IDF and the state, I do not think I would be able to do it," he said. Rabbi Eli Sadan, founder of Bnei David, has been a public activist for his entire adult life. He established Keshet, the first Gush Emunim-backed settlement in the Golan Heights in the 1960's. He fought for Soviet Jewry in the 1970's, together with Avital Sharansky. With Bnei David, he is creating a new cultural reality. "If you want to start a grassroots movement, if you want to set in motion social processes," he said, "you have to form a new culture, a new set of values that is felt deep in the soul and shared by society. Bnei David is creating a new cultural reality that emphasizes sacrifice for the Jewish people, of taking responsibility for the Jewish people. Women are central to this new cultural reality. For hundreds of men to serve as career officers in combat units, hundreds of women must be willing to stay at home and bring up children, while knowing the dangers." Ilana Peretz admitted that sometimes she thought of the possibility of losing Elad. "God forbid…It passes through my mind. But I try to think positively," she said. "Sometimes I cry. It is only natural, since I miss Elad so much sometimes. But I don't cry out of weakness or depression - just because I miss him. There is a feeling right now that the entire nation is behind the soldiers, and that gives me strength."