Women of Valor: Rabbis spar over IDF service for women

religious girls 88 298 (photo credit: Courtsy of Aluma)
religious girls 88 298
(photo credit: Courtsy of Aluma)
Tzuria Nehemia, 18, dreamed of becoming an IDF paramedic. She even joined Tzahali, the first premilitary Torah institute for women, located in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. But at the last minute she opted for national service; instead of serving as a military paramedic she will be working with underprivileged youth. "I was afraid that my religious adherence would deteriorate in the IDF," said Nehemia, who lives in Moshav Nevatim. "I was afraid that I would not be able to handle the unsupportive environment in the IDF." Nehemia said that her sudden turnaround was a result of "a lot of internal deliberations," but admitted that strong rabbinic opposition to army service for women "lit a warning light." A petition against military service for women that was organized in recent weeks by Lev Ahim chairman Ya'acov Hadari, was signed by former chief rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, along with dozens of others. The opposition is based primarily on the inappropriateness of the IDF's co-educational and immodest environment, particularly for adolescents. "A religious girl has no business in the IDF," said Rabbi Eitan Eiseman, head and founder of the Tzvia-Noam school system. "The Chief Rabbinate has consistently forbidden women to serve in the army and that is what we teach our girls." "Raful [Raphael Eitan, former chief-of-staff] once said that a religious girl in national service can do three times more for the Jewish people than she can do in the army," said Eiseman, who sits on the board of directors for national service. National service was created to enable religious women to dedicate a year (many do two years) to community work instead of serving in the IDF. Nevertheless, of the 7,000 annual female graduates of religious high schools, about 2,000 join the IDF. At least three programs, organized by rabbis or with the help of rabbis, provide religious women with a supportive educational framework that prepares them for army service and guides them during their military stint. Rabbi Ohad Tohar-Lev heads Hadas, a program under the auspices of Midreshet Lindenbaum and Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, which combines two years of IDF service with one year of Torah study. Hadas participants serve in one of three areas: education, intelligence or Shabak (General Security Service). About 20 percent end up becoming officers. While in the army, Hadas's rabbis and educators visit the women every two weeks to teach and maintain contact. Commenting on the long tradition of rabbinic opposition to military service for women, Tohar-Lev said that things have changed. "If the Chief Rabbinate were aware of the change in the IDF's attitude toward religious women and were familiar with the programs that prepare women for service, they might change their minds," he said. "The nature of the rabbinic establishment is conservative and wary of change, of breaking the old conceptions." Still, Tohar-Lev admitted that for many religious women IDF service is not appropriate. "But girls who are ready end up coming out of the experience even stronger," he continued. "They clarify issues of faith and prepare themselves for the real world where there are no protective barriers. "There is no insurance policy for faith," added Tohar-Lev. Rabbi Moshe Hagar-Lau, a battalion commander in reserve duty and head of the pre-military yeshiva academy Yatir, said he believes that women can make a unique contribution to the IDF. "It is like a married couple," said Hagar-Lau, a nephew of former chief rabbi Yisrael Lau. "Husband and wife have different roles because they have different qualities and strengths. The same holds true in the army."