Salute to arms

A mother’s perspective of her daughter’s service and why she believes the army is an excellent training academy for life.

Woman soldier 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Woman soldier 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Shortly after we moved to Israel, some cousins invited my husband and me to the ceremony marking the end of their son’s basic training in the Israel Defense Forces.
We watched the fresh recruits march in formation; we applauded politely as the young man was singled out for excellence.
I found the evening festive in a tailgate party sort of way.
But with the swearing-in done and the last of the burekas consumed, I was, I must admit, confounded. What exactly was celebratory about 18- and 19-year-old youths saddled with large weapons marching toward three years of combat soldiering? Some two decades and three soldier children later, I found myself revisiting this question when my daughter completed her service. Clearly, no sane parent embraces mandatory conscription for his or her child, or the unfortunate need for it. And hopefully, someday soon, we won’t have to accept it even resignedly.
Still, my daughter’s four years in the IDF enriched and matured her in ways I never could have imagined. And, with the valediction to her fellow commanding officers, she turned in her abundant equipment and spare uniforms, but not the multitude of valuable life lessons or meaningful relationships she had acquired along the way.
My religiously observant daughter belongs to a cadre that, until recently, represented a tiny minority in the Israeli armed forces. (Religious women can opt out with a personal declaration to the draft board.) Military service for women is routinely stigmatized by large segments of the religious – even national religious – community in the Jewish state. In fact, and as an immigrant, I was surprised by this, it was pretty much discouraged by the educational and social frameworks in which my daughter grew up. But, inspired by her older brothers and smitten with what is glibly known as “hilat hamadim” – “the aura of the uniform” – she was determined to serve her country as part of the people’s army.
As the debate about a universal draft for Israeli men rages, a growing number of religious women, who, like my daughter are driven by an inexorable need to contribute and an unquenchable desire to shatter social barriers, are joining the discourse and changing the landscape of the IDF. The press is abuzz with this newest phenomenon; in recent weeks, The Times of Israel, Ma’ariv and Ynet have all reported about the Orthodox women who have chosen to serve and the impact they have had.
Naysayers preach about the hazard of waning religious devotion. But, in truth, the opposite is often the case. Thrust into the limelight as religion’s ambassadors, many of these young women strengthen their identities and commitment to Judaism. And ultimately, as I learned from my daughter’s experience, the fate of the Jewish people will turn, not on whether some of these female soldiers wear pants rather than skirts, but rather on the mutual respect, understanding and dialogue they are cultivating with large swathes of the Israeli population with whom they otherwise would have had no contact.
These include the young men and women who studied moreshet Yisrael – Jewish heritage and tradition – with my daughter, a group divided by deep ideological differences and widely divergent backgrounds, joined together by the lessons of their country and their need to defend it.
ANYONE WHO has ever attended an army induction ceremony knows that it is far more than a rite of passage. Beyond the pomp and circumstance and the sometimes summer-camp-like atmosphere, it represents a singular opportunity for families from all sectors to come together and root not just for their own soldier’s accomplishments, but also for the idealism and unity of purpose that once characterized the Jewish state.
Together with our vociferous cheering comes a reminder that Israel is still home to young visionaries with extraordinary ability and drive, who continually prove that this is where the seemingly impossible is made possible.
Beyond its obvious national benefits, though, the Israeli army is a thriving greenhouse for remarkable personal growth. And while mechina, the preparatory pre-military leadership academy, is gaining popularity as the perfect prelude to army service, it turns out that the army itself is an excellent training academy for life.
If enlisted Israelis do not exactly “see the world” – Uncle Sam’s promise to prospective American recruits back when I was a kid – they at least expand their horizons and become worldly. They build self-confidence and learn about teamwork from role models worthy of emulation.
They develop communication skills and learn to express their thoughts and ideas articulately and concisely. They gain knowledge about Zionism and Jewish sources and history. I have seen my daughter cope under pressure, watching in awe as she kept her head while my own blood pressure was escalating off the charts, all with her ever-present smile and good cheer. And I have envied her.
Shortly before she assumed her duties as a commander, my daughter was promoted in a closed ceremony at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Army rituals have developed over decades and this particular occasion dictated that the officer – a colonel – bestowing the rank upon her give her a friendly but hearty slap on the shoulder with her new badge. But, as I was later told, in this instance he demurred, explaining that she was “dakat gizra,” or slight of frame.
This is the slip of a young woman who, just as her release date came within sight, at about the time other soldiers begin to daydream about treks to Nepal and Peru, decided she needed to give yet more, take on a greater leadership role where she might influence others positively and learn from them in turn. So she signed on as a commander in officers’ training school, where, along with her M16, she shouldered responsibility for the scores of cadets in her charge. With maturity uncommon even for an Israeli 22-yearold, she suddenly became mother and mentor, cheerleader and chastiser, arms instructor and hand-holder, teacher, disciplinarian, counselor and coach. She got a crash assertiveness-training course and became an expert in both management and psychology. And she learned to see far beyond herself.
Non-Israelis are understandably ambivalent about the congratulatory greetings offered at army-related milestones.
“Is mazal tov in order?” my bewildered manager from New York once asked when I told her about a ceremony I would attend. And I hesitated. Because who wouldn’t prefer that our children not report for army duty? That secure peace with our neighbors would signal the end of military engagement? But for now, I decided, the answer is yes.
Mazal tov is in order – to the country that continues to produce promising, persevering pioneers with an apparently unstoppable aspiration to inspire, guide and serve as stellar personal examples.
In Israel, where optimism isn’t much in vogue, a popular pastime is ragging on just about everything, with army service and young people right up there at the top of the list. But those of us who still sing the national anthem know that “od lo avda tikvateinu” – our hope is not lost. It is alive and well in the halls of the Kirya, on army bases all around the country, in the study halls of mechinot and yeshivot and in the libraries of universities and colleges across Israel.
It’s strange; when we made aliya, we were sure we did it for our children. In an ironic twist, it is they who keep reminding us why we are here. And planting in us the hope and belief that one day yet, Israelis of many stripes and ideologies and backgrounds and religious convictions will come together to respect and enrich each other. And that is reason enough to celebrate.