The power of dreams

A religious lone soldier’s journey to the IDF.

Yael Krinkin. (photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
Yael Krinkin.
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
‘Serving in the IDF has been my dream since I was eight years old,” says Yael Krinkin. “And my resolve to serve has never faltered.”
For many of the thousands of lone soldiers who elect to serve in the IDF each year, the desire to join the army stems – as in Krinkin’s case – from ideological convictions and a commitment to protecting the State of Israel. But enlisting is not always easy, and Krinkin’s path to service was anything but simple.
Born in South Africa, she immigrated to Israel with her family in 1999 when she was four years old. Wanting to integrate immediately into Israeli life, the family moved to a small community of approximately 80 people, where they lived for four years. However, political tensions were high. It was the start of the second intifada, and several friends and community members were wounded or killed as a result of terror attacks.
Her parents were committed to staying in Israel, and she recalls her mother remarking that they had to “make the best of the situation, and help as best as they can.” However, after Krinkin’s father’s company closed down due to the intifada, the family chose to return to South Africa in June 2003.
“It was unexpected,” she recalls. “We had been in South Africa for the summer holidays, but when my dad got offered a job there, my mother went back to Israel, packed up our belongings and had everything sent to us. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends, my community or my school. In that sense, I never had a chance for closure.”
From the moment she learned of their longterm return to South Africa, she told her parents that “at the first opportunity,” she was going back to Israel. “I love South Africa – it’s a beautiful and warm country – but I’m an Israeli at heart,” she states. “My place is in Israel.” And so when she chose to return to Israel upon finishing high school, her impending move did not come as a surprise to her friends or family.
Yet her chosen path – serving in the IDF – was certainly not the conventional route one took upon graduating high school in her South African Chabad community. She says that though her decision to enlist was hard for her father, he took great pride, as an ardent Zionist, in the fact that one of his children was going to be serving in the Israeli army. For her mother, it was more difficult.
“It took me a long time to convince her that it was going to be all right,” Krinkin recalls. “She had a number of concerns – when you’re far from home and the only religious woman on base, it can put you in a vulnerable position. I ultimately told my mother that I was going to enlist with or without her approval, but that I would prefer to do so with her support. It took a while, but today she is proud and extremely supportive of my service.”
Krinkin’s community was also surprised at her course of action. “Many feel that it can’t be done – that a religious girl can keep kosher and Shabbat, and still be in the army,” she says.
But Krinkin, who for modesty reasons wears stockings and is shomeret negia (refrains from physical contact with the opposite sex, other that the one does not negate the other.
“I hope that other religious girls who have the same dream realize that it is possible. It’s definitely easier than it used to be.”
During basic training, she says, her platoon leader saw that it was difficult for her to do various activities while wearing a skirt.
“I was the only person on base given permission to wear pants beneath my skirt,” she says. “It was August, and we were on the coast of Ashkelon. Though it was extraordinarily hot, I was a lot more comfortable. In that sense, the army has been very accommodating.”
She acknowledges that it’s hard to be the only religious person on base, “particularly on Shabbat during free time, when everyone is listening to music or on the phone with their family.” However, she has gotten used to it, and says that people have been very supportive.
“Like with army service in general, you have soldiers who are more excited about serving than others. It’s very similar with feelings regarding religious observance. I’ve had people ask me why I kiss mezuzot, and one girl asked if she could watch me light Shabbat candles, as she had never seen anyone do so before.”
Krinkin says she would never push a fellow soldier to do anything, as she feels that each person’s relationship with religion is his or her own. “I’m doing what I need to do, but if people have questions, I am of course happy to answer them if I can.”
It is this commitment to her ideals that has won her respect from her fellow recruits and superior officers, says Michal Nagen, the principal of Tzahali, a pre-army mechina (preparatory program) that Krinkin attended prior to her IDF service.
In 2013, there were approximately 3,300 high-school graduates studying in 46 pre-army mechinot throughout the country, an 18-percent increase since 2012. Of these mechinot, 22 cater to Orthodox students, and there are 26 general programs. This year, a new mechina program called Hararei Zion opened in the Jordan Valley for male graduates of haredi high schools.
Furthermore, the Joint Council of Israeli Zionist Social Leadership Academies is now working to provide a framework to maintain connections with mechina graduates during their army service. The goal is to create a network of activists who will positively impact and act as meaningful voices in Israeli society.
Tzahali, which opened in 2006 as a project of the Yaacov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies, is the only mechina program that caters specifically to religious young women. It is an interesting demographic to work with, Nagen says, as most Tzahali students come to the program with little concrete knowledge about basic army protocol.
“In contrast to boys’ yeshiva high school programs, where there is a lot of preparation and discussion surrounding enlistment, many of our students know less about how things work,” she says.
Moreover, many of the girls come from schools where for social reasons, it was not possible for them to discuss their choice to enlist with teachers or rabbis. And when it comes to support from parents and family members, many of the girls’ families are unfamiliar with the army process.
“When I call my mother from my base and say that I’m sick, she’ll say, ‘Well, go see a doctor.’ But there’s procedure that one has to follow – it’s not that simple,” Krinkin explains. “And when you’re not familiar with the system, it’s hard to fully understand what that means.”
For this reason, Tzahali spends a significant amount of time working with each student to prepare them for prospective army positions, as well as to familiarize them with general army procedures. Once they are in the IDF, the staff continues to provide graduates with any and all necessary support.
In the last seven years, close to 50 percent of Tzahali graduates in the army have volunteered to be officers, a statistic that the program feels actively challenges the stereotype that religious girls who choose to join the army are “less serious” than their peers. It was this support, both before and after her enlistment, that Krinkin says provided her with the guidance and resources she needed to succeed in the IDF.
She first heard about Tzahali from an aliya emissary in South Africa, but thought it sounded like a “gap-year program for Israelis before the army,” and decided it was not for her. However, while on a 10-day school trip to Israel in 11th grade, one of her counselors recommended that she once again look into the program.
“I decided to call an alumnus, and after a good conversation with her [about] her experiences while at Tzahali, I contacted principal Michal Nagen,” Krinkin recalls.
This is how she first spoke to Nagen, who Krinkin says helped create a family without which Krinkin feels she “would not be a soldier today. Going to Tzahali was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Currently in its eighth year, the program typically has 50 students annually and runs for 10 months. This year, one of its participants is from Washington, and there are several other recent immigrants in the program, one of whom moved to Israel only days before starting the program.
Nagen says she views Tzahali as an opportunity for girls to “strengthen themselves as both individuals and Jews,” as well as for self-exploration related to army positions.
“We provide simulations so that the girls get a taste for what different positions entail, as well as leadership experiences so that our students can see where their own strengths lie,” she says.
In addition, Tzahali offers Judaic studies classes, encounters with different factions of Israeli society as a means of better understanding conflicts within that society, and opportunities for social action and volunteering.
All Tzahali students come from religious homes, some of which – like Krinkin’s – border on ultra-Orthodox, explains Nagen. For this reason, many of the girls face varying degrees of opposition from their families and communities.
Nagen says that one of her students faced tremendous hostility from community members. People would stop the girl on the street and tell her, enraged, that she was not “going in the right direction.”
Throughout the mechina, Nagen and this student had many intense discussions that focused on reconciling being “her parents’ daughter” and concurrently doing what she thought was right. A pivotal moment occurred when – after some consideration – the student wore her uniform on a visit home.
“Someone came over and saluted her,” shares Nagen, “which was of tremendous impact.”
For many Tzahali students, the decision to serve in the IDF is in and of itself one of the most intense parts of their enlistment. This was not the case for Krinkin, though.
“From my first appointment at the draft board, transitioning into the army came as quite a shock,” she says. “From the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I had to find the draft office, and my Hebrew wasn’t very good.”
After meeting with an army physician, she was initially told that she could not enlist, and she said that if this was the case, she would volunteer. But with the help of the Tzahali staff and the IDF itself, she earned a place in the navy.
Krinkin therefore decided to visit her family in South Africa before beginning her service, and returned to Israel a few weeks before her enlistment date. Upon her return, however, she was distraught to learn that she would “not be enlisting.”
At the age of five, she had lost 8% to 10% of her hearing, resulting in the periodic use of hearing aid, which she was told would make it impossible for her to serve in her proposed position.
“In contrast to South Africa, in Israel one must suffer from significant hearing loss in order to receive hearing aids. Though I usually don’t use my hearing aids, the very fact that I had them was seen as problematic,” she explains. But after a meeting with the army audiologist in Tel Hashomer, and several phone calls, she was re-awarded her position.
There was still some difficulty: Her fellow recruits had already started basic training, and she was told she would have to wait an additional three months before officially becoming a soldier. She pleaded not to have to wait, and – again, several phone calls later – was allowed to start basic training at a base in Nitzanim.
As Nagen notes, “every door was closed to Krinkin. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and she was sent away at every turn. Someone else might have reacted by saying, ‘Okay, well, I tried and they didn’t want me,’ but Krinkin never gave up on her dream. There aren’t a lot of people like her in the world.”
And to Krinkin, finally living her dream as a soldier in the IDF is an “incredible privilege.” During the four years that her family spent living in Israel during her childhood, there were often soldiers stationed in their community, particularly during the second intifada. Her parents offered these soldiers a “home away from home,” and the family’s door was always open when someone wanted a shower, a place to take a nap or a hot meal. She says she saw these soldiers as her big brothers, but also as her heroes, and that it was a brief conversation with one of them that laid the foundation for her desire to serve in the IDF.
“He asked me and my siblings if we wanted to see the inside of his tank, and as we sat inside, he shared what a privilege it was for him to be a soldier, and that being able to look after our families was his biggest pride and joy. I don’t know his name or where he is now, but he changed my life in a monumental way.”
Krinkin currently serves as a radar operations officer in the navy, and celebrated her first official ceremony in uniform last week. She says that being able to “keep watch over Israel’s borders, and in this way protect our country, is both a serious responsibility and a privilege.” Her base in Rosh Hanikra sits next to the border with Lebanon.
Though the duration of her service is officially two years, she is hoping to be admitted into an officer’s course, and says she would be happy to extend her time in the army. Having had incredible commanding officers, she feels it would be an honor to serve in a similar capacity and be able to inspire fellow recruits.
Asked if being a soldier has changed her relationship with Israel, she says that as a soldier, she feels one must follow the decisions of the state: “Even if something goes against what I personally believe, having enlisted in the army, I made a choice to not have a choice.
If the country were to enter into war, I wouldn’t have the option of leaving because it contradicted what I thought was right.”
That being said, she maintains that being able to walk around in uniform will always be a source of personal pride. Citing the recent stabbing of 19-yearold soldier Eden Attias, who was fatally wounded on a bus ride back to his base, Krinkin says she has been asked if it made her afraid to wear her uniform in public. On the contrary, she answers – it has only strengthened her desire to be proudly identifiable as an Israeli soldier, being part of a body fighting for a safe and secure Israel.
At Krinkin’s ceremony a few short weeks ago, Nagen proudly recounts, the South African soldier – who was already carrying two bags weighing approximately 14 kilos – took one of her fellow soldier’s bags when she saw her friend was struggling.
“It was so obvious to Yael that she was not going to continue without helping her fellow soldier,” Nagen says. “And this is one of the reasons that Yael will continue to excel and advance in everything that she does.”
Nagen continues that later, this same friend dropped her bag, and Krinkin – laden as she was – bent down to help her repack her things, saying, “It’s an honor to be able to help you.”
“This is what it means to be religious,” Nagen maintains, “and this is what it means to be a Tzahali graduate.”
“I hope I can carry on and go from strength to strength,” Krinkin says. While she readily acknowledges that being in the army is by no means easy, she asserts that “if you’re prepared to work hard and you want it badly enough, being a soldier in the IDF can be the best thing in the world.”