JERUSALEM (RNS) As an Orthodox Jewish woman, Chen Ofir is exempt from Israel’s mandatory military service. But she decided to volunteer anyway “because if you live in Israel you should be contributing to the country,” she said.
A year and a half after joining the Air Force, Ofir is halfway through her stint as a flight simulator instructor. Despite the rigors of military life she continues to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath.
Ofir is one of a growing number of Orthodox Jewish women who see no contradiction between serving in the military and maintaining a religious lifestyle – a trend that some Israeli rabbis hope to end.
In 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 2,100 Orthodox women volunteered to serve in the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, up from 1,500 women in 2013. The increase is due in part to the IDF’s greater effort to accommodate the religious needs of these soldiers, and the military’s decision to open all but 15 percent of military positions to women.
Military service in Israel is mandatory for Jewish men and women, but some Orthodox adherents are eligible for an exemption. Most women choose to perform National Service in lieu of service in the army.
The IDF’s ramped-up efforts, which include a hotline, an app and conferences for religious women contemplating IDF service, have alarmed Orthodox rabbis, who fear that the integration of women into traditionally male roles will tempt them to sin.
Earlier this month an Orthodox rabbi who directs a state-funded pre-army program for Orthodox men bemoaned the presence of women in the military.
“They are enlisting our girls,” who emerge from the army “non-Jewish,” the rabbi, Yigal Levenstein, told his students. “This is crazy, (the army’s) value system is completely deformed. Forget the secular girls, they are already completely crazy. But religious girls, they have completely gone mad. How can you marry a girl who has served in the army?”
Another rabbi said the IDF will soon have to create a maternity unit for pregnant soldiers and that abortions among female soldiers will rise dramatically.
Even some modern-Orthodox rabbis who have traditionally championed the enlistment of women in the military are expressing concern over the IDF’s decision to create some coed combat units, where male and female soldiers live and work in close quarters.
Last week (March 15), 13 moderate rabbis issued a letter saying that Jewish law forbids religious men and women from serving in such units.
Zahi Revivo, deputy commander of the IDF’s Meitav recruitment division, said his unit is actively working to increase the number of Orthodox female volunteers by 10 percent annually.
“These women have very high motivation and are among the highest quality soldiers,” Revivo said.
Many IDF commanders are secular so the IDF offers courses explaining the religious soldiers’ needs, from having adequate time for prayer to providing strictly kosher food. The women may also choose to not serve with men in a closed structure such as a watch tower.
Many Orthodox women soldiers serve as border observers or as instructors in the infantry and armored corps.
“We have fewer in combat units because many are coed. We also have all-male units” where religious male soldiers can serve, Revivo said.
Revivo is well aware that “there are rabbis who say 'don’t go into the IDF,' but we’re hearing other rabbinical voices also. You can stay religious in the IDF.”
Raised in an Orthodox family, she chose to attend a seminary that “was very much in favor” of IDF service.
Ofir, who trains pilots, said she initially faced some challenges related to her religious observance.
“Most people I serve with don’t understand the religious lifestyle. My housemates didn’t know all the rules of keeping kosher, so I and another religious soldier requested and received new plates and cutlery.”
While rabbis permit soldiers to perform just about any duty on the Sabbath, she said, “it’s sometimes hard to feel the atmosphere of Shabbat on a busy military base.”
Ofir said she has greatly benefited from meeting and living with soldiers from different backgrounds and that she sometimes feels “like an emissary.”
“At holiday times the other soldiers ask me what that holiday is about and how to celebrate it.” One Sabbath, she recalled, “everyone decided to put away their cellphones and cooked all the food before Shabbat.
“They really wanted to experience it.”
(Michele Chabin is RNS' Jerusalem correspondent)