Highlights of Beit Hillel Conference on Meaningful Service for Women

Meaningful Service for Women
We previously reported on the Beit Hillel Conference on Meaningful Service for Women. The goal of the conference was to discuss the various options available for female Israeli high-school graduates to serve their country, either through national service or enlisting in the army. The pros, cons, and issues of each the options were also discussed by both professionals and young women from the field.

What follows is a summary of the highlights presented by the main speakers.
We welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

Rabbi Meir Nehorai

This is the most volatile subject for Israel’s national-religious sector. Barely a day goes by without an article being published about this on national-religious websites.

In Parashat Teruma, the action used in context with the terumah offering is lekichah (“taking”), whereas in Parashat Ki-Tisah, the word “netinah” (“giving”) is used. The terumah that is described in Ki-Tisah is obligatory; none are exempted from participation. One who gives what must be given feels ownership over the gift. Conversely, when one gives something without an obligation to do so, as in the case of Parashat Terumah, that person does not feel the sense of parting from a belonging, and therefore, the terumah is “taken”.

We need to state, loud and clear, that serving the country is obligatory for both men and women. Our challenge is to see how we can promote women’s service in the spirit of “vayikchu”, heartfelt contribution.

Brigadier General Raheli Tevet-Wiesel, the Advisor to the IDF Chief of Staff on Women’s Affairs

The facts: There are at least 4,000 religious women (graduates of religious high schools and Ulpanahs, or religious seminaries) serving in the IDF, as both drafted soldiers and career officers.

When I enlisted, there were very few female soldiers who graduated from seminaries. Today, enlisting female solders include quite a few girls from the national-religious school system.

Today, IDF representatives appear in front of all of the young people of the country to explain what options are available to them before enlisting. All of them, that is, except for religious girls who studied at a seminary. The IDF wants to provide a religious girl with an appealing framework that will allow her to preserve her religious way of life. Every religious girl is labelled “bat-chayil” (“fighting girl”) in the army’s records for religious practice, and their commanders know that they need to pay special attention to her religious needs (time for prayer, the right to meet a rabbi or a female chaplain officer, etc.).

A revolution has occurred over the past two and a half years in the IDF Chief Rabbinate, and military rabbis now know that they are also responsible for female religious soldiers. None of this information is provided to graduates of religious schools for girls, since the army is not allowed to enter these schools and give them this information. I would like all of this information to be made available to these girls before they make their decisions, and I would also like Beit Hillel to support those who choose to enlist.

Rabbi Avihai Ronski

Seven years ago, when I came back to the army, a vacuum had existed regarding women in the army. The rabbinate had not dealt with these women’s religious needs. We created the position of an officer, directly subordinate to the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, who would take responsibility for this, along with NCOs under her command. Today, military rabbis must also provide services to female religious soldiers.

The reality is that an increasing number of girls are enlisting. We also need to have more pre-military programs for these girls. When these girls are in the IDF, they need to be given more contacts that will enrich their spiritual world, and well as that of male soldiers, throughout their service.

Rabbi Ohad Taharlev

Rav Ohad TaharlevCurrently, four midrashot (girls’ religious schools) have an agreement with the army. These girls enlist as a group, and the midrasha accompanies these girls while they are enlisted. The older schools have been around for over a decade.

The “Tzahali” military academy is a program that maintains contact with the girls, but the girls don’t enlist as a group, and their is no formal agreement with the army to preserve the connection between them and the academy.

Around 250 girls are enrolled in these special programs, out of about 1,800 religious girls that enlist in the IDF. All of these programs are collapsing under the weight of an increasing numbers of students. Hundreds of girls would like to study at pre-military institutions, but there isn’t enough room for all of them.

Here are our observations:

  • The religious “center” is disappearing, as religious boys veer to the “Yeshivot Hakav” [“ideological yeshivas”] on the right, and religious girls veer to the left.
  • Girls are seeking spiritual challenges
  • Girls are speaking a religious language that is different from what they were accustomed to.
  • Girls are making an impact and creating change in the army units they join.
  • The message we are conveying to these girls is contradictory: “they can or should develop in every area except for military service (which has such a complex ethos in Israeli society)

A personal thought: Are you a rabbi or an avrech [kollel student] looking for a job? Now’s the time to open a Midrasha!

Yadaya Levin, General-Director of Bat-Ami

There are between six and seven thousand girls who graduate from religious schools every year. Even those who champion the enlistment of girls in the army need to ask themselves how many girls can be placed in the appropriate frameworks while they are in the army. How many will receive the proper preparation before enlisting?

Ostensibly, ulpanahs direct their students towards national service, but they rarely have a formal educational framework set of for this.

There is a lot of ignorance regarding national service. Despite what is reported in the media, there are formal mechanisms designed to deal with sexual harassment. I don’t agree with Rabbi Tehar-Lev on the nature of the far-reaching changes in national-religious society. I feel that the central issue is the desire to be part of Israeli society, and not set apart from it.

By next year, widespread changes will be made in national service. Competition between non-profits should not confuse the girls or take place at their expense. A better-organized guidance process should be put in place.

I believe in educating girls to make choices, along with the importance of preserving a religious lifestyle. Bat-Ami educates its girls for two years of national service. Almost all programs, up to the time of Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman, call for two years of national service. At Bat-Ami, approximately 35% of the students stay on for a second year (a smaller percentage stays on at other non-profit organizations). Our goal is to increase this number.

Yifat Selah, CEO of Alumah

I have waited twelve years for this meeting, and for me, the very fact that it is taking place is a revolution.

Girls need to take into consideration that the army isn’t a place that is tailored to your every whim. We provide information, so that girls understand which programs exist, and which do not.

We accompany these girls, not as a midrasha, but as an organization that wants to help girls that approach us find whoever it is that is supposed to help solve the problem. Over the past year, Alumah conducted various types of activities designed to supply information about the army at 59% of girls’ high schools. About 70% of the girls that enlist are in relatively protected environments.

Since more girls are enlisting, we’re constantly trying to find them positions (both for those with a stronger background and those with a weaker profile), so that they end up in relatively protected environments.

At the end of the session, a girl who had completed national service spoke, and she was followed by a female IDF officer (who graduated from Bruriah). The first speaker described her service, while maintaining that the girls begin national service unaware that during their service, they will have to deal with the spiritual content in their lives (prayers, torah study, and so forth). Many girls encounter halachic problems during their service, and they do not know who to turn to.

Rabbanit Rahel Keren

Rabbanit Rachel KerenRemarks made by my students (at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv):

  • Generalizations (like “girls can’t” and “all girls”) greatly irritate the girls. “They don’t see us as human beings”.
  • There is a spectrum of national-religious educational institutions for girls. Some harass girls who decide to enlist, and some girls enlist without any preparation, because they aren’t aware of the midrasha or pre-military academy options. In some institutions, the teachers had served in the military, and they are supportive of these girls, regardless of the decision they make.
  • Girls feel that the “declaration” [declaring before a rabbinical court that they are observant] is a lie. Some girls aren’t suited for army service, but they enlist because they are not prepared to declare.
  • One thing that the girls find particularly irritating is the language used in the army.
  • Girls do not feel appreciated. Why are boys who enlist so highly regarded by religious society (even if they do not do anything important in the army), whereas girls that complete a much more meaningful service are (sometimes) not appreciated for it.
  • There are girls who have been told, or who are given the impression, that by choosing to enlist, they have removed themselves from the rest of religious society.

Rabbi Amit Kola

Rabbi Kola began by referring to the words of the Mishnah, followed by Rambam’s writings: “A bride leaves her wedding canopy”, meaning that women, too, must participate in the war effort.

Over the generations, Jewish commentators set limits for this notion, basing themselves on the principle that it would be impossible to require a woman to enlist in the army, for reasons tied to reality and values. Commentary on this topic discussed the tension between textual aspects (what does the original say?) and the practical aspects (what is possible, given the current reality and its set of values). In this context, it is interesting to note that it was only in modern times that the words of the Mishna and Rambam reverted to their simpler connotations, as brought down by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Two millennia needed to pass, along with their corresponding changes in reality, until a commentary could pass through the filter of the commentators.

Next, Rabbi Kola discussed the prohibition of a woman carrying arms, based on the Jewish law: “A man’s tool shall not be worn by a woman.” Several views had limited this prohibition. Rabbi Yoel Sirkish (“Habayit Hachadash”) explains that the prohibition of “A man’s tool shall not be worn…” depends on the reason the wearer has worn the tool. Furthermore, the acharonim (later Rabbinic authorities) wrote that women may carry arms for self-defense. Some contemporary scholars discuss this prohibition, classifying it not as a private prohibition, but rather as guidance that halachah intends for women. Contemporary torah scholars who have studied this issue of the enlistment of women have apparently reached the conclusion that no conclusive halachic prohibition can be referenced, so they made various claims, all of which were based on the assumption that “it simply couldn’t be”.

In summary:

  • Women participate in “Milhemet Mitzvah” – “Obigatory War”
  • The subject of women carrying arms
  • An ideological question: are women fit for the army?
  • Special attention to the different background of enlisting women
  • Preserving tzniut – modesty – and “the purity of the camp”
  • Taking care to respect the rabbinate
  • The role of female and male educators – Helping girls make mature decisions for their future
  • Elucidating the elements of motivation – what motivates girls that enlist?

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

I came here because I think that we all need to sit at the same table. How would a lay individual feel when rabbis from Camp “A” publish halachic ruling “A”, while rabbis from the other camp publish the opposite ruling? What is that individual to do?

The girls need to follow halachic rulings. They need not feel as though they are in violation of Halacha.

Nearly all of the poskim (religious authorities), as Rabbi Amit stated, assumed that it would be impossible for women to participate in battle. And in truth, if we look at sources that describe the participation of women, these women are not participating as fighters, but rather, as those supporting the men in battle.

Still, as Rabbi Neriah, of blessed memory, had said, even if the Torah had said “When you go out to war, you and your daughters…”, we would rule to the contrary. The reality of life in the army is complex, and anyone who has served knows this. This is the position of a series of pivotal commentators. Who would dare defy such key commentators?

Furthermore, from what I’ve read, I understand that no army in the world obligates women to enlist. In Israel as well, in wartime, female fighters never crossed the borders or participated in “redeeming Israel from the hand of its enemies.” So in effect, the training of women for combat is not put into practice.

Are religious women succeeding in maintaining their spiritual world when in the army? According to a study we conducted, with the help of Mrs. Minah Tzemach, they do not preserve their spiritual world, despite the findings of the Alumah’s study (which, according to Rabbi Eliyahu, was not authoritative).

Therefore, I believe that the halachic position is clear.

The advisor to the IDF chief of staff on women’s affairs:
I invite the rabbi to see for himself how significant women’s service in the IDF is. I feel that speaking about all women in general terms is insulting.

Rabbi Eliyahu:

I learn from the army, mostly through my children and my students. When a soldier tells me that he is on guard duty on the border, accompanied only by a female soldier, I feel that it isn’t only the values of modesty that are harmed here- it’s detrimental to our security as well. Human nature has not changed since I was in the army. I appreciate the work that the army has done, but that doesn’t mean that the results are positive.

Rabbi Tzvi Koren:

The rabbi belongs to a group of rabbis that are calling on girls not to enlist. I would ask that when you say this to girls, don’t say that “all of the rabbis say so”. The girls know that isn’t true. They also told the girls that what they were doing ran contrary to Jewish law, and this gave them the feeling that they were acting against the Torah. You can say that it’s forbidden, you can convince them that it is forbidden, but don’t tell the girls that they are acting against the Torah.

Rabbi Eliyahu:

I always try to say “an absolute majority” or “the vast majority”.

Download the conference source book – 50 pages of information and sources (Hebrew).


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  1. Beit Hillel Conference on Meaningful Service for Women | Beit Hillel - February 25, 2014

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