The year 2014 set a new record in the drafting of Orthodox women graduates of the state religious school system into the Israel Defense Forces. The increase in numbers, by 13 percent over 2013, comes in the face of opposition by rabbis in the National Orthodox community, who generally encourage the community’s young women to volunteer for national civilian service instead of the army.
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The increased presence of Orthodox women in the army, encouraged by the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, the chief of staff’s adviser on women’s affairs and Aluma, a group that assists religious women in the army, can be seen in figures across the board. According to figures the Manpower Directorate provided Haaretz, the number of Orthodox female officers rose by 30 percent from 2013 to 2015, and the number of Orthodox female soldiers in combat-related units rose by 71 percent.
In October, Captain Tamar Ariel, an Israel Air Force navigator, was killed in an avalanche in Nepal. Ariel, who was active in seminars held by Aluma, had become an object of admiration in her lifetime for many Orthodox women soldiers.
Until a number of years ago, army service was considered a legitimate choice for national religious young women, especially from the religious kibbutz movement and in some urban high schools. Today, although most Orthodox institutions are officially against the draft for their female graduates, the trend of joining the army is going mainstream. While in 2013 Orthodox women drafted into the army came from 213 high schools and ulpanas (institutions of higher religious learning for women of high-school age), in 2014, that figure rose to 289 institutions – an increase of 36 percent in one year.
According to the IDF, a total of 3,810 female Orthodox soldiers and officers who are graduates of the state religious system are currently serving in the army. There are no figures available on how these young women define themselves religiously during and after their service.
Rabbis who oppose military service for Orthodox women – notably Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu from Safed – say that women who serve in the army become less religiously observant. However, last year Aluma presented figures from a survey that undercut this claim.