How Many Synagogues Does IDF Need?

The IDF has seen an unprecedented growth in synagogues, most of it with foreign funds; meanwhile, non-Jewish soldiers suffice with praying in improvised shacks.

The synagogue at Bahad 1.
Yuval Taboul

A number of weeks ago, and after several battles inside and out, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot approved moving the Jewish Identity branch from the military rabbinate to the army’s manpower division. This branch, which was responsible for providing lessons on matters of religion, war and ethics, enabled the military rabbinate to amplify its influence and presence among soldiers, religious and secular.

But it seems that the increasing presence of religion in the Israel Defense Forces does not end with this branch. According to observers, an unprecedented number of synagogues have been erected in the army, while more old synagogues have been renovated.

“Dozens of synagogues were built or renovated between 2005 and 2015 as part of a growing trend, pushed directly by the military rabbinate,” says a former senior officer in the education corps.

“The obvious explanation for the massive building of synagogues is meeting the needs of the religious, as more and more of them are being drafted,” says Prof. Yagil Levy, a researcher from the Open University. “However, it’s not obvious. The rate of synagogue building seems in all likelihood to exceed the rate of increase in religious recruits. The number of yarmulke wearers has been stable for years. The change is mainly in their presence in the combat units, but synagogues are built not only there.”

He says the wave of synagogue building demonstrates Orthodox Jewry’s power in the army. “Synagogues clearly mark territory of control of this stream,” he says. “It is organizational control via an emissary of the military rabbinate in the unit, symbolic control that turns the synagogue into an inseparable part of every base, while in the past the number of synagogues was much lower.”

It also turns out that a large number of synagogues in the IDF are built with private donations – Jews from Israel and abroad who donate for the specific goal of building a synagogue on an army base. The funds go through the army personnel branch.

“There is a connection here of Jewish philanthropic capital that seeks horizons of influence in Israel with the power of the military rabbinate,” says Levy. “The military rabbinate wised up to acquire a tangible advantage over the education corps thanks to its ability to raise funds from various sources for its activities, and thereby to offer commanders a service that does not come at the expense of the unit’s budget.”

The IDF notably does not supply any house of prayer for non-Jewish soldiers as do universities and colleges in Israel and abroad. According to military orders, the IDF must provide for the religious needs of non-Jewish soldiers, and these requests are mostly dealt with on a case-by-case basis, by the commanders improvising in the field.