Israeli Navigator Killed in Nepal Was a Role Model to Young Orthodox Women

Tamar Ariel was one of a growing number of religious women who have opted for challenging positions in the army - despite the opposition of many rabbis.

Courtesy of family

Her name and her face can now be made public. The film of her flight training graduation ceremony can be shown without the intentional blurring of her features. Her brilliant smile against a mountainous backdrop, friends recounting stories about her; “T.” becomes Tamar. That secrecy, dictated by security needs, is very fitting for what 25-year-old Captain Tamar Ariel symbolizes to an ever-growing community, an anonymous community, hidden from most of the Israeli public, but one that is undergoing a quiet revolution.

Ariel, one of four Israeli trekkers killed in the avalanche in Nepal, was Israel’s first female Orthodox navigator. While that is an extraordinary title, held only by her, it is no longer alien to a culture of young Orthodox women who are filling the ranks of the army like never before. From one year to the next, more and more religious girls are choosing to don a uniform. In 2013, for example, their number was 1,616. And it’s not just a change in quantity, but also quality, as the best of them opt for the army.

Official and unofficial spokespersons of the religionist Zionist movement, who usually boast of such success when it involves men, are silent about this trend. Most rabbis oppose girls’ service in the army, and have even stepped up their struggle against the phenomenon recently. Women representing Aluma, which works together with the army and the Defense Ministry to advise and direct Orthodox girls considering joining the army, are barred from girls’ religious high schools, including state religious schools. But despite the opposition of spiritual and educational leaders in the community, this grassroots trend continues.

Once it was easy to label an Orthodox woman soldier as one who had strayed from the right path. But over the years this has become almost impossible. There is nothing more ordinary today than the many young Orthodox soldiers at Ariel’s funeral at Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, wearing their long skirts, speaking the language of Torah they learned in a religious girls college or the pre-military program for Orthodox young women, Tzahali (where Tamar’s mother once worked). Commitment to halakha, Jewish religious law, the desire to continue the relationship with the Orthodox community, including with rabbis who oppose the draft for women, does not fly in the face of service in the army. Consequently there is nothing more natural than the fact that Ariel’s funeral was postponed for two days to make sure that the transport of her remains did not contravene the Sabbath.

Tamar Ariel at the ending ceremony of the pilots training course, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak, 2012. Photo by Ariel Hermony, Defense Ministry

Ariel’s friends say that she was never motivated by the desire to wave the banner of gender or of the Orthodox community. She did not seek to conquer a male bastion or a secular one, but just to perform meaningful, excellent, value-rich service, all in the spirit of the extraordinary modesty that typified her. From her point of view, she was simply a graduate of an ulpana, an Orthodox girls’ high school, who deliberated, sought the advice of a rabbi, did national service, and only two years later decided to go into the army, to flight training, to make a greater contribution. Because of her prestigious role in the military, Ariel became a symbol for many religious girls, among them those who met her at conferences and Sabbath programs with Aluma. It’s impossible to know the number of girls whose lives she influenced. Perhaps they include other religious girls now in pilots’ training courses. But with her face now public for all to see, and her story told, the ever-modest Ariel may have an even greater impact on this largely hidden population of young Orthodox women mulling meaningful military service.