by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
A chassidic Rebbe passed away and his son became the rebbe after him. As soon as he became Rebbe, he changed his style of dress and his way of davenen (praying). The elder chassidim, the oldest of his father’s followers, came to him and said “You’ve strayed from your father’s path! As soon as you became Rebbe you started changing everything!”
The new Rebbe replied, “You are completely wrong my dear chassidim. When my father became rebbe, he changed how he dressed and his way of prayer. When I became rebbe, I did exactly as my father did!”
My daughter received an official letter in the mail. “Dear (Reb Akiva’s Daughter), you are ordered to report to the enlistment office for the Israel Defense Forces on (such and such a date).”
My wife and I looked at the letter and put it aside to mention to our daughter. Arrangements needed to be made, brief and simple. Jewish religious girls don’t do the army, ultra-orthodox girls – never. Arrangements are a simple procedure and are part of Israel’s national religious understanding. Any Jewish religious girl who wants an army exemption appears at a official government rabbinate office, declares her religiousness to the officiating rabbi and gets an exemption.
We mentioned it to our daughter, tried to schedule a time. She blew us off, ignoring it. We were a bit disturbed, it can be annoying and bothersome to deal with at the last minute and it’s annoying to deal with teenagers who don’t take things seriously.
Came the date and she said “I’m going to go see what’s up, this is just testing to see what you can do.” (The army calls future draftees in a few times starting at age 17 for testing, then gives them an official draft date after their 18th birthday.)
She came back and proceeded to ignore our repeated talks to arrange an appointment with the rabbinate for the exemption. We thought she was being lazy and irresponsible. Little did we know…
About 2 months before her draft date I had a serious talk with her. “Listen, if you don’t deal with the exemption now you’re going to end up going in.” She responded, “I intend to go in.” After I scrapped my jaw up off the floor I went into very serious talk mode “The army does not have a religiously oriented service program for girls. It is a very secular environment where you’re going to be exposed to all types of people and situations. It’s an inappropriate for a young Jewish lady.”
She just looked at me and said “it’s what I’m going to do.” ‘How are you going to deal with kosher food?’ “I’ll manage.” ‘How are you going to deal with Shabbos and ….’ “I will not compromise my standards, but I’m joining the IDF.”
With a stunned and bemused expression I did what Israeli parents do. I took her to the sporting goods store and outfitted her with appropriate supplies (extra olive drab t-shirts, socks, a tough watch, a huge backpack, shower kit, and more). They looked at me (long bearded white shirted ultra-orthodox guy), they looked at her (long skirted pony-tailed charedi girl), gave us a really weird once over (what are they doing here shopping for army stuff???) but walked us through it very courteously (clearly we didn’t know what we were doing, but outfitting young people who are army bound is a major seasonal business for them).
Came draft day. We arrived with hundreds of other parents handing their children over to the military – though we stood out in the less religious crowd. Like all parents we waited till her name was called, said a brief goodbye, and worried. Worried that our child was going off to the military, worried she might be involved in war, and worried about the environment she was entering and it’s impact upon her.
She was assigned to the air force, sent to a basic training base for female soldiers only. On arrival as they outfit the new recruits - they handed her pants. She refused pants and demanded a skirt per her religious standards. They handed her an army standard short skirt. She refused and told them what she needed…they put her on a jeep to an army tailoring center where they custom made her a series of floor length army skirts on the spot.
At the end of her basic training we were invited, as is traditional among Israeli parents, to her ‘graduation’. 500 young ladies marching with M-16’s and Tanach’s (Jewish bibles) beginning their full army (air force) service. She marched and paraded with everyone else, 499 female soldiers in pants and one in a floor length skirt.
After the graduation as the families got a chance to spend some time with their daughters we were approached by several others who came to tell us “what a wonderful thing we were doing” by our daughter (and us) being there.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. My daughter had joined, by her specific choice, those putting their lives on the line to defend Israel and the millions of Jews who live here. But culturally this was not a nice religious environment, also a situation that my daughter had specifically placed herself into.
She faced challenges. During basic training she wasn’t sure of the kosher level of the food (the army maintains all it’s kitchens as kosher, but whether they take it seriously or hold the types of standards we would at home or in our community is in question). So she ate only vegetables during training. She also wasn’t used to being in a group of girls spending most of their time discussing boys and partying. But as any group they were interested in each other and she found herself talking about Torah, Judaism, Shabbos and Jewish religious life to a group of young women who had never been in contact with their heritage.
The army gives specific time for praying and synagogue services, and while these are oriented towards men in Judaism the army doesn’t discriminate, so she took them as a welcome daily respite. She was also fortunate that her service did not require (for her particular role) any violation of Shabbos. (Though violation isn’t the right term, for if a Jewish army needs to take Shabbos violating actions to defend lives on Shabbos it’s not a violation.)
Having a child in the army changes your perceptions and your status in Israel, though this change is distinctly different in different communities. Among general Israel you move from immigrant to real Israeli when you or your child enters the IDF. You’ve joined the ranks of those who have put their blood on the line to defend our common lives and community. On a few occasions when my daughter visited me in the office, looks of my co-workers completely changed as did our family relationship with some not-very-religious neighbors. (“You, you??? have a daughter in the army?” ‘Ah, air force actually.’)
Among the ultra-orthodox community it’s a different matter. Chabad has people doing army service, it’s not that unusual to see Chabad young men in Israeli military uniform (but not young women). Breslev has a high number of people who have become religious that did their military service before becoming so. But in the rest of the ultra-orthodox community having a daughter in the military…that’s a head turner that garners you a look of “so what went wrong there?”
For a time this left me of two minds. Was I proud of my daughter or not? I did not want her to go in the army, what kind of environment is that for a young lady? But defending Jewish lives by choice is a very serious mesiras nefesh (self sacrifice).
Yom Kippur morning the Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad Rebbe, disappeared from synagogue. The Rebbe normally davened (lead services for) Musaf, as services reached that point and the Rebbe wasn’t there chassidim were sent out to find him. Where was the Rebbe? Was there a crisis with the judgments in Shamayim (in the Heavenly court)? Had the Rebbe secreted himself away to try to open the Heavenly gates for the community’s prayers?
Eventually the Rebbe was found in a broken down hovel of a home at the far end of town. He was dressed in his holiday finery but was chopping wood and building up a fire in the home – activities prohibited on the awesome holy day of Yom Kippur. The Rebbe explained “there is a sick young widow here with a young child and no family. If someone doesn’t come and help her on the holiday she or her child could literally die. And with everyone in synagogue for the holy day I knew that none of her neighbors would think to come by. So I did.”
Later in her service my daughter explained to me, “Someone has to defend the Jewish people. I choose that someone will include me. It is a mitzvah to pray to Hashem to protect the Jewish people, but it’s also a mitzvah and a requirement to stand up and do so. I will stand for Israel and the Jewish people.”
My children are funny (though I assume not so unusual)…they won’t listen to me, logical arguments seem wasted. But if we’re very lucky we see them following our lead (hopefully for the good). I brought my family to Israel, and while it has many advantages it does have sacrifices, because I believe that’s the place for a Jew to be (if possible and given he’s not working for the Jewish people elsewhere). I try to make a difference, online and offline. I try to follow the dictum of Pirke Avos “where there’s no men, be a man”.
Those messages I never discussed with my daughter, but those are the ones I suddenly found her doing.
She wanted to do something fancy and dramatic, she passed a radar monitoring test. But she was assigned to base catering (on a base that also has a glatt kosher kitchen), feeding 5,000 hungry soldiers every day. Not dramatic but an army travels on it’s stomach (and nice training for a future family :-).
She was nicknamed “The Rebbitzen” and many girls came to her to discuss problems asking for a religious perspective, girls who would never go to speak with a rabbi. This led to frequent calls home for advice, “what does the Torah or Talmud say about this? Or what should I advise someone about that?” She also became friendly with her base rabbi and a lecturing rebbitzen, a pool of advisors is necessary when you’re being asked tough life questions.
She completed her service recently. As she left her commander said to her “you made a kiddush Hashem”. Coming from a secular IDF military officer, that’s high praise indeed.
She doesn’t fit the mold, but who says I do? She stood up for what she believed in and made a difference while she was there.
Yes air force daughter, I’m proud of you.