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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A question of service

Shortly after we moved to Israel my daughter asked me an interesting question.  She wanted to know if I thought she should do Shirut Leumi (national service) or go into the army when she turned 18.

For those not familiar with some of the background issues that might prompt such a question, a little explanation might be in order.

Technically, at age 18 everyone in the country is drafted into the army... boys for three years and girls for two. 

However, in reality there are a number of exemptions of which various members of Israeli society avail themselves.  The one that comes into play here is the exemption provided to religious women. They were given this blanket exemption because many of the army units have very close intermingling of the sexes and living conditions that are not optimal from a modesty standpoint.  There are also those for whom women in the army is simply not religiously permissible. Full stop.

While not mandatory, many of the young women who opt not to serve in the army end up volunteering for one or two years of shirut leumi (national service) instead.  This national service can be anything from working in a hospital... to teaching underprivileged kids in a development town... to monitoring security cameras in an underground bunker.  A few even do their service abroad as counselors in foreign youth programs.

It is worth noting that because there are more women in the army than are absolutely necessary for staffing needs, non-religious girls can also request not to serve... but they are technically not entitled to the exemption.  I suppose a lot of whether a secular girl can actually get out of serving in the IDF has to do with luck and protekzia (contacts).

For some religious girls the choice of army service vs shirut leumi is clear cut and there is no question about what they'll be doing.  However, many young women from the national religious segment of the population, like my daughter, see both as viable options.

So, when Ariella asked me what I thought about the subject I told her I honestly didn't have a clue... but promised to ask some of my trempisti'ot (female hitchhikers), since I frequently give rides to both female soldiers and girls going to and from their nation service assignments.

After a few months of talking with these young women I found out that those who are wavering between doing army service and shirut leumi usually do the following: 

During the year before an Israeli teenager is drafted there is a bit of competition among the various branches of the military for the best and brightest to fill the most prestigious and demanding roles in the IDF.  At the same time there is quite a bit of competition among the candidates for these positions.  So these undecided religious girls go through the interview process with the various army units and take all the requisite tests just like everyone else and then wait to see what kind of a 'package' they are offered. 

If they are offered something challenging/rewarding... and if it is something that will not clash with their religious sensibilities, then they might choose to waive their exemption.  If it turns out that they will likely end up answering phones and serving coffee for two years, many opt to do something of more value to the country (and personally rewarding) through shirut leumi.

One young secular woman I spoke with was a little miffed that religious girls had the choice of whether or not to serve.  She also resented the competition for the plum positions in the army since the non-religious girls who weren't selected didn't technically have the choice of opting out of a less desirable job. 

I don't know how I feel about that argument since no institution in Israel exists as a pure meritocracy.  Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone else who is related to the person making just about any decision that matters in life. 

The army is no different. 

Not only are strings pulled all the time, but even after a kid goes into the army every parent has the phone number of their child's commanding officer... just in case they feel he/she is being mistreated!

So back to my research for my daughter's question.

I spoke with girls who had performed their national service in development towns doing all kinds of essential social service work with poor or underprivileged kids and adults.  I spoke with girls who had been assigned to security positions in sensitive civilian monitoring facilities... and I spoke with girls who had done their national service with the Jewish Agency helping with the education and absorption of new immigrant families.

I spoke with a religious female soldier who taught Merkava tank crews how to load and fire... and another who served as an army spokesperson... and still another who served in Air Force intelligence.  I spoke with a girl who taught young soldiers from 'problem backgrounds' how to read and write so they could become productive members of society after the army.  Another soldier I spoke with taught Hebrew to soldiers who were new immigrants and taught them about the culture of their new country.  They all said that they had been able to maintain their religious standards while in the army, although the tank instructor said that she couldn't wear skirts inside the tank.

I told my daughter about all of these women... but I also told her about one woman in particular. 

Every once in a while I have to go to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv for meetings.  The first time I went there I excused myself from a meeting to use the restroom and promptly got lost.  While trying to find my way back to the meeting I wandered into the office of an IDF Major who was standing next to her desk and reading through some papers.  She was wearing a skirt whose hem touched the floor, her sleeves came down to her elbows, and her hair was completely covered with an army-green scarf tied in a fashionable manner.   She was so obviously religious... yet she was also a mid-ranking IDF officer holding a responsible position in the Ministry of Defense. 

I told my daughter about this woman, not because I have the faintest idea what she actually does, but because of something I hadn't thought of while talking to all of these other women.

The Army is an incredibly important part of the social fabric of Israel.  The experiences people have in the army - for good or bad - stay with them throughout their life.  More importantly, the army is the one place where people from all backgrounds are forced to live and work in close proximity to one another... so it is a fantastic educational opportunity. 

These days religous and secular don't have much interaction beyond finger-pointing.  In the early days of the State it was much more common for religious and secular populations to overlap.  Today mixed religious/secular neighborhoods are a rarity and there is a growing distrust along this fault-line in Israeli society.  The army is perhaps the last opportunity for religious and secular individuals to meet and find out that 'those religious/secular people' are not the enemy at all.

In the mean time, Ariella isn't in any great rush to make her decision.  After all, she isn't even 12 yet, much less 18!  But the fact that she and her friends are thinking and talking about such things tells me that I need to take her questions seriously.

I'm proud of her for asking any question that shows she wants to find her place in Israeli society... but I'm especially proud when a question of service is not about whether to serve... but rather how.


Posted by David Bogner on August 30, 2005 | Permalink


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Thanks so much for posting this, David. I've often wondered what I might encourage my own daughters, someday, to do or not do.

I'm curious to know whether, as an Orthodox Jew, you plan to ask any rabbis about their thoughts on the matter. Just wondering. It's interesting to see how people make these decisions.

Posted by: Sarah | Aug 30, 2005 1:20:30 PM

Wow. What major decisions for such young girls. Kol hakavod that at the age of 12 she already knows that she wants to serve her country. That's a special young lady you got there!

Posted by: Essie | Aug 30, 2005 5:11:59 PM

David, if you can explain something to me: I thought that when someone decides to join the IDF they are making a statement about joining the army for whatever the army needs from them not simply pursuing "harpatka'ah." The army needs many people to maintain the infrastucture. Without the "jobniks" the cool positions couldn't function either. It is understandable given a choice one would go for the most fufilling army position, however if the IDF needs them for something else, I don't think it is right to bail out. I am not sayin sheirut Leumi is bailing out, but it should be an a priori choice. Imagine the same argument for a boy in yeshiva. He is not sure if he should learn for 3 years (defer normal army service) or serve. One would hope his decision would be based on introspection and guidance not if he got into sayeret matkal or not. But hey, I am not there, tell me if I am crazy.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 30, 2005 6:15:54 PM

im not surprised at all that arielle asked this question, she is a very bright girl. i know she'll make the right decision.

Posted by: Tonny | Aug 30, 2005 8:47:06 PM

I made aliyah to Israel when I was 16 and was very worried about having to join the army. As I got a little older and closer to the reality that I may have to serve, I definitely wanted to do Shirut Leumi if I could have had the choice. As Daniel just mentioned, I knew that each and every job in the Army was neccessary, even making copies and getting coffee, but I didn't speak the language and I would rather be giving back by doing actual, hands-on community service then boring, office (and not to mention chauvenistic tasks, i.e. making and serving coffee.) I wasn't religious so I have no idea how I would have been able to do Shirut Leumi, but in the end, I returned back to the States to attend college, and was never called to service.

What a great dad you are for taking her concerns seriously and doing all that research. If she is this bright now, I am sure she will do well with whatever choice she makes when she is 18.

Posted by: Jaime | Aug 30, 2005 10:20:59 PM

Sarah... I won't be asking anybody since it is not my issue. When the time comes I will suggest that she speak with one of the Rabbis in the army since they are best able to give advice and information about halachic issues related to women in the army.

Essie... i don't know if it is normal for girls to be talking to each other about such things at this age, but I am very flattered that she is interested to know what I think about the decision. I know she won't always be so interested in what I think so I had better enjoy it while I can! :-)

Daniel... Yes, the army needs administrative people (jobniks) as much as they need combat soldiers. However, everyone agrees that there are many more women than the army really needs for general staffing purposes and as a result far too many of them end up serving as secretaries and coffee servers to male soldiers not much more senior than they are. Given that kind of service or a year or two making a real difference in a hospital or development town somewhere... I think we can agree that it makes more sense to go where the need is greatest. My only hesitation is that I think it would be fair to allow secular girls the choice as well though.

Tonny... Thanks, I'll tell her you said so. :-)

Jaime... Just so you don't think it was such a difficult thing to do... I enjoy talking to the hitchhikers who join me several days a week. As an immigrant, I find they are a priceless source of cultural information. Thanks for the compliment, though. :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 31, 2005 12:45:47 AM

If you ask me, this high-handed bureaucratic system in National service is what gets Israel the best damn soldiers in the world.

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 31, 2005 8:46:35 AM

kakarizz... You might be right, but I have a feeling it might also have something to do with the fact that there is no second chance if we lose. The price of losing a war for Israel is destruction and exile.

Posted by: David | Aug 31, 2005 9:16:01 AM

I agree. If only young foreign nationals with no Jewish background could serve in the IDF…… I’d be first on the queue No questions asked :)

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 31, 2005 10:57:14 AM

Kakarizz, they can. I don't remember where you're posting from, but are you familiar with the Sar-El program, also known as Volunteers for Israel? Foreign nationals can volunteer on an army base, in a hospital, on a kibbutz or at an archaeological site. Religion and background are not issues. I did this program several times and loved it. I served at various army bases doing low-level tasks such as cleaning equipment and sorting bolts, but I worked alongside soldiers and got to know a bit about Israeli culture. Also, the program is not all work and no play; it includes classes and trips throughout the country.

Posted by: Rahel | Aug 31, 2005 1:22:11 PM

Thanks Rahel, I've tried applying for the Sar-El program.....never went too well, there was 'no' representative from my country, so I had to bite the dust. Believe me I’ve tried almost all youth programs related to experiencing and supporting Israel; either they’re mainly for North American youth or (when I was successful) no visa! from the Ministry of Interior, same old high-handed bureaucratic system ..... I can't help but interact with Israelis with this powerful tool called the Internet from this side of the Sahara and only of course, from a distance.

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 31, 2005 2:44:10 PM

I know she won't always be so interested in what I think so I had better enjoy it while I can! :-)

You got that right! As long as you realize it now and you won't be caught off guard when it starts... :)

Posted by: Essie | Aug 31, 2005 3:59:20 PM

First Sherut Le'umi isn't copping out; it's frequently tougher than similar army jobs. When my girls were in SL, they had less pay and extras than teacher-soldiers.
The army can be a real career; we have a relative, female officer, with hat, though her skirt isn't as long as the one described.

Most important is to think of your wonderful young daughter who is planning a patriotic future rather than a playdate with Barbies.

Posted by: muse | Sep 4, 2005 11:22:42 AM

Muse... Don't forget that many girls have stumbled upon their careers while doing shirut leumi also. Otherwise I agree with your comment 100%.

Posted by: David | Sep 6, 2005 12:21:44 AM

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