The Courage to Serve: A Chareidi Woman in the IDF

by | in Inspiration

By Fayga Marks

4Photo: Israel Sun

An eight-year-old girl, dressed for school in her light blue shirt and dark navy skirt, presses the elevator button as she hurries to school. When the elevator appears, she dashes inside and finds herself standing next to two Israeli soldiers with M16 rifles slung over their backs. The soldiers, sporting kippot, are her neighbor’s sons, who are heading back to the base after Shabbat. The little girl looks at them admiringly. She decides that one day she’s going to be just like them—a defender of the Jewish people.

That little girl was me.

Unbeknownst to my parents and to the religious community in which I lived, from that day onward, I dreamed of joining the IDF.

As I grew older, my commitment to enlist grew stronger. Despite the fact that a religious girl can claim an exemption, I knew where I was headed when the time came. When I discussed with my peers or teachers my plan to enlist, they thought I was crazy. Over and over, I was told that the army is no place for a frum girl.

When I turned seventeen, my official IDF draft notice arrived. I still remember my father telling me to go to the Rabbanut and get an exemption. It’s a simple process: appear at the Rabbanut office, declare yourself Orthodox and submit a form.

I had no intention of doing so.

Frum Girls Don’t Do That!
I recall entering the IDF draft office for a skills assessment exam. The army personnel were shocked to see a Chareidi girl interested in enlisting. One of the men administering the exam told me I was crazy and that I should apply for an exemption before it was too late.

I can’t say my parents were happy about my decision. My father and my teachers persisted in admonishing me: “The army is not a tzeniut environment”; “It’s not an appropriate place for a bat Yisrael”; “There’s a lot of male/female activity going on”; “Frum girls don’t do that!”; “You should go get married and stop worrying about such silliness.” There were concerns for my spiritual safety and concerns for my physical safety (“The army isn’t a safe place”). Of course, there were also concerns for my social status (“Who will marry you after you’ve been in the army?”). I listened politely, but my mind was made up: this girl was IDF bound.

While the IDF is comprised mostly of Jewish soldiers, I felt as if I were entering a foreign country. And for a Chareidi girl, it introduced challenges I never had to face before.

After induction, we were taken to the base. I joined hundreds of girls on the packed buses, all of whom were not sure what to expect from the journey on which we were about to embark. When it came time to receive our uniforms, I was handed a pair of tan pants. “Sorry,” I said, “but I can’t wear this. I’m religious.” Someone in uniform started yelling at me. I yelled back, “I’m not wearing something inappropriate; get me a long skirt!” I was sent off to a tailor who custom-designed a uniform skirt for me, even accommodating my request that it be ankle-length.

In my training battalion of 200 girls, I was the sole soldier wearing a skirt. But I learned something important early on in my army career: the army will accommodate your religious needs—if you stand up for your rights. To be a frum soldier in the IDF, you need a little chutzpah.

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The training base, which was all female, was comprised of 800 young women. “What in the world are you doing here?” was a question I was constantly asked. There’s a misconception in Israel that Chareidim don’t serve. While generally few soldiers see Chareidim serving, I learned later on that that’s because they serve mostly in segregated army programs that cater to their religious needs. The IDF offers religious tracks such as Nahal Haredi (battalion for Chareidi infantry soldiers) and Shachar Kachol (a program that trains Chareidim to be army technicians). Seeing bearded men with kippot or women with skirts and covered hair is not really that unusual, assuming you are looking in the right places. Nevertheless, the unjust notion that Chareidim don’t serve persists.

Basic Training
Basic training is meant to smack you in the face, to let you know you’re not at home anymore—you’re in the army. You get only get six hours to sleep and thirty minutes for the entire unit to shower and get dressed.

Time for davening is available but regimented. While every soldier has a right to attend davening, not every commander understands why a female soldier would want to go. (Though I may not have a chiyuv, a halachic obligation, to pray, in such a religiously challenging environment my siddur served as a spiritual lifeline.)

Naturally, I was confronted with halachic questions all the time: “Does an army base security perimeter [fence] qualify as an eruv?” “Can one carry an empty gun on Shabbat?” I posed the latter question to the rabbi on the base who ruled that it was not permitted; thus, I had an official exemption from carrying my rifle on Shabbat. (A major part of gun training in the IDF is safety training. You are never permitted to let your gun out of your sight. You don’t put it down, you don’t step away from it. You sleep with it under your pillow; you hand it to a friend to hold while showering. Your weapon is never out of your possession.) My unit-mates were jealous of my Shabbat rifle exemption.

Tzeniut was another challenge. Even though I was in an all-female environment, basic modesty was sorely lacking. There were no doors or curtains on the shower stalls, and everyone would dress together. I would sneak out of the barrack at 3 am to shower and dress privately, getting back in time for wake-up already dressed for the day.

I also wasn’t certain about the standards of the kosher supervision on the base. (All army-base kitchens are considered kosher, but not all are glatt kosher. Furthermore, the kitchen staff are not known for their scrupulous observance of kashrut laws.) On my base, mehadrin supervision was only available on select days for the Shachar Kachol soldiers. I implored the commanders to make such supervision available on the base at all times; unfortunately, my request was not granted. For the most part, I subsisted on fruits and vegetables—not an easy task when soldiers are required to fill and empty their plates at every meal.

My fellow soldiers noticed that I wasn’t eating most of the food being served, which triggered interesting discussions. They didn’t understand. Many didn’t even know what kosher meant! Sure, they knew no mixing milk and meat, but why wouldn’t I eat the food from the army kitchen?

Fayga Marks, from a Chareidi neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh, fulfilled her childhood dream of being a soldier in the IDF. Photo courtesy of Fayga Marks

Fayga Marks, from a Chareidi neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh, fulfilled her childhood dream of being a soldier in the IDF.
Photo courtesy of Fayga Marks

I was the first Chareidi woman many of the soldiers had ever met, which forced them to let go of some of the misconceptions they had about the Chareidi world. Here I was, a Chareidi woman, very similar to themselves. We were all part of the same training battalion, all going through the same army experience together.

Shabbat on the Base
My draft occurred in early September. I was allowed to go home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but my first Shabbat on the base also happened to be Sukkot. Sukkot is a big yom tov in my family. We have a large wooden sukkah which my sisters and I decorate. We have delicious traditional yom tov meals and spend a lot of time in the family sukkah.

That first yom tov on the base was very difficult. There was no sukkah for the female soldiers, no lulav and etrog, not even Class A uniforms! (Class A uniforms, regarded as “dressy clothes,” are generally worn on Shabbat, when a soldier is not on duty.)

All around me was chillul Shabbat: smoking, cell phones, guns, money. I had never been immersed in such an environment on Shabbat. It hurt me badly to see these Jewish girls unaware that they were trampling all over Shabbat.

I have to admit that I felt sorry for myself: no family, no seudah with songs and divrei Torah, no shul, no visiting friends—I was all alone. It took time, but once I got used to Shabbat on the base, it became easier, and even enjoyable.

Arriving for Kitchen Duty
Once basic training is over, there is an official swearing-in ceremony. It’s an important event attended by high-level officers and soldiers’ families. Prior to the event, I explained to my lieutenant that I wouldn’t be able to swear. She brushed me off and I wasn’t sure what her response would be when my turn came. When my name was called, I quickly blurted “I promise” instead of “I swear”; she smiled and saluted. Afterward, she privately told me that she was proud of me for standing up for what I believe in.

I was assigned to an air force base in the support and service battalion, specifically food service. Ironically, I left my parents’ home and their busy kitchen only to end up in an army kitchen preparing meals for close to 6,000 soldiers! But helping to run such a massive food operation (cutting thousands of pieces of shnitzel and frying them for five consecutive hours!) and assisting in feeding air force pilots who are responsible for bombing terrorists made me feel part of a very special team.

The first morning on my new base, I awoke to the sound of a siren blaring. I jumped out of bed and ran to the shelter, my heart pounding. I’m just starting my service and our enemies are trying to kill me! I thought. After waiting the allotted time, I went to my work station and mentioned the siren to my new commander. Somewhat puzzled, she said, “The siren blares every morning. Didn’t you hear them say there would be a siren wake-up call?” We each laughed and became good friends after that.

I learned that I had to consciously invest in my Yiddishkeit while immersed in the secular environment of the army. I created a learning schedule and made a point of going to shul and shiurim when I had free time. Being as I was now on a large air force base, there was a staff rabbi and synagogue. When on base for Shabbat, I joined the base rabbi and rebbetzin for Shabbat meals, which meant trekking quite a distance!

Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

When I first arrived for kitchen duty, the head mashgiach was thrilled. Since I was frum, I could oversee the mehadrin food preparation. This enabled him to use the mashgiach on staff to supervise other areas of the kitchen, thereby raising the overall level of kosher supervision on the base.

That, however, didn’t relieve me of my other kitchen duties in the non-glatt kosher kitchen where I generally worked. The majority of the soldiers in the kitchen were young men, making for a somewhat uncomfortable situation. But there were always surprises. Some of them began showing up wearing kippot on Shabbat; others asked frequent questions about keeping kosher. We had many discussions covering a range of topics: hair covering for married women, tefillin (my father couldn’t understand why I insisted on interrogating him about the details of tefillin one Shabbat) and tensions between the religious and nonreligious segments of Israeli society.

A Druze soldier was assigned as a kitchen commander. Apparently he had been required to take a number of classes on kashrut. He knew about bishul akum, and whenever the mashgiach wasn’t in the immediate area, he would call me over to turn on the fire. He was very scrupulous about kashrut and made sure all the laws were strictly adhered to by the staff.

Harabbanit
My religiosity did pose problems for some of the irreligious soldiers. At times, my roommates wanted to allow male soldiers in the room (which isn’t allowed according to army regulations, but happens anyway). Thankfully, my roommates were respectful and tried to give me as much space as possible. However, I did feel lonely at times. I was excluded from many social events because I was religious and therefore perceived as different.

At some point in my service, a young woman joined the base who had formerly been religious but had gone off the derech a few years earlier. Bat Tzion and I became very close friends and eventually roommates. It was great having a roommate who wasn’t put off by me or my lifestyle. I thanked Hashem every day that Bat Tzion came along.

I quickly found myself in the strange situation of being the representative of Judaism in my battalion. I earned the nickname “harabbanit” (rebbetzin) for wearing a long skirt and being shomer negiah (avoiding physical contact with members of the opposite gender). It was strange being an eighteen-year-old rebbetzin. My fellow soldiers would always pepper me with religious questions. Some sought me out for advice because “religious people have wisdom.” A few of the questions regarding boyfriends and familial issues I wasn’t prepared to deal with, so I would call my rav or former teachers for advice.

Fast days and minor holidays were the most-asked-about topics, as some of my fellow soldiers had no idea why we commemorate them. One night a bunkmate asked me to tell her a story. It was Adar, so I told her the story of the Megillah. Even though she was twenty- two years old, she had never heard the story of Purim before. All she knew was that Purim was a holiday of partying and drinking—and this in Israel! I was shocked.

I am not the type of person who tries to convince people to put on tefillin or light Shabbat candles. Nevertheless, I feel that I made a true Kiddush Hashem during my two years of army service. Some members of my unit would try to keep Shabbat with me to see what it is like. One of my fellow soldiers was grappling with going to shul every day and putting on tefillin; the commanders would give him a hard time. He tended to give in, rather than confront them. A few weeks after my arrival on the base, he came over to thank me. He said, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have the courage to stand up for my religious rights like you do.”

I had in-depth conversations with many soldiers on the base. A few started attending shiurim on base and even tried to keep Shabbat. I saw many soldiers around me take on certain mitzvot and express interest in learning more about Yiddishkeit. In fact, one female soldier, whom I grew close to, is today shomeret Shabbat and mitzvot. I didn’t actively try to change anyone, but my very presence opened up a door for many who were genuinely seeking.

Since I was discharged over a year ago, I haven’t gotten used to being back in Chareidi society. I never truly fit in here. In the army, I felt I had found a place, a purpose. I gained a lot from being in a secular society and having to defend my religious lifestyle. I don’t know how many people can do that. But I did it because of my dream to serve; I did it for my people and my country.

Fayga Marks lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with her family. You can reach her at ja@ou.org.

To hear an interview with Fayga Marks, visit http://www.ou.org/life/israel/chareidi-woman-idf-fayga-marks-stephen-savitsky/

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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