For Israel’s female soldiers, someone new to provide strength

Capt. Ofra Gutman says some in the Rabbinate Corps were taken aback by her presence at first but now regularly refer cases to her. (IDF)

Capt. Ofra Gutman says some in the Rabbinate Corps were taken aback by her presence at first but now regularly refer cases to her. (IDF)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Capt. Ofra Gutman’s work as the first female officer in the Rabbinate Corps of the Israel Defense Forces is a mix of the sacred and the logistical.

Sometimes her mission involves making sure a newly observant female soldier is issued skirts rather than pants as part of her uniform. Other times it’s trying to help a female soldier observe Shabbat on an isolated army base where there are few other religious soldiers.

“I know the world they come from; I come from it, too,” Gutman told JTA in an interview. “I know what they are going through, and so my job is to be there to help.”

Tens of thousands of religiously observant female soldiers serve in the army, but until Gutman’s post was created eight months ago, they had no address for spiritual and practical matters. Many would not even have thought of turning to the Rabbinate Corps, which is partly why the IDF’s chief rabbi, Avi Ronsky, created the position for a female officer.

“There are many subjects" — such as sexual harassment, issues of modesty and prohibitions against co-ed touching — "for which it is very difficult for young women to talk to a rabbi and which it is much easier for them to speak about with another woman,” said Gutman, 29, whose office overlooks a green swath of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Since she assumed her post, Gutman says she has been busy with queries. 

The main function of the Rabbinate Corps is to ensure that the army adheres to the tenets of Jewish law. The unit ensures that food on IDF bases is kosher, that observant soldiers are able to pray and that non-essential exercises are not held on Shabbat. Each military branch is assigned a rabbis as well as non-rabbinic members of the unit who help oversee Jewish education, the burial of soldiers and Shabbat services. The unit also is responsible for spiritually strengthening soldiers: Before Israel sent troops into Gaza in January, Rabbi Ronsky went to the front lines to bless them.

Gutman says that when she was appointed, some of the members of the Rabbinate Corps were taken aback by the presence of a woman in the department. But they soon found a way to work well together, she says, and rabbis in the corps now regularly refer cases to her — especially ones they believe might be better handled by a woman.

Chana Pasternak, the executive director of Kolech, a forum for religious women, who helped lobby for the creation of Gutman’s post, says "Jewish women serving in the army finally have somebody they can turn to on religious and spiritual matters."

Approximately one-third of modern Orthodox women decide to serve in the army. Most forego army service and the challenge of living in its secular environs for national service, where they work in hospitals, schools and museums.

For those who decide to serve, the army can be a difficult place to navigate. Many come from all-girls high schools, and the army is their first experience in an environment that is both secular and coed.

Gutman grew up in an observant home and attended a religious high school. During her initial years in the IDF, she served as an officer in Gaza and the West Bank, and realized how difficult it can be to adjust as both a woman and a religious Jew in the male-dominated IDF.

As an officer at an operations center in the northern Gaza Strip, she coordinated between field commanders and high-ranking officers inside Israel, as she did in a similar position along the Jordanian border. As an operations officer, her last post before leaving the army in 2003, Gutman helped oversee activity in and around the West Bank towns of Jenin and Tulkarm. There, too, she was the first woman to hold the post.

Gutman recently returned to the IDF after a four-year hiatus in which she studied social work and served in the Welfare Ministry. She says the skills she learned as a social worker help her figure out how to ask the right questions and find solutions.

Her job is to reassure and troubleshoot not just for the female soldiers with whom she works, but often for their parents, from whom she fields phone calls. Gutman deals almost exclusively with women soldiers. 

“Our goal is help make the army a place where religious soldiers can feel comfortable serving,” she said.

Often it’s about matching a soldier with the right position, which can mean transferring bases if a soldier feels her fellow soldiers do not respect her level of religious observance.

“I very much hope that religious girls will decide that the army can be a place where they find meaningful work and that being religious won’t be a reason for them to want to leave,” Gutman said.

The Rabbinate Corps organizes seminars and lectures about Judaism. Some of the women and men it trains become unofficial religious emissaries at their bases, earning reputations as inhouse resources on religious and spiritual matters for their units.

Rachel Karen, who teaches at the female religious seminary Midreshet Ein Ha’Natsiv in northern Israel, says about 80 percent of her students enlist in the army. They study in a program that combines Torah studies with army service, based on the hesder model used for Orthodox young men.

Karen applauds the IDF rabbinate’s work to reach out to religious soldiers.

“There are so many young women who studied in seminaries. They know a lot and can do good work in closening of hearts,” she said, using a religious term for strengthening ties between Jews.

“Today in the religious public there are voices against sending religious young women into the army and there are challenges,” Karen said. “But I think this new position can prevent all sorts of difficulties and help make the army a positive place, one that can empower these young women so they can do an excellent job while serving.”

NEXT STORY