Women’s Pre-Army Program Forced to Move, Reflecting Religious Debate in Israel
JNS.org – It’s hard to believe that 27 female teenagers are the cause of an intense debate within Israel’s national-religious population.
The young women are students at Mechinat Lapidot — one of only two pre-army preparatory programs in Israel for girls who come from Torah-observant homes. Ma’ale Michmas, the community where the academy is located, recently voted to ask the program to leave.
This vote reflects the split in Israel’s religious community.
Some religious families prefer that their daughters pursue the traditional national service option after high school — to work with schools, hospitals or non-profit groups, and live at home.
But a growing number of Torah-observant girls are opting for the opportunity to take on more challenging and rigorous roles in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — where they might serve in an intelligence unit, as soldier-teachers, in a combat unit or in cybersecurity.
Mechinat Lapidot only enrolled 27 female students this year, but applications for next year are already at 230, according to program founder Nitzanit Rikhlin.
Some religious leaders are concerned that the IDF is an “immodest place,” where young women will be put into close contact with male soldiers, or will mix with non-religious soldiers who could lead them to abandon their religious lifestyle.
One organization, Hotam, has produced a two-minute scare-tactic video titled “Lonely Battle: The Story of a Religious Female Soldier,” which insinuates that religious women in the IDF will face any number of challenges to their faith. A hotline number flashes on the screen for those “wavering between national service and IDF service.”
Nir Yehuda, the Orthodox rabbi who is director of Mechinat Lapidot, admits that he has encountered opposition to the idea of religious women serving in the IDF. “I went around from rabbi to rabbi to get recognition for the need for the Mechina,” he said, adding, “Many now understand, but there are still some who object to the whole idea.”
According to one longtime resident of Ma’ale Michmas, who requested to remain anonymous, the vote over the continued presence of Mechinat Lapidot was close, and reflects “the two camps within Michmas: one is clearly more strict, and they have a very strong mindset about maintaining the separation between boys and girls.”
“That faction follows the interpretation of the late Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (a leading figure in religious Zionism) that women should not go to the army,” the resident said. “These people feel there’s an actual halachic (Jewish legal) prohibition against it, and therefore having the mechina program here reflects badly on the community.”
Emunah, a leading Jewish religious social action organization that aims to advance the status of women, has thrown its support behind the mechina, providing both funding and public support for them. During the recent Emunah World Convention, the group paid a visit to the mechina to hear from the students and faculty and to lend moral support.
The group’s representatives listened carefully as a girl named Shani, from Beit Shemesh, described how the program had helped her successfully apply to become an IDF medical instructor. Pninit, a classmate of hers, explained how the mechina course of study had strengthened her Torah outlook and “taught us how to live in a group for the first time.”
Ronit Tal, one of the mechina instructors, told the visitors that a typical day includes morning prayers, sports, and classes in social issues, Talmud, Mishnah, psychology, ethics, art and culture. During the year, students also take part in three or four field trips that focus on different aspects of Israeli society. “We take the study outside the Beit Midrash (study hall),” she said.
“Our mission here is to expose the girls to many opinions so that they come to the IDF ready to stand up for their point of view,” added Tal.
Almog, a Mechinat Lapidot graduate who showed up in her IDF uniform to visit her teachers and friends, told the Emunah visitors, “At the mechina you get a good basis to meet the rest of the world. I know where I come from and where I’m going.”
World Emunah Chairperson Dina Hahn noted that her group would continue to support Mechinat Lapidot because “with more and more observant girls opting for IDF service, Emunah is committed to providing answers in religious society.”
At the end of the current academic year, Mechinat Lapidot will move into its new home — a short distance away in the neighboring small community of Mitzpe Danny. The 40 younger families in that community support the missions and goals of Mechinat Lapidot, according to the school’s founders.