Women’s pre-army program reflects the religious debate in Israel

Women’s pre-army program reflects the religious debate in Israel

Two students at Mechinat Lapidot, one of two Israeli pre-army preparatory programs for Orthodox girls. (Judy Lash Balint)
Two students at Mechinat Lapidot, one of two Israeli pre-army preparatory programs for Orthodox girls. (Judy Lash Balint)

It’s hard to believe that 27 female recent high school graduates living in a few modest prefab buildings on a hilltop northeast of Jerusalem 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 religiously observant homes. The community where their mechina (preparatory academy) has been located for two years, Ma’ale Michmas, recently voted to ask the program to leave.

The decision to ask the program to move reflects a split in Israel’s national-religious sector. Some Orthodox families prefer that their daughters pursue the traditional national service option after high school, rather than sign up for army service. Young women in national service often work with schools, hospitals, or nonprofit groups, and can live at home.

But a growing number of Orthodox girls are opting for the opportunity to take on more challenging and rigorous roles in the Israel Defense Forces, where they might serve in an intelligence unit, as soldier-teachers, in a combat unit, or in cybersecurity.

Mechinat Lapidot enrolled 27 students this year, but applications for next year are already at 230, according to the program’s founder, Nitzanit Rikhlin.

Some community 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 observance.

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 both the mechina and 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 prohibition against it, and therefore having the mechina program here reflects badly on the community, and they feel it could influence the girls living here to go in the army direction.”

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. 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.

They listened carefully as Shani from Beit Shemesh described how the program had helped her succeed in being accepted as an IDF medical instructor when she enlists in the summer. Pninit, a classmate from Nechusha, explained how the mechina course of study had strengthened her religious outlook and “taught us how to live in a group for the first time we’re out of the house.”

Ronit Tal, one of the mechina instructors, told the visitors that a typical day includes morning prayers, sports, 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” — the study hall — she said.

“Our mission here is to expose the girls to many opinions so they come to the IDF ready to stand up for their point of view,” Tal added.

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 this academic year, Mechinat Lapidot will move into its new home, a short distance away in a small community called Mitzpe Danny. The 40 younger families who make up the village — which was founded in 1998 and named after Danny Frei, a Ma’ale Michmas resident who was killed in a terror attack — ”believe in our goals and are looking for a project that will help the community expand,” Rikhlin said.


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