All Israelis are drafted into the military at age 18. Women are required to serve two years, while the requirement for men is 32 months. However, there are exceptions.

Israeli Arabs, both male and female, are not required to serve, and the same goes for the ultra-Orthodox.

Young, religiously observant women, known in Israel as modern Orthodox, traditionally have opted to enroll in national service, volunteering in schools or the community for a year or two, instead of the military. But that is changing.

More and more, religious women want to join the military. They feel a sense of duty to defend Israel, despite the fact that in the modern-Orthodox community, many frown upon women who want to serve.

Since 2010, the Israel Defense Forces has recorded a surge in the number of religious women who want to serve.

Serving in a secular military

Modern-Orthodox women in the Israeli forces sometimes struggle to practice their faith while serving in a secular military.

“I was the only person in my unit who observed Shabbat [the Sabbath], and I had no place to light my candles,” said Netta Asner, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with her family when she was 8.

But she said the hardest part of her military service was fulfilling her duties on a Friday night or Saturday — the 24 hours when religious Jews observe the Sabbath and must refrain from writing, using electronics or doing anything that might constitute work.

“The first time in my life that I picked up the phone on a Saturday, I had to switch something in my brain,” said Asner, who served in the military spokesman’s unit from 2014 to 2016.

Although some people in her community didn’t approve of her choice to enlist in the military, Asner’s immediate family was supportive. She said her experience has inspired her two younger sisters to sign up.

Facing pushback

In the city of Safed, Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu has spoken out against allowing women to serve in certain combat units and is especially critical about drafting religious women. They will be corrupted, he said.

“The belief that men and women are the same is popular but not accurate,” he said. “The beauty of the world is that there are different kinds of people, with different views, different assets and different strengths. If we put men and women together in the same operation, it makes the world unhealthy.”

And, he said, it is impossible for Orthodox women to remain religious and modest while in the military.

Bat Tzion Michlashvili disagrees. The 21-year-old is one of only a handful of religious women serving in a mixed-gender combat unit, and she said the military has made her feel closer to Judaism.

“All over the world, people have realized that whatever boys do, girls can do it, too,” said Michlashvili. “I don’t see why I should give up on doing what I love: sports and exercise.”

’We need people in these units’

In September, the army’s computer and communication unit launched a course for Orthodox women. The 23 women who signed up will spend 18 months studying computers, engineering and cyberwarfare and another 18 months in active service.

“We need people in these units,” said Maj. Hagit Kalef, who leads the program. “Future wars will not be fought on the battlefield but through technology. The brain is more important.”

A growing number of religious leaders have voiced support for religious women who want to serve in the military.

“While Israel still has enemies all around it, it is the duty of every person, no matter if they are male, female, Jew or non-Jew, to serve the country,” said Rabbi Binyamin Lau, a modern-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem.

“All the reasons given as to why women should not serve have nothing to do with religion. They are either based on principle or politics,” he said. “We need to support these girls while at the same time helping them remain religious.”

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