After four years of teaching at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Rabbi Ohad Teharlev approached the Ohr Torah Stone administration with the idea of establishing a new program which would enable young women who wanted to serve in the IDF to do so through the Midrasha. Fifteen trailblazing women joined the nascent Hadas Torah/IDF Program, spending a full year together immersed in beit midrash study, followed by full service in the Israel Defense Forces’ Education Corps. Over the years, the number of Hadas participants swelled and new tracks of the IDF were opened to accomodate them in the Intelligence Corps, the Israeli Air Force, and the Field Intelligence Corps.
Twenty-three years later, it is clear that religious women can serve in the army without threatening their faith or observance. On the contrary; not only is there is an unprecendented number of religious women serving in the IDF, but there is also an unprecedented number of religious Israeli women spending time learning in seminary after high school.
Q: Rabbi Teharlev, can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to found Ohr Torah Stone’s Hadas program?
A: Service in the Israeli army is a central part of Israeli culture and society. Not only is it crucial for the safety of our country, but it’s a part of our development as Israelis from youth to adulthood. In the army, we dedicate ourselves to selfless service, we develop new skills, we learn about ourselves and our strengths, and we get to know people from different segments of Israeli society. And yet, as central as IDF service is to the Israeli psyche, for years, it was considered taboo for religious girls to serve. The educational system, their families and communities discouraged them, as the army environment simply wasn’t considered appropriate for a “nice religious girl.”
In truth, people weren’t entirely wrong. The army isn’t a specifically religious environment. And yet, I couldn’t imagine that girls weren’t having this experience and the opportunity to use their skills and talents in the IDF. We simply had to create a framework that would give them a strong basis in Torah learning, and a structure to enable them to enter into IDF service with a religious support network. Today, the young women who come through Midreshet Lindenbaum learn Torah and also have special sessions to prepare them for religious issues they may confront in the army so that they can begin thinking about how they will address issues and conflicts before they even begin their service. They then enter into the army as part of a “garin” – a group of religious girls who train together. After a year studying on our campuses [in Jerusalem, Lod and Carmiel], they have strong relationships with our teachers, who they know they can always turn to with any question that arises. And we provide built-in support structures, through WhatsApp groups and regular visits to them on base.
Every week, you travel the country, visiting your soldiers on 22 bases around Israel. This must be exhausting, in the midst of your already busy schedule. What drives you to do this?
Even aside from potential religious challenges, the army is incredibly intensive. I want them to succeed, not only to stay strong in their religious faith, but also to be able to keep their heads above water, gain some perspective and have a place where they can get strength and support. Every Tuesday, I leave my house before 6:00 in the morning, travel to as many as five different bases, cover around 1,000 kilometers, and return home after 9:00 in the evening. It’s exhausting, but I see it as a mission.
When I visit a base, I often sit together with as many as 30 young women, including not only those who studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum but also other religious soldiers who join for the spiritual and emotional support. One young woman who wasn’t one of my students approached me last week to thank me. I see in their faces and from their enthusiasm and excitement when I arrive how important these visits are to them. When we learn Torah, it gives us strength. I am doing what I can to give them “spiritual food” to keep them going.
You lost your son, Elhai in a terrorist attack while he was on duty as an IDF soldier. How does your personal experience affect how you see the young women in Hadas, and your role?
The story of my son changed my life. He was just 20 when he was killed in a terrorist attack while on duty as a soldier in the Golani unit. But sometimes, a crisis such as I faced can also help us become better people and build a better world. I think I am more compassionate, more open, and more understanding of different perspectives. In the army, soldiers meet people from different parts of Israeli society. That can be part of the challenge for religious soldiers, but it is also an opportunity. I think my own experience has helped me to guide my students to be more open, while at the same time maintaining their personal and religious convictions. I am as committed as ever to the importance of IDF service to protect the State of Israel and I believe as strongly as I ever did that women, just as men, deserve the opportunity to serve in important, meaningful roles in the military.