Parasha Yitro — Women and Leadership

It is wonderful to be back with all of my congregants after my month long Sabbatical from CBS. So much has happened since I was last here in December. The last time we met the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, the Egyptians endured ten plagues, Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.  AND I just learned that new scholarship has shown that when the Israelites reached the other side safely Miriam led them in the songs of Leonard Cohen!!!  AND this week we receive the Ten Commandments. Yes, a lot indeed has happened since we last met a month ago.

In our Torah portion for this week, Jethro, Moses’ father in law, visits him as he and the Israelites are camped around Mt. Sinai, waiting to receive the Ten Commandments. Jethro is shocked when he first sees Moses. Moses looks worn out. He is bearing the entire burden of leadership on his own shoulders.  Jethro counsels Moses to appoint others who will help him lead the people. Jethro tells him to appoint, “Men of accomplishment, men who love truth, men who hate evil, men who will be immune from bribery” to positions of authority. We cannot help but notice what Jethro leaves out – the appointment of women to positions of leadership and authority!

On my trip to Israel a few weeks ago, one of the issues just breaking in the news that caused quite a stir  was the controversy over the appointment of the first woman in the Israel Defense Forces to head an aviation squad at an Israel Air Force base.  The promotion of Lieutenant Colonel “Tet” as she is known – for security reasons Israeli pilots are publically identified only by Hebrew letters and not by their name – was just the latest in a series of  promotions of women to command posts in the Israel Defense Forces.  Israel was the first country in the world to mandate that all women serve in the armed forces. There were women pilots who flew in the War of Independence in 1948 and the Sinai War of 1956. However, women in Israel were eventually barred from becoming fighter pilots in particular and from combat roles in general.  It was only in 2001, following a Supreme Court decision that mandated that the Israeli Air Force allow women to apply for pilot training, that Roni Zuckerman became Israel’s first female jet fighter pilot. Since that time, the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces have been working to integrate women into combat units and to promote more women in the Air Force, infantry, and armored divisions of the IDF.

This has brought a backlash from certain rabbis of the National Religious community, a sector of Israeli society that is deeply traditional but, unlike the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, encourages military service and sends many young men to serve as officers in the Israeli military. These rabbis object to the incorporation of women into the military on religious grounds –essentially, that women must protect their modesty around men and be shielded from secular influences that they may encounter when serving in the armed forces. They also believe that women should not be taking roles in the army that G-d and the Torah designate for men.  Fortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu has supported the appointment of women in leadership positions, has expanded women’s roles in the armed forces, and has welcomed the changes the Israel Defense Forces are instituting.

This is just one aspect of the debate in Israel over the role of women in society and in the armed forces. As likely some of you know, choice to serve in the armed forces of Israel is particularly daunting for women brought up in religious households. Religious women who want to enter the armed forces of Israel must overcome two obstacles. First, like her secular sisters, the religious woman finds herself a woman in what is essentially a man’s world. Second, she finds herself as a religious person in what is essentially a secular world. In addition, religious women often attend post-secondary schools that are for women only. Coming from a very sheltered, homogeneous environment, religious women may be ill-equipped to deal with the diversity of opinions, lifestyles and backgrounds that they will find in the armed forces. Because of these challenges, many religious women apply for and receive an exemption from their obligatory military service.  This group of women instead fulfills their obligation through Sherut Le-umi, or “alternative national service”. Through Sherut Le-umi they will work for two years in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, health clinics or with disadvantaged communities or teens at risk as an alternative to military service.

This of course, represents a significant loss of talented young women to the armed forces of Israel. Moreover, these women often segregate themselves from society at large, depriving themselves, and Israel society, of the potential contribution they may make toward a healthier, more productive and more equal nation. On my recent mission to Israel with the Rabbinic Action Committee, we visited with teachers in a program that helps religious women enter and succeed in the armed forces. This program, Tzahali, prepares young religious women both physically and mentally to enter the armed services. Through classroom study and field trips that expose them to the diversity of Israeli society, the program helps strengthen their religious identities, empowers them as women, and makes them more aware and open to the mosaic that is Israeli society. In the thirteen years of this program’s existence, over 450 women have had meaningful army service, with a quarter of them becoming officers and a good number of them having made the army a career choice. The program has empowered women to be able to make the choice to serve in the IDF, knowing that they can both serve and maintain their religious commitment.

When we at Congregation Beth Shalom contribute to the Jewish United Fund of Chicago, we help support these efforts to increase the number of women in the Israeli army and help them to achieve positions of authority — because the Jewish United Fund of Chicago helps to fund this program in Israel. It is just one way our dollars help in Israel, Chicago and around the world. So the next time an advisor tells a Jewish leader to appoint people to positions of authority, that advisor will be able to tell him to appoint “men and women of accomplishment, men and women who love truth, men and women who hate evil, men and women who will be immune from bribery.”

And to that let us say – AMEN!