TEL AVIV — Within a few weeks of starting their military service, many Israeli women head to a tailor to have their oversize uniforms altered to be more form-fitting or more fashionable.
But a cadre of women soldiers instead is opting for flowing pants or a modest knee-length skirt. They are religiously observant recruits, and although they are eligible for a faith-based exemption, their numbers are growing.
All Israelis are drafted into the military at age 18, with a few 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.
Since 2010, the Israel Defense Forces has recorded a surge in the number of religious women who want to serve. These figures have almost tripled, from 935 in 2010 to 2,499 last year — a welcome development for a military whose recent efforts to draft ultra-Orthodox men have been largely unsuccessful.
The IDF has become more flexible in accommodating modern-Orthodox women, who increasingly are choosing to serve in the military out of a sense of duty to defend Israel, military officials and soldiers say.
But the path from a modest, observant life to the military is not easy. Within the modern-Orthodox community, many frown upon women who want to serve, even as men are encouraged to try out for the most competitive units.
If women manage to overcome pressure within their family or community, they still face the challenge of practicing 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. “It was a very weird feeling.”
She also opted to wear a skirt.
“There were certain people in my neighborhood who did not approve of me choosing to serve, but my immediate family was supportive,” Asner said. She said her experience has inspired her two younger sisters to sign up.
Not every Orthodox woman’s story is as smooth.
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.
Twenty-one-year-old Bat Tzion Michlashvili disagrees. She is one of only a handful of religious women serving in a mixed-gender combat unit.
“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.”
As for compromising her religious beliefs, Michlashvili said that if anything, the military has made her feel closer to her Judaism: “If I thought it was important before to defend Israel’s borders, now I am doing the things I learned about in the Torah, and I see my job as even more important.”
Women make up roughly a third of Israel's military, compared with about 14 percent in the U.S. armed forces. They are required to serve two years, while the requirement for men is 32 months. Since the 1990s, women have been allowed to take on combat roles, and the IDF says that today around 90 percent of all military jobs are open to women. There are three co-ed combat units.
Brig. Gen. Sharon Nir, the adviser on gender affairs to the IDF chief of staff, said that while it might have been difficult for Orthodox women to feel comfortable in uniform in the past, the military is becoming more accommodating.
“These women have realized the army is a very important component of feeling part of Israeli society, and they want to contribute to the state,” Nir said. “They are religious Zionists — their brothers serve, and now they want to, too.”
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.”