IDF Rabbinate’s first woman addresses sacred, logistical issues
TEL AVIV — Capt. Ofra Gutman’s work as the first female officer in the Rabbinate Corps of the Israel Defense Forces is a mix of the sacred and the logistical.
Sometimes her mission involves making sure a newly observant female soldier is issued skirts rather than pants as part of her uniform. Other times it’s trying to help a female soldier observe Shabbat on an isolated army base where there are few other religious soldiers.
“I know the world they come from; I come from it, too,” Gutman told JTA in an interview. “I know what they are going through, and so my job is to be there to help.”
Tens of thousands of religiously observant female soldiers serve in the army, but until Gutman’s post was created eight months ago, they had no address for spiritual and practical matters. Many would not even have thought of turning to the Rabbinate Corps, which is partly why the IDF’s chief rabbi, Avi Ronsky, created the position for a female officer.
“There are many subjects” — such as sexual harassment, issues of modesty and prohibitions against co-ed touching — “for which it is very difficult for young women to talk to a rabbi and which it is much easier for them to speak about with another woman,” said Gutman, 29, whose office overlooks a green swath of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
Since she assumed her post, Gutman says she has been busy with queries.
The main function of the Rabbinate Corps is to ensure that the army adheres to the tenets of Jewish law. The unit ensures that food on IDF bases is kosher, that observant soldiers are able to pray and that nonessential exercises are not held on Shabbat. Each military branch is assigned a rabbi as well as nonrabbinic members of the unit who help oversee Jewish education, the burial of soldiers and Shabbat services. The unit also is responsible for spiritually strengthening soldiers: Before Israel sent troops into Gaza in January, Rabbi Ronsky went to the front lines to bless them.
Gutman says that when she was appointed, some of the members of the Rabbinate Corps were taken aback by the presence of a woman in the department. But they soon found a way to work well together, she says, and rabbis in the corps now regularly refer cases to her.
Chana Pasternak, the executive director of Kolech, a forum for religious women, who helped lobby for the creation of Gutman’s post, says “Jewish women serving in the army finally have somebody they can turn to on religious and spiritual matters.”