The American Orthodox Jewish Woman Who Served in the IDF

When most people think of an Orthodox Jewish woman they conjure up a lady in a skirt, armed with a great challah recipe. But not all Orthodox women are alike. Ziesel Miriam Rahimi wore fatigues (with a skirt!) and was armed with a rifle. As a young ba’alas teshuva Rahimi decided to join the IDF.  “I grew up in America, I made Aliyah when I was 21, heavily influenced by my participation in young Judea.” She participated in their post-high school volunteer program, which made her want to both make Aliyah and become religious, both which she started laying the groundwork for in college. “Shabbat was the most intuitive thing, I always loved it…It was with very little friction that I started keeping Shabbat.”

While Rahimi did not have negative associations with religious Jews growing up, they did seem foreign to her. “I would go to classes with Orthodox people that I’d met, and it was like studying an ancient, South American Indian culture or something like that. This was an anthropological experience, [but] it started resonating more and more.”

When it came time for Rahimi to do her service as a new citizen of Israel, Sherut Leumi (National Service), the choice of most young Orthodox Jewish women, was not on the table. “I was already down the path [of enlisting] when I heard about that.” Rahimi spoke with the Chabad rabbi of Minnesota, where her parents live. He told his children, who would run to do mitzvos as part of Chabad’s Tzivos (army of) Hashem, that Rahimi was going to the “real tzivot Hashem.”

As a teen, Rahimi never would have imagined that she’d be in a military environment, having self-identified as a hippie. But life took her in an unexpected direction. “I had decided that Israel was where I wanted to be. I wanted to make Aliyah.” She joined a program for lone soldiers, which supports them in making Aliyah together. “Then you have a support network…a home to go back to with other people who are going through that experience with you. It really appealed to me.” Rahimi also liked that she would become engrained in Israeli society through the army, not just staying in an American bubble. “It was a way to understand what most Israelis go through, to learn the Hebrew language and to meet people from all parts of Israeli society.” While she initially saw it as a means to an end, it became much more than that.

Rahimi had been used to being the only religious person on her college campus, but when she got to Israel, it was a different story. She was set to go into a certain position, but ended up being able to try out for tovut toranit, a unit for religious girls who go work in the community helping new olim, at risk youth, in low-income areas. “I had the priviledge of doing a very social-justice oriented job while I was in the IDF.”

Rahimi was far from the only one wearing a skirt, and she found that it made non-observant Jews respect her more. “It’s actually pretty common these days to see people in an army uniform with a skirt. The fact that it’s someone in a uniform can disarm someone that’s anti-religious. Here’s a person that could have gotten out of their service who has chosen to serve.” She consequently never felt that people looked down on her for being religious, but there were challenges regarding being the most religious person in her unit. Rahimi got involved with Partners in Torah in order to feel a closer connection to her spirituality.

Rahimi went on to have a crush on her now-husband when they were in the army together and went on to seminary and then into shidduchim. No one held a candle to her army crush. Her rebbetzin told her to give him a call. “To my great shock, it ended up being it. In the end, I was my own matchmaker.”

While being a religious woman in the army was certainly possible, it was filled with challenges. “I was in a unit that was easier because it was geared towards religious girls, and I still felt that it was not necessarily the best place for my spiritual growth. On the other hand…praying is something that can bring us closer.” There is never a shortage of prayers needed at the IDF. “Each person needs to decide what they need in order to continue serving Hashem…nowadays there are so many ways to combine serving the country and serving Hashem. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

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