“I learned something important early on in my army career: the army will accommodate your religious needs—if you stand up for your rights. To be a frum soldier in the IDF, you need a little chutzpah,” says Fayga Marks, an ultra-Orthodox girl and a veteran Israeli soldier.
Isn’t this a rather unusual combination? How did it come about?
An eight-year-old girl, dressed for school in her light blue shirt and dark navy skirt, waled into an elevator and found herself in the company of two Israeli soldiers with M16 rifles slung over their backs. The soldiers, sporting kippot, were her neighbor’s sons, heading back to their base after a Shabbat visit home. The little girl looking at them admiringly, decided that one day she was going to be just like them—a defender of the Jewish people.
That little girl was Fayga Marks, the daughter of an ultra-Orthodox family in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
Unbeknownst to her parents and to the religious community in which she lived, from that day onward, she dreamed of joining the IDF.
“As I grew older, my commitment to enlist grew stronger. Despite the fact that a religious girl can claim an exemption, I knew where I was headed when the time came. I can’t say my parents were happy about my decision. My father and my teachers persisted in admonishing me: ‘Frum girls don’t do that. You should go get married and stop worrying about such silliness. Who will marry you after you’ve been in the army?’ I listened politely, but my mind was made up: this girl was IDF bound.”
After induction when it came time to receive uniforms, Fayga was handed a pair of tan pants. “Sorry,” she said, “but I can’t wear this. I’m religious. I’m not wearing something inappropriate. Get me a long skirt!”
Soon Fayga, in her tailor-made ankle-length skirt, found herself becoming the representative of Judaism in her battalion, earning the nickname “haRabbanit” (the rebbetzin) not only for wearing a long skirt but for answering her fellow soldiers’ religious questions.
To illustrate, Fayga relates: “One night a bunkmate asked me to tell her a story. It was Adar, so I told her the story of the Megillah. Even though she was twenty-two years old, she had never heard the story of Purim before. All she knew was that Purim was a holiday of partying and drinking—and this in Israel! I was shocked.
“I feel that I made a true Kiddush Hashem during my two years of army service. Some members of my unit would try to keep Shabbat with me to see what it is like. One of my fellow soldiers was grappling with going to shul every day and putting on tefillin; the commanders would give him a hard time. He tended to give in, rather than confront them. A few weeks after my arrival on the base, he came over to thank me. He said, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have the courage to stand up for my religious rights like you do.”
Fayga had in-depth conversations with many soldiers on the base. A few started attending shiurim on base and even tried to keep Shabbat. “I saw many soldiers around me take on certain mitzvot and express interest in learning more about Yiddishkeit. In fact, one female soldier, whom I grew close to, is today shomeret Shabbat and mitzvot.”
Fayga feels that she gained from being in a secular society and having to defend her religious lifestyle. “I did it because of my dream to serve; I did it for my people and my country,” she says a proud smile.