Cover Story

A Different Kind of Battlefield

Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

Meet Israel’s warriors on the home front—IDF wives who exhibit extraordinary faith while juggling housework, jobs and toddlers

Here’s a new addition to your Hebrew vocabulary—miluima. The portmanteau, which has become popular during the Israel-Gaza war, combines the words milu, short for miluim, or IDF reservist, and Ima, or mother, to describe a woman with children whose husband has gone to war. Sadly, Israel has never enjoyed sustained peace; Israeli women have always had to endure their husbands’ army stints. But since October 7, the number of miluimot has increased as never before.

The October 7 tzav shemoneh emergency draft was the largest mobilization in IDF history. (Tzav shemoneh, “Order 8,” is a military term that refers to the emergency call-up notice that summons Israelis to drop everything and serve their country.) Along with the standing army, the IDF called up 300,000 reservists, among them 98,000 married men, many of them fathers.

What about the women they left behind? How do they cope? 

Mishpachah Ba’Tzava, a children’s book, speaks to the experience of IDF families; when one member is in active duty, the whole family is really serving.

It isn’t easy. “This war has been longer, scarier and more life-changing than previous wars,” says Leah Gelband, a Jerusalem-based psychologist who works with miluimot and their families. 

With the men in Gaza for weeks or months at a time and often unreachable by phone, fear plays a major role. “It’s not easy to live with the feeling that that knock on the door can come,” says miluima Hila Levi, who was born and bred in Israel. Tragically that knock was heard too many times—as of this writing in May, 286 IDF soldiers have been killed in the war in Gaza.

Levi has more experience in this regard than most—her husband has devoted twenty-five years to the defense of his country as a career officer in the IDF. She even co-authored a children’s book called Mishpachah Ba’Tzava [Family in the Army], emphasizing the idea that when a father serves in the army, really the whole family is serving. 

Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90

She holds onto her mental health by avoiding media. “I don’t follow the news. I don’t watch TV. I go to funerals only when I have to.” 

She feels that this war has been especially hard. “No one expected it. It was a horrible surprise,” she says. Although she’s always been religious—Levi heads the Jerusalem branch of the Emunah Religious Zionist women’s organization—she’s been leaning into her faith as never before. “I never prayed so much in my life as I did during those first weeks.”

Prayer may help to dial down the anxiety, but miluimot must still cope with the loneliness that comes from being separated from one’s partner. “When my husband left, half of me went with him,” recalls miluima Tali Wohlgelernter, a thirty-five-year-old mother of four including one child with special needs, whose husband was gone from October to early March. During the day, she kept herself together by staying busy—Tali and her husband Tzvi are North American olim who direct JLIC-Mizrachi at Bar-Ilan University and are responsible for coordinating religious programming for the dynamic and growing Anglo student community in Givat Shmuel. (JLIC is the OU’s program that serves to support Orthodox men and women on secular campus environments across the United States, Canada and Israel.) 

Family Filling In

In the evening, things would get tougher. Wohlgelernter’s youngest daughter suffers from a rare and severe form of epilepsy. The war caused her seizures to get worse. “Our doctor said that wasn’t uncommon,” she says. 

Still, Wohlgelernter sees herself as one of the lucky ones—her family was there to help. While her husband was at war, her dad filled in. “He made sure the house was locked, the dog was walked, and the car was filled with gas. These are the little things that are big things when you are doing them by yourself,” she says. 

Tali Wohlgelernter, a thirty-five-year-old mother of four including one child with special needs, experienced first-hand the loneliness of being a miluima, as her husband Tzvi was gone from October to early March. Still, she sees herself as one of the lucky ones—her family was there to help. Photo: Sharoni Galeano

Having her father move in with her is atypical. More common was the reverse—miluimot who moved back in with their parents. At the start of the war, grandmother Esther Einstein, who lives in the Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, hosted three of her eight daughters, including eight of her grandchildren, for a month, with all the kids sleeping together in her safe room. Her daughters traveled many miles to return to their mother’s nest—one from Tel Aviv, another from the Golan and a third from Or Akiva, a city in the Haifa District. “We felt safer together,” she says. Einstein sees her daughters as heroines. “They feel that they are doing something very meaningful for Am Yisrael.” 

Now they have all returned home, but Einstein and her husband still help out. “We want to give the kids a sense of normalcy. If a husband isn’t home for Shabbat, we go to them or they come to us,” she says.

Abby Scheinfeld’s husband is in and out of Gaza. “He’s fighting a milchemet mitzvah,” his wife says.

With two toddlers and a husband who is in and out of Gaza, twenty-seven-year-old singer and songwriter Abby Scheinfeld has yet to leave her parents’ Beit Shemesh home, which is fortunately within walking distance from her own home. Scheinfeld, an olah who moved with her family to Israel from Teaneck, New Jersey, when she was nine, is grateful to be welcomed by her family. “To really cope, you need to be around people you love. This isn’t the life we had planned, but it’s okay to realize when things are too hard for you. I’m a better mother when I have help,” she says. 

Other Sources of Support

Not everyone has this option. Grandparents aren’t always available to help. “Many are working, or they have several children in the army whom they need to help,” observes Efrat Gnatek, an educator who heads a neighborhood support team in Efrat’s HaZayit neighborhood. 

Such teams have sprung up all over Israel. Gnatek’s is fairly typical in that it provides meals, babysitting, and recreational programming for the women. Gnatek goes the extra mile by offering a volunteer who does home repairs. “When a husband is in miluim, a pipe can burst, the solar heater can break; we help.”

Children write letters to their fathers in the army at Sisters of Iron’s Chanukah event this past December. Founded by Chana Irom, Sisters of Iron sends 2,500 volunteers, most of them Chareidi mothers, into the homes of miluim families to help with housework and childcare. Since October 7, the organization has reached nearly 2,000 miluimot. Photo: Yossi Zeliger

She acknowledges that even this is sometimes not enough. “We discovered families who needed assistance taking out the garbage—the need was that basic.”

Israel has never enjoyed sustained peace; Israeli women have always had to endure their husbands’ army stints. But since October 7, the number of miluimot has increased as never before.

Sometimes help can come from outside of one’s community. On October 8, Chana Irom of Jerusalem, a Chareidi woman and a social activist, got together with friends to discuss what they could do to help. Together they founded Sisters of Iron or Achayot MiBarzel, which sends 2,500 volunteers, most of them Chareidi mothers, into the homes of miluim families to help with housework and childcare. Based in a Jerusalem wig shop, the organization has six volunteers working the phones eight to ten hours a day, finding out what women need and then conveying the requests to teams of volunteers located throughout the country. Reaching nearly 2,000 miluimot, Sisters of Iron matches woman to woman, often a Chareidi woman with a non-religious woman who comes to the miluima’s home and assists with whatever is necessary. The organization, says Irom, provides “anything that a sister would do for a sister. Those hours of help are a breath of fresh air for the miluimot,” says Irom.  

OU Israel has been very active supporting miluim families by providing weekly meals, arranging toy drives and carnivals, and sponsoring ongoing concerts for evacuees from communities such as Sderot and Kiryat Shemona. (Many of these concerts are performed by OU Israel’s Zula Band.) Seen here, a child receives a toy at a carnival sponsored by OU Israel.

Miluimot are on automatic mode,” agrees Gelband. “They are spread so thinly, they feel they are losing themselves. One used to run. Another used to love to dress nicely. Now they can’t anymore.” The Sisters of Iron volunteers give them the downtime they need to reclaim their pre-war selves. 

Irom says requests have been increasing. “The regular support systems are tired, so many more women are turning to us.” She estimates that nearly a third of the families Sisters of Iron helps are secular, yet none of the volunteers have heard negative talk about the Chareidi resistance to being drafted. “There is no resentment. Instead, the women thank us and tell us how beautiful it was for them to spend time with a Chareidi woman,” says Irom. She hopes the spirit of unity generated by Sisters of Iron will continue long after the war has ended. 

Another resource for miluimot is Tzalash, an organization launched in 2013 to provide religious and emotional support for soldiers and their families. Since October 7, not surprisingly, requests for help have ballooned. “Before the war, we worked with 350 women. Shortly after the war started, 2,400 signed up,” says director Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb. 

Tzalash organizes barbecues for soldiers’ wives and families. “This gives them a chance to interact with others in the same situation,” says Rabbi Gottlieb. Tzalash volunteers also drive around the country to deliver gifts to the miluimot—chocolates, skin creams, flowers and religious texts on faith.

“A woman has a husband in Gaza and this is what she needs?” asks Rabbi Gottlieb. The answer, he asserts, is an emphatic yes. “Having a volunteer drive out to deliver these packages gives these women the message that someone is thinking about them.” 

OU Israel has been very active supporting miluim families as well. For many families evacuated from places like Sderot and Kriyat Shemona and now living in hotels in Jerusalem, the fathers are away, serving in the IDF. To lift spirits and provide chizuk, OU Israel’s Zula Band—Zula is a unique program for at-risk youth—provides ongoing concerts, visiting hotels scattered throughout Jerusalem. A mega concert, sponsored by OU Israel specifically for the wives of IDF soldiers and held at Jerusalem’s Ramada Hotel, featured singer Ruchama ben Yosef and attracted some 600 women.

Additionally, OU Israel has been providing weekly meals for miluim families and arranging toy drives and carnivals. “In Israel today, when a soldier enters a bakery or falafel place and tries to buy something, everyone steps aside and lets him go to the front of the line and someone inevitably will cover his bill,” says Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director, OU Israel. “Why? Because we all recognize that soldiers are being moser nefesh for Klal Yisrael. The incredible wives of our soldiers, who are coping with endless stress managing their children and their homes all alone, may walk into the same bakery or the same falafel place, but their mesirut nefeseh is not as obvious. That’s why we want to be there for these women—and give them the chizuk, the concerts, the dinners and the pampering that they need.”  

All the help, however, doesn’t take away the fact that war is hard. “Some women are beyond strong. Others suffer crippling anxiety,” says Rabbi Gottlieb.

Stress-related conditions, including insomnia, skin problems, and weight gain caused by emotional eating are common among miluimot. In an Instagram reel, comic Bazy Rubin, herself a miluima, facetiously boasts that she’s serving her kids balanced meals while she gobbles an entire challah.

The war also challenges the kids. Miluimot point to sleep problems and displays of anger and anxiety. “There’s a lot more bedwetting. Every morning, I have to change the sheets,” says miluima and attorney Shvut Raanan, a Sabra and mother of four who lives in Yokneam, a city in northern Israel.  

Sisters of Iron, founded by Chana Irom (third from left), has brought together women across religious sectors in support of each other. Irom hopes the spirit of unity will continue long after the war has ended. Photo: Yossi Zeliger

Making ends meet is another challenge, and government help isn’t always forthcoming. “We are stuck in a bureaucracy. We were supposed to get a discount on arnona [Jerusalem real estate tax], but the Jerusalem municipality makes it very complicated,” says teacher and miluima Sarah Weller, a Hartford, Connecticut, olah in her forties. “We get by with food donations and very careful budgeting,” she says.

Being part of the future of this nation is hard, but it’s also a privilege; the hardest thing and the right thing are sometimes the same. We have a part in ensuring the future of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.

Employers aren’t always understanding, either. “Employers expect these women to function as they did before the war. If they don’t, they may be put on unpaid leave or fired,” says Raanan, who has become active in the Reservists’ Wives’ Forum. The Forum is a 5,000-member organization started during this war to advocate for the rights of soldiers’ wives in the workplace.

Even the long-awaited reunion with one’s spouse may be fraught with tension. “There is often a gap because the couple were apart and having such different experiences,” says psychologist Leah Gelband. 

Photo: Yossi Zeliger

The mitzvah of taharat hamishpachah can also be complicated; the Tzalash staff fields many halachic questions pertaining to this. Along with the halachic complexity, emotions may be jumbled. Leah Aharoni’s organization Our People prepares beautifully wrapped gift packages containing self-care products and cosmetics that are placed in mikvahs throughout Israel.  “Getting a gift makes the women feel supported; many of them cry when they receive it,” says Aharoni. 

Even if all goes well with the couple, children may struggle to make room for a dad who has been gone for months. “Sometimes the kids won’t speak to their father,” says Raanan. She notes that the Reservists’ Wives Forum grew out of a Facebook discussion sparked by a miluima’s post about just this situation. 

Making it alone

Most wives of IDF soldiers have some kind of support system—whether it’s family living nearby, neighbors or friends. But when Ellie Menora’s husband returned to Israel to join his IDF unit, Ellie was left alone. Ellie and Rabbi Ben Menora live in Binghamton, New York, where they serve as the OU-JLIC directors for the Orthodox students at Binghamton University. “We have no family here in the States,” she says—and being in the middle of Binghamton, there’s not much social support, aside from the students, of course. “It’s pretty isolating,” says Menora, who is one of three OU-JLIC directors based in the States whose husbands returned to Israel after October 7.

After Rav Ben got the call to return, there was no hesitation. “It was very clear to both of us that one of us [or both of us] will go back,” says Ellie, an ER nurse and medic who worked in Israeli hospitals. In the end, Rav Ben went alone, leaving almost immediately after the chag. Ellie stayed behind, caring for their five children under the age of ten, the youngest only ten months old. But despite the isolation and the challenges, Menora wouldn’t have it any other way. “If people like us were unwilling to fight for Israel, there wouldn’t be an Israel.” 

Holding onto Faith

There’s no way around it—the miluima life isn’t for the fainthearted. “The only way we can get through this is by believing. My husband constantly says that Medinat Yisrael exists because Hashem willed it,” says Rachael Hirsch-Zores, forty-three, a Be’er Sheva–based kindergarten teacher whose husband spent two months in Gaza. “If I didn’t believe in Hashem and didn’t believe that this was something Hashem wanted, I don’t know how I’d get through this.”  

Like the soldiers, miluimot are long on morale. “Being part of the future of this nation is hard, but it’s also a privilege; the hardest thing and the right thing are sometimes the same,” says Wohlgelernter. “We have a part in ensuring the future of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.”

“I thank Hashem that my husband isn’t home, that he’s fighting a milchemet mitzvah—he has a special role in the army, performing a unique mitzvah,” says Scheinfeld, whose husband is part of a unit tasked with retrieving bodies of fallen soldiers so they can be brought to kever Yisrael. 

In times like these, life is bittersweet. The realities of war seep into daily life. “My children ask me, ‘What should I do if they come to kidnap me?’ My husband and I talked about who we would want to raise our children if we both died. These possibilities are no longer theoretical,” says Hirsch-Zores.

The war, says Hirsch-Zores, has made her Yiddishkeit more emotional. “I cry every time I light Shabbat candles—I didn’t use to. And I think about the hostages constantly—do they even know when it’s Shabbat? ‘Matir assurim’ has taken on new meaning.”

For many, music can be a source of relief, spiritual strength and even validation. 

“Music and song are almost as essential as food and sleep,” says Scheinfeld, who graduated Emunah College for the Arts in Jerusalem and specializes in theater and music. Since the war began, Scheinfeld has shared her spiritual Jewish music with other IDF wives and moms. “Music has been my therapy, and it also uplifts others,” she says. 

The music that resonates most deeply with miluimot is music of faith. At chizuk events, Scheinfeld, who performs under the name Avigail, sings songs with stirring religious themes such as “Shir HaMaalot,” “V’afilu B’hastarah” and “Tov L’hodot LaHashem.” She has also written and recorded a song for her fellow miluimot called “Kol Yachol,” or “You can do it all.” “Be there for yourself,” she sings. “Fly up. You will see everything from there. You will realize you can do it all.” 

The medals have yet to be struck, but the IDF acknowledges the miluimot and their contribution. “The heroes of this war are the women at home,” says reserve General Yosef Hazut in an official IDF video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy5OPG9kmIk). 

They may even know how to win it. Send them to Gaza, and, as they joke on their WhatsApp groups, they’d catch Sinwar in a minute.

If only it were so easy. 

Carol Green Ungar is an award-winning writer whose essays have appeared in Tablet, the Jerusalem Post, Ami Magazine, Jewish Action and other publications. She teaches memoir writing and is the author of several children’s books.

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The Holiest Work: A Conversation with Miriam Neumark Shalev of the IDF Chevra Kadisha’s Women’s Unit by Leah R. Lightman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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