Sgt. Maj. Avishag Shiran Malka, 38, is the only female ultra-Orthodox member of the Israel Border Police. The stringent religious practice of the ultra-Orthodox combined with the intense nature of her work can be challenging, she acknowledges, which in part explains why she’s the only one.
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, in general frown on any type of military service. Remarkably, Avishag received the blessing of her rabbi, who viewed it as shlichut, a word that doesn’t have an exact translation in English but combines a sense of mission, duty, devotion and service.
There have been ups and downs along the way. Work has caused friction with her husband, who was born into the haredi world and sometimes displays discomfort with some of her activities. There have been many visits to the rabbi along the way.
The Israel Border Police falls under the aegis of the Israel Police. However, it is military in aspect. According to the Border Police’s website, its purpose is multifold; “to prevent and thwart terrorist acts, to carry out routine policing and security activities in city centers and crowded areas, to fight serious crime, to eradicate the phenomenon of illegal residents, to prevent disturbances and more.”
Avishag, who currently serves in a female unit of 50 women, has conducted home searches, chased bad guys through Jerusalem and braved clashes on the Temple Mount (a video in one recent writeup shows her wielding an M-16 like a pro). She does all this while raising two small boys, ages four and seven. Her eldest always asks if she caught the thieves. (“He thinks it’s a game, like cops and robbers,” she said.)
Avishag recently spoke to JNS.
Q: Tell us about your early years. Were you always religious?
A: I grew up in a settlement in the Jordan Valley called Ma’ale Efraim. Two parents and four brothers. We weren’t connected to religion at all. I was brought up in state schools, also with no connection to religion. I joined the army. A year after my discharge from the Border Police, I returned and signed on for career service. It was only at the age of 25 that I started attending Torah lessons and actually getting closer to religion.
Q: What led you to do that? Was it a search for meaning, did something happen?
A: It’s so many things that happened throughout life. You start asking questions at the age of 16 or so. Who am I? What am I? What is my role in this world? These questions stay with you. And then at age 25, the same questions come up once again. A friend said to me, “Come on, let’s go hear a Torah lesson.” We heard a lesson from a rabbi, and from there, I started going to classes every week. Every class spoke to me. I decided I really wanted more. I committed little by little to more prayers, more blessings, more commandments. At the age of 29, I met my husband and we got married. That’s when I actually entered the ultra-Orthodox world. He grew up in a religious home. He’s Chabad.
Q: Were there moments of crisis between your new life as a haredi and your service in the Border Police?
A: At the beginning of the marriage there were several moments of crisis. One Shabbat, I had my phone with me and it rang. I was being called up. My husband and I were in the synagogue. He took it so hard. It was a desecration of Shabbat. He wasn’t used to such things. It’s unheard of to bring a phone to synagogue on Shabbat. It was a difficult experience for both of us and questions really started to arise. We started asking the rabbi.
Q: A rabbi’s approval is important in the religious world. Were you surprised your rabbi said it was fine to continue in the Border Police given that it sometimes requires breaking religious law?
A: He had conditions. If you’re going to work on Shabbat, he said, ask a policeman who is not Jewish to bring you from home and to bring you back. If not, it’s better for you to stay at work and come home after Shabbat, or to go before Shabbat. You cannot ask another Jew to desecrate Shabat for your sake.
If I go to work in an openly marked police car, it’s different. As soon as you drive in a car with a police insignia—and the police talk about this, too—it’s considered pikuach nefesh [a principle in Jewish law where the preservation of human life overrides almost any other religious rule]. It doesn’t matter where you go in the car, you’re still performing pikuach nefesh because you don’t know what your presence may be preventing.
Q: Is it unusual for a rabbi to show such flexibility?
A: Part of it was that I explained to him the nature of my job. I was then in the national unit against disruption of order [similar to riot police]. There are a lot of alerts. I also wrote to the Lubavitch rabbi and he gave permission to stay and carry out shlichut in the role.
Q: Do you encounter haredim in your work? What’s their reaction to a haredi border policewoman?
A: Usually, I don’t come into contact with the ultra-Orthodox public. My job faces the Arab Israeli public. Some of them thought I was an Arab volunteer. When I worked in Meron, [a pilgrimage site for haredim], I once received a not-so-pleasant response. I was called harednik, a derogatory nickname for ultra-Orthodox who serve in the army. At first, I was very hurt. I spoke to my husband and he explained to me it’s a small group within the haredi world and not to pay attention.
Q: What is the reaction of the haredi community in which you live?
A: After the writeup [in Yediot Achronot], I got a lot of calls. My husband got a lot of calls from people praising what I do as a sanctification of God’s name. They were full of congratulations.
Q: Many religious Zionists serve in the Border Police. Is there a difference between being haredi and religious Zionist in terms of the challenges you face?
A: One issue where I personally think there is a difference is kashrut. When it comes to kosher food, you have the simple kashrut of the state rabbinate and then mehadrin [a more stringent kashrut], which I follow. When it comes to pikuach nefesh, you’re allowed to break Shabbat, but I make every possible effort to prepare for Shabbat in advance. I do everything I can to not desecrate Shabbat.
Also, I think religious Zionists are much more comfortable when it comes to female work roles. I face some obstacles. I was patrolling in a cruiser with a policeman, and my husband calls. He asks where I am. I tell him I’m working with a policeman, and he asks, “Are you alone?” I said, “Yes, we’re in the car. It’s work.” And he says, “That doesn’t suit me.” I say, “I understand that it doesn’t suit you. Right now, that’s the job. I’m finishing the shift, and we’ll talk to the rabbi.” So we go to the rabbi and I explain the role, and he mediates and we reach a point of compromise.
Q: How did the border guard react as you became more religious? Did they support you?
A: It really depended on the commander. There were commanders who understood and really tried to help. They told me, “No problem. Work Friday morning and Saturday night.” There were commanders who said, “No, you’ll come to work like everyone else and you’ll work like everyone else.” It was very difficult. One picked me to work on Yom Kippur. Out of everyone, he chose me. I worked. I came home. What can you do? You’re called to the flag as it were. This is a job that I personally love. It’s challenging. It’s very fulfilling.
Q: Were you always attracted to this sort of work, to weapons, and so on, as a child?
A: I think so. My father was a patrolman in the police force. He was in the reserves until a very late age. He had a weapon at home. My brother by the way is also in the police. There were always the three of us together. So, yes, I think it came from childhood.
Q: Do you feel that you are paving the way for other ultra-Orthodox to serve, whether men or women?
A: Keep in mind that regular service is different from permanent service. Regular service can be suitable for ultra-Orthodox men, and also ultra-Orthodox women in a unit like ours. Of course, you need a strong character.
Career service is something else. It has challenges. What’s suitable at 18 no longer is at 38. The biggest obstacle is as a mother; not to be at home with the children for hours.
The police are changing. They’re becoming more open toward the ultra-Orthodox public, toward their recruitment. They realize they need to make changes. I was on a women’s committee for Shabbat observance in the police. We really went over the issues in great detail.
Q: Finally, is there a character from the Bible that you closely identify with?
A: I’ll tell you that recently it’s been Queen Esther. First, because we’re talking about Persia. My grandmother is Persian. My mother is Persian. Second, Esther went about things wisely. She sacrificed so much for the people of Israel. She reminds me of the importance of sacrifice for the people of Israel in my personal life and in my work.