Israeli Life: Idealism From Below
Most Israeli teens go straight into the IDF after high school, but a growing number are opting to take a year to prepare physically and emotionally for their time in the Army.
“Where has the old Israeli idealism gone?” This is a refrain heard over and over in Israel, a country constantly measuring itself against its early pioneering self-image. This vision has been particularly damaged as allegations of corruption tarnish the state’s leaders. And yet, at every turn, there are still amazing indications of commitment rare in most societies.
One of these is the institution of mekhinot, premilitary academies where high school graduates, instead of going directly into the Army, opt to spend a year preparing emotionally and physically for military duty.
The heroic story of 31-year-old Ro’i Klein, a graduate of Bnei David-The Military Yeshiva Academy of Israel, has become an emblem of the commitment that characterizes mekhina graduates. A major in the Army reserves and an engineer and father of two small children, Klein jumped on a grenade in the Second Lebanon War, saving the soldiers in his unit but sacrificing his own life.
Mekhina means preparation in Hebrew; preparatory programs foraliya or higher education are also called mekhinot. There are 34 pre-Army mekhinot throughout Israel divided into religious, secular and mixed religious and secular. All share several educational values: They teach Judaism in formal study and informal discussions; attempt to develop students’ connection to the land and its people; include volunteering; and have some sort of Army readiness training, which can take the form of strenuous hikes, leadership training, meetings with soldiers or discussions of strategic and moral issues they may encounter in the Israel Defense Forces.
“There’s a mekhina for almost every sensibility,” says Miriam Warshavik, who oversees the programs for the Avi Chai Foundation, which provides around 20 percent of the budget for the secular academies. “There are urban mekhinot, kibbutz and moshav mekhinot. Some have begun integrating Jewish students from outside the country.” The Ministry of Education funds half the budgets of all the academies and students also pay tuition.
Considering that Army service is three years, why would a young person put his or her life on hold for an extra year? “The Ein Pratmekhina gave me the ability to add meaning to everything I do, be critical, but feel I am part of a greater cause,” explains Adina Ginsberg, who recently finished Ein Prat, located near Kfar Adumim, east of Jerusalem.
“Mekhina is like a psychologist,” says Avishag Ben Shalom, a graduate of Amichai mekhina in Moshav Argaman in the Jordan Valley. “It helps you learn about yourself and yourself in relation to the group.”
Odelia, Nomi and Donna Orbaum, triplets who are attending Amichai, wanted a year of self-examination and growth before the Army. “We thought the mekhina would prepare us for the IDF, but we see that it does more,” said Odelia after going on the introductory hike and attending orientation meetings. “It inculcates leadership traits, how to listen to others and at the same time establish one’s own goals—and strive to fulfill them.”
Through a variety of programming, mekhinot are rehabilitating the values of hard work, love of the land and the Jewish people, translating them into contemporary terms. For example, notes Amichai director Ayal Ankari, Second Aliyah thinker A.D. Gordon, realizing that people had become alienated from their land and surroundings, promoted physical labor. In this spirit, Amichai students farm and learn carpentry.
Project mechina in jaffa, sponsored by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, uses a different method to instill patriotism. “We sent students out to be homeless [for] three days,” says Are’le Fox, the Reform academy’s charismatic director. “Some slept outside. Some introduced themselves to the mayor and police or just people in a town and were offered places to stay. They learned that people in Israel can be very generous.” (The experiences of several Israeli teens in the Jaffa mekhina are chronicled in Maital Guttman’s film Mechina: A Preparation,www.mechinathemovie.com.)
Yaniv Friedler, head of the Ein Prat mekhina, believes high school graduates choose Ein Prat because it is demanding. (Ein Prat is so popular that, according to an article in the Ha’aretz daily, the program received over 1,000 applicants for its 35 slots for the coming school year.) “It’s hard here,” he says, pointing to the desert hills, the simple trailers where students and counselors live. “There are constant demands…eight weeks of grueling hikes. But young people want challenges that test their abilities and limitations.”
Ein Prat requires its students to create original volunteer projects. One group decided to make an amphitheater for the academy, Friedler recalls. “They woke every morning at 5 A.M. and worked until breakfast at 8. They moved boulders from the Judean Hills and built them into a semicircle.”
“Every morning at 6:30,” says Ginsberg, “I would go to Shaharitprayers and see the group building the amphitheater and another group studying…. It was part of the beauty of the place to see the caravans on a little hill surrounded by desert as everyone quietly did their own thing.”
“I came out another person,” acknowledges Dafi Ezrachi, who attended Project Mechina last year. “We learned about Islam as well as studying Jewish subjects. After all, we lived in Jaffa, where Arabs and Jews live together…. I helped start a learning center at the library and learned to…work with the authorities and neighborhood people. Most of all, I learned how to live in a group, stand up for what I believe yet be tolerant. I couldn’t compromise on kashrut and Shabbat. We worked out a system where everything was kosher in the common kitchen, but people could do what they want in their own rooms. It was a lesson in religious-secular cooperation.”
Religion was at the heart of the development of the pre-Army academies. The first mekhina, Bnei David, located in the Shomron settlement of Eli, was founded 20 years ago by Rabbis Eli Sadan and Yigal Levinstein as a one-year program for boys (most religiousmekhinot are for men only).
“These academies were established to encourage religious boys to do a full three-year Army service and become officers, in contrast to the yeshiva-Army hesder programs where boys do active service for only one and a half years,” says Elisheva Stollman of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, a researcher on religion and the Army. “Hesder yeshivot see the Army as a value, but do not encourage their students to become Army people, while yeshiva mekhinot see the Army as a calling. They encourage students to stay on as officers…. Today, 20 to 30 percent of the officers in the IDF are religious.”
“At the same time,” says Rabbi Moshe Hager, a colonel in the reserves and head of Yatir mekhina on the Beit Yatir moshav near Hebron, “the mekhinot seek to strengthen the spiritual world of these young men who might find it difficult to remain observant in the Army.”
Drawing on a tradition of self-examination that has its roots in the Musar movement, Sadan explains, “we want each student to acquire self-knowledge, know who he is as a religious person.”
More than 50 percent of Bnei David’s 1,800-plus graduates have served as officers, many of them in senior command positions. Bnei David’s Web site (www.bneidavid.org) includes a memorial to graduates, such as Ro’i Klein, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. (There is also a movie about Klein, called With All Your Soul, distributed by Alumna Films.) The academy won the 2007 Menachem Begin Heritage Prize for “imbuing thousands of youth with the Jewish Zionist spirit.”
What first began in the yeshiva world has now become a model for a renewed Zionism and moral development in the secular academies that have followed. In 1997, Nachshon was established as the first nonyeshiva mekhina. That same year, the urban kibbutz Beit Yisrael, located in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, founded Beit Yisrael-Reut, and other pre-Army mekhinot began to mushroom all over the country.
“After Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the Gilo urban kibbutz decided to create a mekhina for religious and nonreligious students to break down barriers between the communities,” says Shlomi Tamssut, a Reut counselor. “The students study Jewish subjects…discuss social, political issues. [We all] do volunteer work, mentoring children. A child I mentor is often hungry, witnessing violence at home. We try to provide an alternative model.”
Unfortunately, because of tuition costs and the reluctance of many to devote another year to study, the mekhina experience may not be available to youth from the lower socioeconomic class. Fox concedes that those who take the extra year come from more affluent groups and might become officers anyway. However, he also believes that if high school education focused more on instilling values and worried less about matriculation tests, mekhinot would be superfluous. “But, since this is not the case,” he says, “we must reach out to more and more students to come to the mekhinot.”
One program that does reach out to lower-income families is the Yemin Orde Mechina Pre-Military Leadership Program at Hatzor HaGlilit, made up of Ethiopian and Russian graduates from the Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village high school.
Major General Eyal Eldar, head of the Yemin Orde mekhina, insists his students’ IDF unit not be determined by their Army rating—a rank based on physical and intelligence testing and interviews that some have claimed is culturally weighted—but according to how themekhina staff judge their progress.
“We have special programs to teach them about Israeli culture,” he says. “They attend plays, concerts as well as do Army exercises. We…bring them to a point where they can compete with other Army candidates.”
“I gained a life here,” says Avi Aimer, who came to Israel from Ethiopia as a toddler. Aimer’s mother, who raised him and his brother by herself, lives in Ashkelon. By the time Aimer finished high school, he had already been in trouble with the law.
“Through the mekhina I…saw that I could overcome my past,” he notes. “I see my old friends who don’t know what to do with their lives. We went on a…hike from the Dead Sea to Sde Boker. It was very difficult. But as I was climbing I remembered that my counselor had given me a small siddur with ‘Shir Ha-ma’alot’ [Song of Ascensions]. I took it out and began to sing to myself. And I reached the top…. I’m not religious, but I discovered that I have spiritual energies I hadn’t realized before.”
Aimer wanted to be accepted into the elite paratrooper unit, but his Army rating was too low. “In the mekhina, I proved I could take responsibility,” he says. “Eyal Eldar and the counselors supported me.” This year, Aimer was admitted into the paratrooper unit.
Tzahali Mechina at Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak is another new option. Tzahali Mechina is for Orthodox girls who want to go into the IDF, but feel that, coming from insular communities, they need additional preparation. Throughout the year, the girls interact with different ethnic groups as well as grappling—through discussions and volunteer programs—with societal problems such as poverty.
The new dialogue the mekhinot is creating—between ethnic groups, religious and nonreligious youth, the disadvantaged and the elite—can be summarized by Tzahali Mechina’s motto, “And your brother shall live with you.” This growing sense of responsibility to others will create the much needed leadership Israel and its people deserve.