Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'Mechina' Academies -- Israel's Gap Year Phenomenon

Some of the country's best and brightest high-school grads
 are delaying military service for a year of character-building in pre-army academies

IT'S STILL DARK in Upper Nazareth on a recent Tuesday morning as Nadav Cohen, 19, delivers a pithy inspirational talk to his comrades – choosing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' for his theme. On a pervious morning another student talked about the journey to Ithaca in Homer's The Odyssey. That poem begins, "When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge."

The 35 or so students, young men and women in workout clothes, have packed into a room overlooking the lower Galilee. All are recent high-school graduates who've put off their compulsory service -- two years for women and three years for men -- in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to take part in this mechina. It is one of a score of pre-military academies offering one-year programs that are becoming increasingly popular among Israel's most committed, idealistic and gifted youth.

The mechina phenomenon began in 1988 in Eli, a Jewish settlement in Samaria near Shiloh. The idea was to prepare, and not just physically, the Orthodox religious male youngsters for the rigors of army life. At the Eli mechina, active duty army officers run the young men through their paces in the hilly terrain.

Socially, think of the army as Israel's great "melting pot" where young people from across the country's astoundingly diverse society rub shoulders in basic training.  That is why the Orthodox youngsters at the Eli academy need to be fortified for the culture shock of secular society where they'll encounter comrades with little knowledge of, or commitment to, the religious values that they uphold. For religious reasons, most Orthodox high-schools are not co-ed. Yet in the army strict separation of the sexes for reasons of modesty is difficult to uphold. Your instructor for the state-of-the-art Tavor rifle could well be a pretty 19-year-old girl from Ramat Aviv, an upscale north Tel Aviv neighborhood.
Indeed, Israel's small messianic Jewish community faces a similar challenge in upholding religious and social values. The Jerusalem Post recently reported that the community has run a short summer preparatory program, known as the Nestor mechina, to ease the transition into army life for its young people, who are leaving home for the first time.  

By 1997, the Eli mechina had been joined by other pre-military academies. Nowadays, there are academies -- each offering its own twist on the mechina experience -- catering to the secular, to young Orthodox women, and to those who want a combined, co-ed, secular-religious environment. The Lindenbaum Academy on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem offers no fewer than five separate tracks for committed Orthodox women who want to engage in advanced religious studies (Bible, Talmud, philosophy) before, or even during, or after their military service. Noa Binnes wants to go into IDF intelligence and opted to study at Lindenbaum "because I think it will help me come to the army a more mature person."

TODAY, WITH hundreds of former students, Ein Prat is arguably the most prestigious of the pre-army academies. Its ethos calls for bridging the gap between Orthodox, theologically progressive, and altogether non-observant Israelis, says Noam Arbel, an Ein Prat graduate now responsible for alumni affairs. This year's students, for example, are one-third Orthodox, one-third secular, and the remainder traditionally observant, Conservative or Reform. Arbel explains that the program combines community service with advanced Zionist and religious studies and, naturally, physical fitness. 

Ein Prat is located in the Judean Desert east of Jerusalem adjacent to the settlement of Kfar Adumim. The mechina is headed by Micah Goodman, a spiritual, charismatic young scholar who is also a popular lecturer and author. He's just published a book in Hebrew contextualizing the Kuzari, a polemical work written in the Middle Ages defending the faith of Israel. An earlier Hebrew book analyzing Maimonides' ironically titled Guide to the Perplexed remains a bestseller.

All of Israel's pre-army academies tend to have rigorous admission policies and generally require parents to pay tuition – this means most of their students come from middle-class homes. None are primarily government funded, relying instead on philanthropic support. The Avi Chai Foundation has been in the vanguard of the mechina movement, supporting 19 mechina academies including Ein Prat which also enjoys the backing of the Tikvah Fund. Arbel says that Ein Prat's expertise has positioned the mechina to provide organizational, consulting and even financial backing for other academies around the country.

The various mechina programs are well regarded by the army – seen as a means of delivering more motivated, more mature and better prepared recruits. There is, of course, one unavoidable side effect: by the time these young people start university, having finished mechina, the army, and de rigueur post-army travel, they're 24 or so  – about the age their American counterparts are graduating.

Nadav Cohen's mechina, Tabor, now in its third year, is of the secular variety, emphasizing physical fitness, personal development, self-discipline, social commitment and leadership skills -- all combined with plenty of community service. After their predawn homilies most of the Tabor group – including Cohen -- go out for a long run; a few stay behind with a personal trainer or to work on a customized exercise regime. 

By about 8:00 AM the entire team, showered and changed, have return from their cramped sleeping quarters – boys and girls live separately in groups of about 10 – to gather in the mess hall for a surprisingly wholesome breakfast prepared by students on kitchen duty. By 9:00 A.M. on Mondays and Thursdays the group heads off to any one of 11 volunteer assignments.  Some students, working in teams, mentoring Upper Nazareth elementary school pupils or high-school students, Jews and Arabs, from less privileged homes or with learning disabilities. The children are taken on wilderness hikes, do sports and play games geared to instilling some of the students' own esprit de corps in their younger charges. Other students are assigned to an after-school youth group for children with special needs.   

On other days, Tabor's focus is more on learning.
Cohen and his cohort study Western philosophy, taught by a visiting university instructor, covering thinkers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato and focusing on the values of fidelity to principles and commitment to the law. There are additional lessons on military leadership where students study Zionist legends such as Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920).  

Though Tabor is a secular academy, Jewish values are integral to the curriculum.  Lately, for instance, students have been reading a difficult work by the 18th century ethicist Moshe Chaim Luzzatto called The Path of the Just which prescribes abstinence and self-discipline, tenets more routinely studied in ultra-Orthodox quarters.  

Afternoons might find the students in makeshift classrooms learning about national security. Before dinner there is usually time for a power workout. Evenings are taken up with less formal lessons. One recent night a shepherd-philosopher engaged the students in a discussion about spirituality, identity, relationships and trust that was geared to building group dynamics.

During their downtime the students are busy with house-keeping chores and meetings where, together with academy staff, they hash our schedules, assignments, and curriculum.

The days at Tabor are typically long and grueling, not ending until the exhausted students fall  into bed late into the night.

IN contrast to Nadav Cohen's regimented mechina, Yoni Jenson's academy seems more like a laid-back urban kibbutz where the 52 students are empowered to make most decisions.
Jenson, age 19, put off his army service to enter the Mechina Of Jaffa, loosely affiliated with Israel's Reform branch of Judaism, where the mission is to train students for leadership. He plays down the leadership part. "I think of it more as an academy that will prepare me for life, enlighten me, and bolster my self-discipline," Jenson says.

It was their choice, for instance, to keep a kosher communal kitchen in deference to the needs of only three students who adhere to traditional Jewish dietary regulations which forbid the mixing of meat and dairy dishes. In making their collective decision, the cohort boned up on the basics of what keeping a kosher entails while learning a lesson in tolerance; how a majority can uphold its values and respect the needs of a minority. The on-site staff director from the Reform movement seldom intervenes in the day-to-day decision making of the group.

On a typical day, Jenson might attend an inter-disciplinary course about Israeli society that "doesn't sugar coat the country's failings," or a lecture on the politics of the media. Two periods a week are carved out for meditation and nonconformist prayer.  Some of the students organize an optional Hebrew Bible study group after hours in their rooms. On alternate weekends the group remains at the mechina, for a traditional Friday night Sabbath meal complete with benediction over the wine and song.  

There's a once-a-week workout session under the tutelage of a physical instructor from the army.  Jenson, who aims to get into the IDF search and rescue unit, enjoys regular runs along the Mediterranean coast. There are also fun activities with an educational purpose, including occasional excursions to the theatre.

The biggest emphasis, however, at the Jaffa academy is community service. Jenson spends three weekday mornings at a day care center for disadvantaged children who range in age between three and six while a fourth day is spent at a senior citizen's center helping to run its glee club. Other students are assigned to a local scout troop helping to program daily activities. This combination of learning and volunteer work is intended to help the students formulate their Jewish-Israeli identity in harmony with a modern lifestyle.

ORIT Gold, 20, didn't "do mechina" but chose another form of one-year service before her call-up. Now serving in the IDF intelligence corps, Gold (not her real name) put off her army service to spend a year working as a Jewish Agency "Shin-Shin" year-long volunteer emissary in the United States. It was a broadening experience that exposed Gold, who comes from a secular household in Netanya, to a welcoming, multi-faceted Jewish community in the Midwest.  Paradoxically, she returned to Israel with an enhanced appreciation of the Jewish side of her identity. 
On the down side, Gold's transition to army life was hardly seamless. In America she was essentially her own boss running youth programs, addressing local schools and churches about Israel and managing her own busy schedule. Back in Israel and in the army Orit Gold abruptly found herself in basic training with younger girls and under the thumb of a drill instructor her own age. Fortunately, the maturity she honed while abroad helped her to better deal with whatever the army has thrown at her.

"I learned that you need to take things in stride. The army is a rite of passage for all Israelis so why not make the most of it, have fun and learn from the challenges placed before us," says Gold.

No matter which road they take on their journey to the army, mechina academy alumni arrive better prepared and a little wiser. 

Nadav Cohen concurs, "The mechina experience takes you off the treadmill of life and puts you on 'pause' so that you can purposefully think about your direction."

A version of this piece appeared in the Independence Day issue of the Christian Zionist magazine Israel_My_Glory.

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