Hoping to encourage more religious officers, the mechina prepped for what the IDF calls “a full and meaningful army service.”

‘This isn’t a one-way lecture or a silent library,” Rav Bentsy told the too-polite parents of some 100 18-year-olds who had crowded into a beit midrash, way up in the Golan Heights to see what their sons would be doing this year. “The learning only begins with a question, or even an argument.”

With that, the questions started, and the learning really did begin. After a spirited half hour we had tasted both the openness and the substance our sons have enjoyed this past month at Keshet Yehuda. This mechina, or pre-military academy, is one of 43 extraordinary “laboratories for life,” as Rabbi Ben Tsion Hameiri calls them, giving young Israelis a “year of learning and growth without commitments, freed of the usual family responsibilities, jobs, grades or pressure.”

You know those movies depicting hyper-disciplined, spit-and-polish military academies with uniformed teenagers playing soldier, hazing weaklings amid perfectly made beds on spic-and-span floors. Now, erase those images more thoroughly than Hillary Clinton’s aides cleaned her private email server.

We’re talking Israeli pre-military academies.

These institutions, which require army approval because the participants defer their military service by 12-to- 18 months, lovingly nurture future recruits’ minds, hearts, and souls. They are quintessentially Israeli: as undisciplined, untidy, and unmilitary as your favorite shwarma stand but as grounding, moving, and stimulating as “Hatikva.”

The first mechina, B’nai David, began in 1987, as an alternative to hesder yeshivas, which rotate learning and serving.

Hoping to encourage more religious officers, the mechina prepped for what the IDF calls “a full and meaningful army service.”

Keshet Yehuda began five years later, inspired by Rav Kook’s teachings, to strengthen religious recruits spiritually, before the stresses of army service. The growth spurt came in 1995, following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Educators added secular and mixed academies to encourage values-oriented learning in Israel, about Judaism, Zionism, Israel, and life.

It worked. From 700 high school graduates attending six mechinot in 1997, today 3,300 students attend 43 academies, with seven more being developed. Some, like Keshet Yehuda, offer parallel programs for Diaspora Jews. The defense and education ministries split most costs, while parents also pay tuition. Many graduates join elite units, and – reflecting motivation and skill – are twice as likely to become officers.

Today, 19 mechinot are religious, and 24 general, including some mixing religious and secular. Some are all-male, some are mixed. Some emphasize Torah learning, some emphasize general philosophy, some emphasize volunteering.

All offer patriotic, Jewish and Zionist educational experiences, including hikes and physical workouts to prepare them for their army service.

While there are admissions standards and some competition to join some mechinot, getting accepted is nothing like the insane pressure-cooker of Americans applying for college or Israelis applying for elite army units.

High school seniors choosing mechina wonder “what’s best for my mind and soul,” and “how can I best flourish next year,” rather than negotiating all that ego-busting stress.

As youth movement graduates who spent a post-high school “gap year” in Israel and know how important such experiences are, my wife and I loved Keshet when we visited. We loved its rawness, its remoteness, the lack of WiFi which encourages socializing and reading.

We also loved the simple conditions our son Yoni accepts uncomplainingly, as he and his buddies hang outside, on four ratty couches, elevated from the dusty ground by a platform built with abandoned lumber they scavenged.

When greeting the parents, the educators – who are serious rabbis – conveyed an infectious passion for the place and their mission, while emphasizing their openness, and their partnership with parents. Their excitement at the journey they were launching with their students, their delight in teaching at its purest, reminded me why I chose to become an educator.

More relaxed and less authoritarian than most yeshivas, Keshet Yehuda wants the students to embrace the prayer, the study, the community building and the soul-stretching on their own.

“Students, still in the school mentality, initially think they’ve won whenever they somehow grab more free time,” the “Ram” who works closest with Yoni’s group, Rav Shemi, said. “Eventually they realize that whenever they miss something they’re losing.”

Shemi, aka Rabbi Shmuel Pariente, defined his goal by recalling the Lubavitch Rebbe’s story of quizzing a teenage baseball fan, who left a game early because his team lost so badly. The Rebbe asked, “Did the players leave early too?” The kid scoffed: “They can’t leave, they’re the players.” The Rebbe beamed: “When it comes to being Jewish, I don’t want you to be just a fan; be a player!” Although many friends, including left-leaning Orthodox ones, have “warned” us our son might veer far right, many religious parents there challenged the rabbis, fearing their approach was too “open,” too “liberal,” not authoritarian enough. I left feeling that Keshet’s approach emphasizing personal responsibility was just right. The place offers values-oriented, student-centered education, inviting young adults to become motivated rather than feel forced. That very lightness of touch first attracted Yoni to the place – and has inspired him this last month.

Obviously, not every mechinist has a great experience. Still, looking at these kids, feeling their idealism, their energy, I thought: “This is our future! This is Israeli Zionism! This is that mix of vision and pragmatism that founded the state and will redeem it.” What a beautiful gift the state of Israel is giving these young people by supporting these programs.

I envy Yoni and his friends for the year they are going to have. I envy the educators for the bond they are going to form with these amazing young adults. I only wish the government invested even more in these important institutions, so more recruits can join Israel’s army that much more mature, settled, patriotic, and wiser.