Mechinot: Country Clubs for the Soul

Essentially, the Israeli army, with the Education Ministry, offers high school graduates a gift of a year or so to mature.

The Jerusalem Post

August 28, 2018


Country Clubs for the Soul

Essentially, the Israeli army, with the Education Ministry, offers high school graduates a gift of a year or so to mature.

R ecently, fresh high school graduates have started disappearing from our Jerusalem neighborhood – three one day, 12 another day, seven yet another day. With the start of Elul, mechinot begin – those marvelously misnamed and not-well-known-outside-of-Israel quintessentially-Israeli institutions.

“Mechina kedam tzeva’it” translates as “pre-military academy.” The 46 yearlong educational, social service oriented and group-building hothouses that have developed since the 1990s are indeed pre-military – the army defers participants’ enlistment for one year (sometimes two). But while some programs include some physical training, the preparation is mostly ideological, psychological and spiritual, often under, ahem, simple conditions. These places are more spit than polish.

Essentially, the Israeli army, with the Education Ministry, offers high school graduates a gift of a year or so to mature. While each program has a different flavor, 21 are for religious Zionists, 23 are for nonreligious or mix both communities, with one for Druze and one for haredim. Participants get no credit from universities and no credit from the army – try explaining that to their career-driven American peers (or their parents)! The only credit they get is in the university of life.

This year, tragically, the programs’ romantic innocence has been tarnished. The mechina community and many of its participants are still mourning last spring’s devastating catastrophe, when 10 beautiful souls accepted to the Bnei Zion academy drowned in a flash flood.

Last Sunday, when we escorted our son Aviv to his mechina, most parents were more sobered – and just a tad anxious – in ways we never imagined three years earlier when we dropped his older brother off at his mechina. The once inconceivable actually happened last spring. And, typically, while we all continued with our lives, there are 10 families that should have been on a high this week with the rest of us, who are instead still grieving their unfathomable losses.

The mechina community acknowledged the parental anxiety, and, even more important, a renewed responsibility to implement more safety checks. We learned that various fail-safes have been put in place. Every counselor responsible for hikes received extra training this summer. And my son – along with hundreds of others in most of the mechinot – spent his first few days completing a 40-hour first aid course. The Pentagon packages civilian casualties as collateral damage; this Bnei Zion horror at least produced some collateral caution.

Beyond that cloud, which will hover for the next few years, my son’s orientation day was exhilarating – for the participants, the parents and, it seemed, for the teachers and administrators, too.

AVIV CHOSE an all-male, all-religious mechina in the Jordan Valley called Hemdat Yehuda. Founded in 1997 by Rabbi Yinon Madar – who remains at the helm – the academy has developed, its website reports, “a unique program of studies, Torah Poretzet L’Chaim – Torah Bursting to Life.” The idea is to drill inward, encouraging personal, spiritual growth while also facing “outward, toward the real world,” fostering social responsibility as soldiers, as citizens, as future leaders.

In that spirit, its beit midrash (study hall) has open windows. And rather than seeing textual contradictions as theological threats – or worrying about the occasional disconnect between what the tradition teaches and how some of the participants may act – the educators welcome such gaps as opportunities, where the real learning begins.

The place is a country club for the soul – where rather than being served, you appreciate the value of serving. It’s a place, Madar explained, where you “learn with your hands” while experiencing “hands-on learning.” Interactive discussions take preference over passive lectures. At Hemdat, the participants help fix what needs fixing, clean what needs cleaning, cook what they’ll be eating.

Staff members spoke with such excitement and care about the educational adventure they were embarking on with the participants, you could tell that these are idealistic educators who work hard to create an idyllic learning environment. Liberated from what they called “the exams-credit matrix,” these educators make the person their subject, not the subject their sole objective. They address questions of ratzon (will) – what do these young people want, and how do they figure that out?

Typical was the way Madar addressed the inevitable challenge of parents wanting to take their kids during this “off year” on family vacations when it suits them.

“I know Hanukkah time is more expensive,” he acknowledged. “But if you take your kid skiing when it’s cheaper, what’s the message you’re conveying?” Madar asked. Then, the knockout punch: “Isn’t learning more valuable than the discount?”

One mom asked, “Can I switch places with my son?” One dad exulted, “Imagine, our kids could have done so many things with this year – and they chose this!” He delighted, as my wife and I did, in the primitive, early-kibbutz-style conditions. By day three, Aviv reported: “It’s like having a second family.”

Despite their modest surroundings, these are not modest programs. They hope to transform the participants and make them spark plugs for transforming Israeli society. But most mechina leaders understand something we often forget these days. Going back to basics is not the poor man’s road but a road to greatness. Spoon-feeding, coddling, helicopter parenting and teaching look generous but ultimately are selfish and suffocating. All too often, we underestimate what our 18-year-olds can do. These programs encourage them to stretch, to thrive.

It’s a risky form of education. It’s not freeze-dried. It’s not spelled out. Therein lies its charm – and its lifelong impact.

The writer is the author of the newly released  The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .

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