The 33 recent high school graduates who are gathered at the Mechina Program at the Hannaton Educational Center, in Israel’s Lower Galilee, remind me a lot of any group of teens from the United States. The room is filled with loud chatter, punctuated by laughter, with the glow of cell phones sprinkled throughout. And yet these 33 eighteen-year-olds shoulder vastly different responsibilities than their US counterparts. In just a few short months, they will be called to stand in the line of duty defending the State of Israel, often facing life’s most complex questions along the way.
When Mechina Director Etai Capsuto and the team at the Hannaton Educational Center asked themselves how they could make the most significant impact on the Israeli society they love so much, this mechina was their answer. “Recent high school graduates are not really prepared for the life and death decisions they often face in the army,” says Capsuto. “Their sense of self is not up to the task. As a result, so many Israelis finish the army and want to just walk away from it all.”
In response, the Hannaton Mechina was born, a post-high school leadership training institute supported and partially funded by the Israeli government. The mechina draws on the core values of the Conservative movement to prepare young young Israelis for the tough choices they will face in the army and beyond. “As a Masorti rabbi who wants to strengthen Israel at large, we have a great challenge,” says Education Center Director Rabbi Yoav Ende. “We have passionate young people in Israel, but they are not learned enough. We bring together students whose life stories are totally different from one another around a page of Talmud. By living and learning together, they create a Torah of their own.”
Mechina programs are not new in Israel. While they began largely in the Orthodox world, the approach has spread. In 2014, there were 44 programs helping to prepare young Israelis for army service, but Hannaton’s Mechina is unique. As Capsuto explains, “Religious (Orthodox) mechinot have two goals – to instill a commitment to Zionism and to Judaism. Secular mechinot likewise have two goals – Zionism and humanism. When we set out to build our program, we wanted to draw on the values of the Conservative movement to find a middle path. In our program, we create a pluralistic microcosm of Israeli society, and we work to find the meeting point between the shared values of Judaism, Zionism and humanism.”
The Hannaton Mechina is devoted to pluralism. The program’s facilitators work hard to recruit participants from all sectors of society. They come from the north, center and south of Israel, from development towns and big cities, affluent families and children’s homes. They are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular, and a key part of the program involves promoting coexistence with an Arab Israeli town that neighbors Hanatton. Next year, the diversity will expand further, as the Center launches a gap year program for Diaspora high school graduates.
A recent story from the center’s Arab Israeli neighbor, Kfar Manda, demonstrates the ripple effects of the Hannaton Mechina on its participants and in Israel in general. Volunteer work represents about a quarter of the Mechina students’ time. For her volunteer project, Maya spends time at the Achva School for Special Needs Children in Kfar Manda. After several weeks working in the school, Maya had a breakthrough with an autistic boy. Although he normally did not play with a ball, she struck up a game of catch with him, which he seemed to enjoy. When she returned the following week, he ran to her immediately, again offering her the ball they had played with the week before. Moved by the encounter, the resident social worker in the school filmed the interaction and unbeknown to Maya, sent it to the boy’s parents.
Later that afternoon, when Maya and her group made a quick stop at the local market in Kfar Manda, Maya noticed a man looking at her. As this is Israel and tensions are high, Maya became nervous. The man approached, holding his cell phone. When he extended his hand to her, she saw that he had received the video of her and the boy playing ball. “This is my son,” he shared. “Were you just with him at his school? Thank you so much! I have not seen him this happy for some time. I, too, am so happy.”
For Maya, and likely for the boy’s father, this was a life-changing moment. Next year, when Maya is in the army, and must face tough questions of security and coexistence, she will no longer be the adolescent who feared for her safety in an Arab Israeli market. Instead she will be a young woman who has changed the life of an Arab Israeli boy and been changed by him.
The Hannaton Mechina does not expect to create generals in the army per se. Rather, it aims to raise a generation of leaders who are prepared to tackle the tough challenges this society faces, whether in the army, in business, or in their local communities. For 10 months, these promising eighteen-year-olds practice the skills of living in a community that is a true microcosm of their society. They take excursions across Israel and delve deeply into the many social challenges the country faces. They practice respectful dialogue and learn that it is up to each of them to build an Israel that simultaneously values Judaism and democracy. As participant Etai Weisman explains, “It is preparation for the army, but much more than that, it is preparation for life. The mechina gives me the opportunity to go deep, to ask questions about who I am, and to get to know my country in a way that never would have been possible were it not for this program.”