A Post-High School Gap Year, Israeli-Style
It’s a common parental experience: You suggest something to your child and he or she brushes you off, barely letting you express your thought before answering with a “no.” That’s what happened when I suggested to my son Shaked, in the beginning of his senior year of high school here in Israel, that he consider attending a mechina (pre-army preparation program), an Israeli gap year program.
Several weeks later, Shaked returned from school and excitedly told me that a graduate he knew came back to his school to speak about one such program in Akko, not far from our home in Nahariya. This time, Shaked lit up and said he wanted to check it out. Following a visit to Akko, he applied and was accepted as a member of the fifth class of Mechinat Gal’s Pre-Army Leadership Academy.
Shaked graduated from Mechinat Gal this summer, and looking back, I can see how valuable the experience was for him. He grew, learned and contributed – the hallmarks of a gap year program. Like most mechinot, Shaked’s program focused on a combination of enrichment studies, volunteer work, and preparation toward a meaningful service in the Israel Defense Forces (known here as "Tzahal"). I think it can even be said that an overall goal of these programs is for the hanichim (participants) to gain both spiritual and physical strength in preparation for their compulsory military duty. By trekking through many parts of Israel, they discover the lay of their homeland and gain exposure to different facets of life. Tzahal is committed to these programs, and everyone who attends one receives a deferment of his or her draft because the army benefits by receiving more mature soldiers who have spent time learning and developing skills that can be put to use during their compulsory service.
Although all the mechinot share many basic elements and goals, each has its own flavor and emphasis of study. At Mechinat Gal, Shaked studied topics such as philosophy, Jewish history, and even Islam. Throughout the year, he had the opportunity to participate in meaningful discussions exploring challenges facing Israeli society and how to play a contributing role to foster positive change. He lived in a co-ed group apartment and shared life with young adults, from all over Israel, with different backgrounds, cultures, and approaches to Jewish life.
Mechinat Gal's apartments are located in a marginalized neighborhood where the hanichim volunteer. They work with children and teenagers at risk, via different non-profit organizations in Akko, a mixed Arab and Jewish city with some problems unique to its demographic population. The hanichim try to help enhance the self-esteem of the youth they mentor, giving time and energy to children who don’t come from loving, supportive backgrounds and may not have adults to listen to them and guide them.
It’s heartening for me to see how many Israeli youth are participating in mechinot today. Our youth are asking themselves, “What’s the rush?” and taking a gap year to give and to gain, despite the fact that they know they must still dedicate several years to serve in Tzahal. It’s also reassuring to realize that despite the many complaints about our education system and Israeli society in general, our youth are imbibing important principles that are deeply rooted in Jewish history and tradition, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), chesed (acts of loving kindness, focusing on others) and tzedek (justice). One of the many times I saw this in action last year was during Operation Pillar of Defense, when Shaked and his friends traveled to the South of Israel to assist senior citizens and children.
The hanichim at Mechinat Gal, like at many mechinot, make decisions about how they live, running their own programs and setting the structure for their activities (all under the guidance of staff members and within certain parameters to ensure that each class has a successful year, of course). Throughout the program, Shaked was encouraged to develop leadership skills, to embrace challenges, and to accept responsibility. Even though Shaked has moved on from Mechinat Gal, I can see that his sense of Zionism and his worldview have been enriched, and his relationship with it and the other hanichim continues. He feels a sense of duty to the program, and he recently volunteered to help guide the present class on its three-night sidra (trek), focused on navigation skills.
My daughter, a high school senior, is now considering attending a mechina. She just spent a Shabbat visiting a program in the center of the country and plans to check out several others. While I am really pleased that she, too, is considering participating in such an important program, her quest still feels a little bittersweet to me – yet another reminder that my children are growing up quickly and will soon take further steps out on their own.