To uproot an adolescent in his last year of high school; to move to a foreign country; to have him leave behind school, a close knit group of friends, family, home, activities, and all that is familiar can be potentially disastrous. This was one of my biggest concerns upon moving to Israel. Would my 17 year old son, Max, be able to make the adjustments and acclimate to his new home and society? Would he be able to overcome the language barriers? Would he be able to fit into this strange, new world and culture? Would he be able to enter into meaningful activities and make really great friends as he had done in California?
Max graduated high school a year early with top honors. He played on sports teams, attended some college classes, was active in his religious life, and played trumpet in several orchestras and jazz bands. He attended summer camp in New York for several years, where he became a leader and counselor-in-training. After our move, for the first four months he was the lone teenager in a sea of Russian adults in his Ulpan Hebrew intensive class. Thank goodness for What’s App and Skype, email, and SMS – he was able to keep in close contact with the friends he left in the States.
Thank goodness for Efrat Ben Chaim, his Ulpan teacher, who took Max under her wing. Last September she told us about the Mechina program, and thought it would be a good fit for Max. Efrat gave us the names and numbers of a few Mechinot throughout the country, and suggested he apply – even though the programs had already started in August. We knew little about this course, other than it was a pre-army, gap year program for a select group of kids. It turned out to be our biggest blessing.
The Hebrew word Mechina means “preparation.” It is a gap-year leadership program between graduation from high school and army service. Started just 10 years ago,there are now 40 mechina in all scattered throughout Israel and representing the many different parts of Israeli society. There are both religious programs (which help those coming from an Orthodox background integrate into the culturally and religiously diverse military) and programs that combine religious and secular kids. Each track has its own set of courses: some emphasize volunteering, some study, some religion and ethics. The components all include physical training, field trips to different parts of the country, and connectivity to different parts of society here. Some are coed, others single-sex. It is a fairly competitive program with applications being received the spring prior to entry, and acceptance received by June. Most programs accept up to 50 young adults. The Mechina graduates usually go on to leadership/commander positions in the most elite defense force units, and afterwards become leaders in their communities. The youth accepted for this 10 month long program lives at the base (on a kibbutz or small community, college campus, or designated facilities in a larger city) just as kids in America attend university.
After three intensive interviews, Max was invited to join Mechina haEmek in the Jordan River Valley in Eastern Central Israel. This particular program emphasized morning studies in Ethics, Philosophy, History, Political Science, Religion, and Economics. The afternoons were divided into Volunteering (Max worked with the elderly residents of a nearby kibbutz, taking special care of a couple in which the husband suffered from Alzheimer’s. He also worked at Gan HaShlosha National Park twice a week) and physical exercise. At his Mechinah, the youth were responsible for cooking meals and cleanup as well as sitting on special committees. Some included entertainment, public relations, liturgy, guest speakers, and field trips. In the evening, there were committee and group meetings as well as leadership classes. There was a stress on teamwork and responsibility as well as personal development in all areas.
The first three months were particularly grueling for Max, the only non-Israeli-born kid. He had basic language skills, but taking college-level classes was more than difficult. Speaking the language, with all the innuendos and getting the jokes was more than overwhelming. Max would come home for a Shabbat “weekend” twice a month completely exhausted physically and mentally. Rigorous is the only word that can describe this experience – and at times, overwhelming. Yet the leaders and other students were sensitive to his predicament and went out of their way to make sure he was included and connected. From the time he came home Friday morning(on the bus schlepping his backpack full of dirty laundry) to the time he left home Sunday morning to return, his cell phone was continually going off with texts saying “Shabbat Shalom!” as well as Hebrew music videos and pop-culture clips and the latest news from the gang. I knew he was struggling at first, and there were several times when he thought about quitting, but his stubborn side took over and Max stuck with the program. At the end of the three months, something just clicked. He was becoming more fluent and making friends. We would invite kids from around the country to spend the weekend with us, and Max started visiting friends in Modi’in, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. He developed a confidence, and we a trust, as we let him travel the country by bus by himself. The program emphasized responsibility and teamwork. And we saw in him a new maturity and independence.
Halfway through the Mechina, the program changed a bit. It started with a navigation course,followed by a weeklong “Sea to Sea” hike which was done in small groups using only maps and compasses. The kids hiked from the Mediterranean to the Galilee, camping in the open at designated checkpoints, cooking their own food, and finding their own way. Because his was a track that centered on foreign relations, policy, and politics, they took a weeklong trip into Judea and Samaria – the West Bank. It was very highly supervised and they had intense security all along the way, but what a lifetime opportunity!!! They were able to visit Jewish settlements, Palestinian villages, both Muslim and Christian, and talk with the people who lived there about the most pressing issues. Each night they heard talks from community leaders and specialists in diplomacy and security. They learned the full picture from all sides.
Highlights of Max’s Mechina year included a tour of Knesset and talks with leading political figures. He had the opportunity to meet with the nation’s top religious leaders, Jewish, Christian & Muslim and tour the sites that were holy to all three religions. Certified by the Israeli Ministry of Education, one of the goals of this program is to bridge the widening gaps in Israeli society and provide a unique learning experience. The youth are taught in seminars and small groups by some of the top leaders in government, business, athletics, army, and religion.
It’s not all work, however. There are lots of fun times, parties, and cultural events. They watched movies, saw stage plays, and had dances. Several times the kids at Max’s mechina were invited to other mechinot for the Shabbat weekend. A few times, they were the host to other groups. Everything from the housing arrangements, transportation, food, and activities was planned by the youth themselves. They went as a group to run in the Jerusalem marathon, each participant getting a lovely bronze medallion on completion. The activities were so varied – and so interesting.
The year culminated in a huge two and a half week field trip all planned by the kids. It was a complete tour of Israel from South to North. Each group of young adults from the different regions designed a program with hikes, speakers, and activities specifically put together to give an introductory tour of their part of the country. They went snorkeling in Eilat, took camel rides through the Negev desert; visited Bedouin camps near BeerSheva; toured Start-Ups and high tech businesses in Tel Aviv; visited maritime and immigrant museums in Haifa and went kayaking down the Jordan/ Kinneret/Galilee as part of this grand adventure. The last day was initiated by a sunrise hike up Mount Hermon in the Golan and a study of the Israeli border with Lebanon and Syria. After that, a long bus ride to Jerusalem was followed by a “white night” (where the kids stay up all night) meeting with all the other Israeli Mechinot. In their final ceremony or teckess, they all gathered at the Western Wall to sing Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem. It was one of the most moving experiences according to many of the people I talked with who were in attendance.
On several occasions, the parents were invited to some of the “camp” productions, and of course, graduation ceremony. By that time strong bonds had been formed between the leaders, and the kids – and great friendships made. Rarely in the States, did I see guys hugging each other affectionately in true brotherhood. So these tough dudes all had sensitive sides! Nir, the head of Mechinah HaEmek told the graduating group to think of the camp as a second family To always be there for each other throughout life. to nurture the connections made. Mechinah HaEmek was always to be home to the group whenever they wanted to return, and that if anyone ever needed help of any kind, to get in touch with the staff there and with each other. It was all pretty amazing – very deeply touching. The kids, their parents, and the staff were all in tears as the hugged each other, told their army plans, and promised to keep the group going.
They all knew that they could also visit the homes of the other families wherever they were stationed, whether for a hot meal, a shower, laundry services, just to talk, or just to chill. I certainly hope to see many of these soldiers-to-be in our home, as I know Max will be taken in by the other families. The genuine love and support of this group was something we had never quite experienced before. If these Mechina kids are the youth to lead Israel into the future, I think we will be in pretty good hands. Thank you Udi, Miri, Nir, and all the leaders for the effort you put into making this program the success it was!!! And thank you, Efrat, for the recommendation. It was ‘magnif!!!!’
Addendum: my husband and I were pretty amused at the performance the guys and girls put on for the families as part of their graduation. Lots of serious songs, poetry readings, and speeches, but then there was this…. just gotta laugh!!