It is virtually impossible to have a conversation about Israel without uttering a critical comment. Any person who has some connection to the land, and even those who do not in some cases, could spend hours complaining about all the things that are going wrong.
I certainly have my fair share of critique of what is problematic in the Holy Land. However, although what is happening in Israel might be a reason for a lot of (justified) concern, in this article I want to focus on something that Israel seems to be exceptionally good at: gap-years.
It is incredible how many different people in a variety of situations are in a gap year in Israel. Maybe I am a bit biased in this observation, being in the final days of a 12 month long gap period in Jerusalem myself. In any case, this situation and the community of young people on a gap year around me have made me interested in the different kinds of gap years in Israel.
For this article, I have interviewed more than a dozen participants, directors and other people affiliated with an organization that provides the opportunity to spend a considerable period of one’s life between high-school and university outside of education. In these interviews but also in casual conversations and from my own experience, I have gotten to know the dynamics of the gap year experience.
The focus of my research has particularly been on firstly, the mechina (Hebrew for ‘preparation’), which are designed to be ahead of the army and secondly, gap years for Jews from abroad. For the sake of completion however, I want to briefly mention the other possibilities of having some time off, or rather having some time on in Israel.
Not only Jews are coming from abroad to Israel. I myself am a case in point. Among others, there are several Christian organizations, particularly in Jerusalem, which allow high-school graduates to volunteer for them. That might be in all kinds of positions and is by and large not be connected to any mandatory religious activities. In most countries this is completely optional, however in my case, having served at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem, is a substitute to military service in Austria.
For the Israelis living in Israel there are also many more possibilities than joining a mechina. The yeshiva, where Jewish texts are read and interpreted as well as the medrasha (seminary), which is for women, is one very common other option after high-school. Some of these institutions also offer secular variations of yeshiva or medrasha, where one can study Judaism as a philosophy and tradition.
There is also the possibility to do a shnat sherut (social service) and volunteer for a social cause and working in the health or educational sector. This is done in addition and ahead of the army. It should not be confused with sherut leumi (national service), which is a regular substitute for the army and it has the same idea of serving Israel through social work. The national service is very popular among orthodox women, who are conscripted but do not serve in the army per se.
Besides these formal possibilities there are many popular informal arrangements of spending some time as a Jew abroad. It is very common for example for Israelis, who have finished their military service to go abroad for several months. Usually they will go to the East and spend some time in India, where there are already some well-established hotspots for such trips.
Eventually of course there is also the (in)famous Israeli army itself, which would by the standards of most societies also count as a gap-year or rather gap period. Israelis are generally conscripted for three years of service while currently the women still serve (considerably) less than that. There are however many soldiers, who will stay in the Israeli Defense Forces longer to become officers or because they have been specially trained, which required them to sign an extension of their time of duty.
Although it is mandatory to serve in the IDF only about half of the young population of Israel actually do so, which is mainly due to two reasons. On the one hand, someone who is enrolled in a yeshiva is exempt from conscription, which means that the ultraorthodox population of Israel is not serving in the army – around a third of the young people. On the other hand, Israeli Arabs, which make up about twenty percent of the population, are overall also exempt from conscription.
For those serving in the army however there is one special program exactly tailored to make the most out of their time their: mechinot.
Mechina – Pre-Army Program for Israelis
A mechina is a program, which is specifically dedicated to be in between high-school and joining the army. Historically, the first mechinot was founded 1988 and was among others intended to prepare religious Jews for contact and life with secular people in the army. After the assassination of Rabin in 1995 the first secular and mixed mechinot have been created. There exist several dozens of such programs today, which are however very modest in size, averaging sixty people.
Given this history it is obvious that there is a variety of different mechinot. One can overall distinguish them on the basis of politics and worldview, and also if they are secular, religious or somewhere in between. Each particular ideology will be noticeable in the program. Finally, usually even similar mechinot have a different and often unique focus.
Even though there is this variety between the mechinot, their programs all tend to have the following aspects in common:
- specific army preparation
- program specific activities
Although these are the frames for the activities that they share, the actual content might vary again.
The studying part is usually concerned with Israeli society and/or Judaism. The idea is that students understand the rich context in which they are living. Depending on the mechina these aspects will be treated differently. For example, there are mechinot who offer an abbreviated secular yeshiva.
In general, the studying part is very broad and in fact can also be shaped by the interests of the students. In some mechinot the students can invite their own lecturers and the counselors are relatively free in responding to the students’ interests in the topics that they want to address. Feminism has been mentioned in many interviews as a topic that has been introduced recently in many programs at the request of the students.
It might seem like a somewhat chaotic process but the students love it and contrast it with their experience of learning in school. An important feature is that nobody is keeping the students there. They are there out of their own free will as there are no tests or mandatory attendance. The topics themselves are compelling enough to draw the students in and after all they have chosen them out of their free will.
The preparation for the army also includes physical training to make the participants fit for the straining military lifestyle. But it goes way beyond that for in many ways the military culture is implicit in the program. Life in terms of the circumstances as well as in terms of the culture in a mechina is meant to simulate what it will be like in the army itself.
The main difference is that the members of the group are seemingly destined to be future officers. The army preparation in this way is very concerned with leadership training and there is certainly a push into this direction on the side of the program coordinators, which is in general also answered by an eager pull by particpants.
One way in which that manifest itself is that self-organization is a very common theme in the mechinot. Every participant will be assigned a certain position of responsibility in the program and is asked to perform certain tasks for the group. It is also generally encouraged to come up with new initiatives by oneself.
A considerable part of the program is spent volunteering for a social cause. One of the intentions of including this into the program is to actually have a hands on experiences of being socially involved and not simply be talking about it all the time. The volunteering part is very individual again, however a common activity, especially among the more leftist mechinot, seems to be taking care of elderly Bedouin Arabs.
The trips to various parts of the country is one more thing that they all share. The mechina will usually bring participants from all places of the country together to a certain location such as a kibbutz. From there several excursions are organized to strengthen the community spirit and in order to appreciate their country in a hands on manner.
Trips that focus on the former include hiking trips, trips that focus on the latter will lead them to Jerusalem. Another common educational trip, especially among the secular mechinot, is a tour through Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank or Palestine that lasts a week. Overall this will be the only time when they are directly engaged with Palestine, even in secular mechinot. After all, Palestinians are unlike Israeli Arabs not considered part of Israeli society and therefore not subject to be studied in this context.
What most of these trips have in common is that they are organized with Israeli organizations in the region and there is little contact with the actual Arab population. A meeting with human rights organizations such as Breaking the Silence is a common feature, another is talking to the settler community in Hebron.
Besides the trips there are also several other planned activities, which are part of the formal program. There are administrative meetings such as weekly gatherings to discuss the following days, in which the participants will be reminded how far they are already into the program. Besides that they there will be designated occasions for group reflection in a formal setting.
A very remarkable feature is also that some mechinot will have one-on-one talks with the participants. Among others they set the intention and some goals at the beginning of the year and check whether these goals are actually followed or need to be altered halfway through and at the end if they have been achieved.
Mechinot are generally considered to be very thoughtful and stand in high-regard in Israeli society. There are largely two reasons for setting up and supporting such a program by the institutions. On the one hand, there is the very practical aspect of fostering more responsible and capable soldiers, which might take on leadership positions. On the other hand, such a program also makes for better (though not necessarily more obedient) citizens.
On an individual level, one interviewee reported that his mechina did a good job at helping him to address the question of ‘who am I’. In these and other ways, mechinot account for purposefully supporting the development of better and more wholesome human beings – as I can subjectively attest to from my interviews.
Gap-Years for Non-Israeli Jews
The other very broad and common gap year in Israel is for Jewish high school-graduates from abroad. Although there are programs who emphasize that their participants come from many different countries, the vast majority of Jewish students are from America. Much like the mechinot are preparing its participants for the army, these gap years are specifically seen as a time in between high-school and college.
What sets these gap years apart from other gap years is that they are specifically for Jews coming to Israel. After having grown up outside of Israel and ahead of entering college they come to Israel to connect to their roots and find their Jewish identity. Coming to Israel as a Jew has often been described as a spiritual experience, even if one is strictly secular.
This is certainly what all these organizations are aware of and actively cater towards. The Jewish students are in general eager to get an understanding of what Israel really is and what is so peculiar about Judaism. The organizations are in various degrees trying to provide just that: a positive, but not naive, experience of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be a Jew in Israel.
In the case of the America-centric programs that means that they are very aware of American college culture. On a practical level that means that the programs are mindful that the gap year for example enables them to find a more mature approach to drinking, which is legal by the age of 18 in Israel. However, what the programs and also the educational institutions are more concerned about is that the students can make more of the time that they spend in higher learning.
There is the notion that the time of college in America is the time to find yourself and set out for life. In this way freshman years are stylized as rites of passage and the campus as a place for binge drinking parties. If academics is something that is not nearly taken full advantage off, one might wonder whether the money might not be better spent somewhere else than for the expensive tuition.
Now, the gap year programs, especially the high-quality ones are very expensive in their own right. And it is slightly paradoxical that taking on even more expenses should actually yield a more efficient use of one’s resources for education. However, time and time again students who have taken gap years demonstrate the ability to make disproportionately more out of their expensive time at college. Even the Ivy League actively encourages students to go on gap years. After all, even the best and the brightest can benefit hugely from being more mature.
When one gets to the details, the specifics of the programs vary widely, however it is possible to find some common features. Most of the programs include the following:
- Ulpan (Hebrew course)
- trips and lectures
These features are all in place to give students the possibility to get a first hand experience of what it means to be a Jew in Israel. Beyond that however, the different programs might have a very different emphasis. In the following are the organizations that I have interviewed:
– Aardvark has been founded seven years ago and it’s biggest strength is the extreme extent to which the students can individualize the program. The international student body can add to a core of mandatory activities a vast array, which are optional. This is only possible through another special feature of Aardvark: the very low staff to student ratio.
– Big Idea, which has been previously mainly offered summer programs, has just finished its first year of their gap year program. Their international program is focused on letting participants experience and actually identify with Israel as the Start-Up Nation. For that reason, they are also located in the emerging city of Beer-Sheva and are in their five months program pursuing a professional training in high-tech.
– Kivunim, which is in its eleventh year after its foundation by the educator Peter Geffen, is very anxious to show the students to the complexity of Israel and Judaism. They purposefully want to let students form their own opinions and expose them to many different environments and perspectives. Among others, Kivunim tries to accomplish ths goal through their four big trips abroad, which the program is famous for.
– Nativ is the flagship program for the conservative Jews in America. It has been running various activities for thirty-five years and maintains partnerships with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and offers yeshiva courses. They are very proud of fostering the Jewish identity of their participants and letting its students make better “informed Jewish decisions”.
In all of these programs the concern for the participants and their commitment to let this be an intense and meaningful is obvious. Although there is sometimes a strong difference between where these programs set their focus, all the above mentioned programs were eager to provide a year for the students for them to learn, grow and strengthen their Jewish identity.
Quality of Programs
In many of the interviews with the American gap years there was mention of a struggle for a better balance between letting students take over more responsibility for themselves and not let everything be organized for them. In some ways this is complaining on a high-level however, as it attests to the thoughtfulness and intensity of program.
It has to be mentioned however, that in many other settings however, it is quite the opposite. Participants of some programs in Israel might end up having nothing better to do than cooking poor meals for a year, doing meaningless and boring volunteer-work and maybe get drunk every now and then.
Especially the practice of volunteering is in many gap year programs simply a waste of time. Due to the language barrier and other reasons helping in a home for the Bedouin elderly was not a very helpful experience for one mechina participant. In another case, a participant of a shnat sherut, where she helped struggling children in school, even stopped the program prematurely.
In assessing the impact of these programs, it is important to remember that the usual age for a gap year, around eighteen, is a period of change anyways. It is therefore little surprising that young people should go through a considerable change process even if these programs were of not very good quality. After all they are still in a new setting with new people and maybe even a different culture, which always requires adaptation and is all regardless of the quality of the program itself.
In contrast, one point of criticism of the high-quality gap-years might be that they are very exclusive. For the Jewish American gap years the cost is the most obvious hurdle. Even though the programs are (minimally) subsidized by the Israeli government through an intermediary organization called Masa Israel (journey to Israel), the expenses still amount to high five figure numbers. A gap year is still a considerable investment for a Jewish American family. It must not be forgotten that these are expenses on top of college fees and tuition.
For the mechinot the problem lies more with the available places for young people interested to do a mechina. The fees vary from mechina to mechina but overall with half of the expenses covered by the Ministry of Defense and Education and scholarships are available for those, who cannot afford these reduced costs. Thus, the financial hurdle is much less of a problem in the case of the mechinot.
However, because of the small number of programs and the small group sizesthere are far fewer available places than there are students willing to do a mechina. The acceptance rates of such programs are therefore not uncommon to approach those of elite universities.
The Essence of Gap Years
What makes gap years so interesting for me is the intense personal development that is going on there. In the best programs this development is almost tangible as it is happening and is very apparent to others when returning to one’s earlier environment. In some way a gap year marks the start of one’s life and more specifically the start of a life that most likely would not have been like this without the gap year. But what makes gap years so meaningful?
There are features that all gap years have in common, which I would call the groundbed of personal development. These might be summarized in the following way:
- it is a new environment and new activities, one is shaken out of one’s comfort zone and begins something new
- there is a social group, of probably more, like-minded people who encourage one and share one’s path of development
- when starting a gap year, one is expecting to learn something and to grow, which is self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts
In terms of personal development, how fruitful a gap year has proven to one depends mainly on how consciously one has gone through the experience. Through awareness and reflection it is possible to find out many new things and integrate these findings. This can be done in a formal way as mentioned in the mechinot or in a personal one. The simple process of digesting one’s experiences once in a while can make a profound difference.
However, overall in this personal-development environment it is often dangerous to assume that the effects of a certain period, such as the gap year, have to be present immediately. There might very well be a late-blossoming of appreciation and insight. In hindsight most everybody acknowledges the gap year as a period of growth or even transformation that has been very meaningful to them.
Lastly, it is beautiful to see how the gap year environment is saturated with growth in every aspect. Of course there are the participants who throughout their time in their program. However, also the educators are developing personally and so is the entire program and organization. In this way, gap years might very well be self-developing organizations that are geared towards the growth of all entities.
All in all, gap years in Israel provide the space for an astounding amount of growth and are responsible for a lot of good developments in society as well as in the individuals that are in contact with this program overall.
What is very praiseworthy in my eyes about Israel is that there really is an acceptance to take longer for one’s studies and one’s development. Here one does not have to be finished and set for life by the age of 18 or even before that. The new vantage point that is acquired through this additional time for maturation has certainly contributed to the resilience and innovation of the country.
Concluding on a personal note, it has been beautiful to see the personal-growth that I have myself gone through in this year in Jerusalem. I will certainly remember it as an extremely impactful time in my life.