Hamechina - Jaffa

Educators in countries without compulsory military service often ask me, “How can we create a stronger connection between youth and community? How can we teach them responsibility and accountability?” They assume in Israel, the compulsory military service inspires these characteristics. I don’t adhere to this assumption. And I definitely do not recommend compulsory military service unless it’s really necessary. Actually, I believe other Israeli frameworks that target positive causes enable these characteristics and can serve as models to replicate. They do however come with a price: postponing life for a year. But is it a price, or is it actually a prize?

Mechina: Preparatory Year.

Mechina is a preparatory year that youth can join before commencing their military service. So rather than enlisting in the military, 18 year-olds can choose to postpone their service by one year, and leverage it toward meaningful intervention in Israeli society. Its purpose is to prepare chanichim (meaning apprentices) for meaningful military service, while instilling the values of social involvement and good citizenship. In practice, Mechina serves as a year of informal study (with subjects including philosophy, psychology, history, literature, political science, and more), volunteering, exploring Israel, and living in a closed commune-style group of approximately 20 chanichim. There are many Mechinot throughout Israel but they each focus on the same three pillars: study, volunteering and community life. Sounds rudimentary? You’d be surprised how stimulating it is:

  • Study: the purpose of Mechina studies is not academic achievement. There are no exams or papers to submit, no homework or deadlines. Instead, the study component aims to enrich chanichim, broaden their horizons, instill an awareness of one’s community, society, and environment, fostered via interactive seminars exploring an array of topics including Judaism, Zionism, Israeli society and its challenges, philosophy, psychology, economy, and much more.
  • Volunteering: Mechinot encourage their chanichim to volunteer and facilitate a variety of options. Most volunteering is undertaken within underprivileged population centers and includes personal guidance, organizing and implementing extra-curricular activities, delivering private lessons, taking on positions in community centers, and more.
  • Community Life: Living in groups is dynamic and meaningful. Every year, individual groups determine their characteristics and direction. The chanichim govern their daily routines from what they eat for breakfast to who will clean the toilets, the content guiding their studies and volunteer work, etc.

In essence, Mechina serves as a bridge between childhood and adulthood; between school and military service. Youth leave their family homes for the first time and move in with 20 other people their own age, to manage every aspect of their lives. They learn to take care of themselves, get along with their peers, and most of all, become independent human beings. What they acquire from Mechina is completely up to them. They can make maximize or gain nothing; whatever happens, they did it independently.

Shnat Sherut: Year of Service.

Shnat sherut is a voluntary service program for Israeli high-school graduates who defer their military service for one year to work in a variety of community programs and organizations. Programs are based in developing towns and disadvantaged communities, institutions for the disabled and the elderly, residential schools for youth at risk, youth movements, nature/ecological organizations, and many other civic organizations and projects. Shnot sherut operate in various places and various sectors of society, and are sponsored by beneficiary agencies as well as the Ministry of Education, which provide youth with room, board, and monthly pocket money. As numbers for postponing military service are necessarily limited, these programs (and Mechinot) are prestigious, competitive and selective. These volunteer positions are so desired, young people compete for the opportunity. Beyond their 2-3 years of compulsory military service, these 18-year-olds willingly add a year to volunteer for in an unpaid civic service framework. Shnat sherut provides its participants first-hand insight into worlds most of them don’t know exist. Living in a collective in the heart of disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns, these youth encounter poverty, prostitution, lack of education and neglect. It’s life as they’ve never seen it before, which they must now confront, cope with and contribute to, if they can.

Both within Mechina and Shnat sherut, there is a network of mentors, social workers and other adults that support the group throughout the year, placing them in the perfect transitional framework. On the one hand, they’re expected to take on responsibilities and become independent; on the other, they’re offered as much support as they need – from the web of adult companions to their peers, with whom they share their lives for a year. They are ideally located somewhere between their childhood (their own and their peers) and the adult world; they have the year to decipher their place in each category. With access to both the adult and the child worlds, the youth experiment with authority, compliance and serving as their own source. With proper adult guidance – supportive yet not authoritative – these youngsters are motivated to adopt both the social norms of adulthood and more responsibilities. The platform serves as the perfect balance for freedom to experiment under supervision.

So should we encourage our kids to postpone life?

Compulsory military service means Israelis start life (i.e. university, work, family) 2-3 years later than the rest of the Western world…instead of going to university at 18 they only begin at 22, shortening their working years from 50 to 47. A common excuse to avoid Mechina or Shnat sherut is that of “postponing” life for yet another year seems perpostorous. In a world where being young and relevant is a key to success, why should they postpone their lives even more?

The decision to volunteer and the choice of sector for any Shnat sherut and Mechina is determined by the individual. Stepping outside the closed perimeters of supportive family environments, for the first time in their lives, these youth make their first truly autonomous decision; they choose if and where they want to spend the next year of their lives – more so than compulsory military service. Until this point, they have been part of educational frameworks which have governed their lives for 12 years, 5-6 days a week, hours upon hours each day. School is the only institution they know and lived throughout their childhood. In most Western countries, turning 18 simply means joining yet another educational institution, university or college. The similarities between university or college and school are as prominent as they are different. But ultimately, it’s another framework that guides their focus and evaluates their behavior, fairly leans on the freedom to explore and make mistakes.

Now consider Shnat sherut, a year where youth live independently of adult supervision, in groups of approximately a dozen members aged 18, and volunteer as an individual or a group, in any sector of society they find important. Fulfilling the roles of responsible adult, supportive friend, role model, and more, Shnat sherut allows youth to engage and trial various social roles. They are given an opportunity to show initiative and social responsibility, under loose supervision. This means if they fail, it’s their failure, and if they succeed, it’s their success. This is their first real encounter with ownership.

Meaningful volunteering in informal frameworks provides youth with a gradual, yet efficient transition from adolescence to adulthood, requires them to demonstrate a variety of skills: organizational abilities, social initiatives, development of meaningful relationships with their peers and those younger and older, team management and leadership and an intellectual ability to deal with theoretical and ideological issues. Moreover, the social location of their shnat sherut, whether it be a community center for youth at risk, nursing home or hospice, forces these youth to face difficult questions and challenges. Coping with and overcoming these problems generally provide them with a satisfying sense of success. Even if they can’t see great social change, their participation in the process is tremendous.

I am often asked: “How can we create a stronger connection between youth and communities?” or “How can we teach them responsibility and accountability?” In my opinion, the answer lies in these special frameworks, which guide our children toward social, political and environmental awareness, with clear potential to influence and contribute to the lives of others. Many youth, particularly those lucky to enjoy a privileged childhood, grow up with a sense that very little is demanded from them, beyond succeeding at school. The existence, of frameworks which encourage social responsibility indicates that in Israel, youth are not perceived as adults in the making, but are perceived as peers, who at the ripe age of 18 have the responsibilities of any other man and woman in their 40s. The bottom line is that youth are seen as a necessary part of society. Society is theirs today, not 5 years from now – and it’s theirs to improve or impair.

Should we encourage youth to postpone their lives for another year? There really is no correct answer. On the one hand, it’s true that postponing university and job-seeking for 4-5 years is significant (referring to the years of compulsory military service). Even 1 year is a long time to be out of the game. But then again, isn’t going to university at 18 actually postponing life? Aren’t the challenges, questions, human encounters, self-exploring aspects of life just actually walking the line not actual real life, but a prerequisite to life? Is learning a profession at the age of 18, before knowing one’s society or even oneself, more beneficial than doing so a few years later, after living through a challenging, wonderful, sometimes excruciating experience? These are questions that close to 10,000 Israeli youth have answered. Giving youth responsibilities, a sense of community and drive can develop them into essential members of society with a real sense of civic duty and motivation to improve life around them.