IDF naval commandos
Naval commandos who participated in this weeks raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. Photo by IDF Spokesman's Office
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Inside the beit midrash - study hall - at the Israeli Academy for Leadership, Ein Prat, women and men sit hunched over rows of rectangular tables loaded with volumes of Talmud, Bibles and philosophy texts. The library shelves hold Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Immanuel Kant, Rabbi Yehuda Halevy and Yehuda Amichai, and here or there a Koran peeks out. Men with skullcaps and young women in tank tops sit together over the same page of Gemara.

There is one substantial aspect that sets the Ein Prat academy apart from other Jewish spiritual study programs. Despite the human diversity in the small study hall, everyone is between the ages of 22 and 28, a social stratum of "post-army, post-India, pre-university."

This is the age at which Israelis usually start college, or go to a kollel in the ultra-Orthodox community. But the students at Ein Prat are not earning academic credits, and unlike the yeshiva students, they do not receive a stipend in return for their willingness to study for 14 hours a day. They're paying for the privilege.

Most of the students are currently on summer break from undergraduate programs, or will be starting college this fall. Instead of taking a vacation, they signed up for the Elul program, 40 straight days of studies from 7:30 A.M. until the wee hours of the night, with a short lunch break in the middle.

When Ein Prat opened a program for army veterans in the Judean Desert settlement of Alon five years ago, there were seven students. The program that ended a week ago, at the end of Yom Kippur, drew 400 applicants, demand that prompted the academy to open three more branches, in the Jerusalem Forest, Jaffa and Sde Boker. Even then, only 140 students were accepted.

The main admission requirement is willingness to commit to attend for six full weeks in the blazing summer heat. Each applicant is interviewed.

The new post-army trip

Participants in the program, two-thirds of whom are from secular backgrounds, say they do not feel out of place there.

"At the end of my first year of civilian life, I flew to Thailand," says Riki Besel, 25, who studies occupational therapy at Tel Aviv University. "At the end of the second year - India. Afterward I was looking to have a more introspective experience. It comes from a person's need to understand more, to go deeper."

"We feel a bit like pioneers," says Nadav Attias, an officer who served in training posts in the army's personnel directorate and was discharged six months ago. "But it's something that is growing and is generating a lot of curiosity. In another few years there will be thousands in these kinds of programs."

The best description is offered by Adam Shahaf, a veteran of an elite army unit who is set to begin studying law and economics at the Hebrew University: "Soon this will be like the post-army trip; this is the new trip."

A majority of the students in the Ein Prat program are former officers or veterans of elite combat units and the more classified sections of Military Intelligence. Beyond the basic instinct of discharged soldiers to go far away and then come back and start life, they feel the need to delve into Judaism and philosophy - or, as most of them term it, "identity."

After the fall holidays, 60 army veterans will begin the academy's meatier course, which lasts a very busy four months. For this, too, there were twice as many applicants as spots available. Before they advance with their lives, they are prepared to take the time to sort out a few issues for themselves.

Regev Ben David, who was discharged with the rank of captain from Military Intelligence Unit 8200, and now studies psychology in the Amirim honors program at Hebrew University, says: "Six years in the army fulfills you. I felt I was serving and contributing to my people and my country, literally, on a weekly basis. And I also developed personally. I learned to command people and take on projects. What was lacking is the question: How do I explain the world to myself? What is the guiding force? What is man's role in the world?

"In the army you don't have anyone to talk to about broad philosophical questions like these, even though I served with excellent people. You get maybe four hours' sleep a night and have to prioritize your time. There are more important things than worrying about the spiritual needs of soldiers, even the philosophizing types," he says.

All the program members speak fondly of their recent military service, but also recall it as a chapter in life that awakened questions that had no answers.

"The identity questions cropped up in the army the moment I met people who were different from me geographically and religiously," says Omer, who served in an elite combat unit. "I wanted to understand their motivation, because my ambition was to achieve and excel; there was hardly any ideology involved. They were coming from another place, with a different motivation, and I keep comparing myself to them."

Omer, who grew up as a member of the Scouts in Neve Monosson, near Tel Aviv, felt "there was no time or place to answer the questions, and they still have to be addressed. A person who leads a totally different life on a kibbutz and is happy there - what is that life? Or someone who leads an Orthodox life - why do they lead that life, and does it suit me too?"

The most open-minded civilians

"People after the army are the most open-minded civilians Israel has," says the academy's director, Dr. Micah Goodman. "They went through such an intense experience that in the end you come out of there and don't fully recognize yourself. People are conservative by nature and want to preserve who they were yesterday, but after the army you don't remember who you were yesterday. They are about to embark on the academic and career track, and they don't know if they are secular or religious, what kind of human being they want to become. This is the age at which people are most open to changing, before they themselves can make a difference when they reach key positions."

Over 40 days they are bombarded with a highly concentrated diet of Biblical and Talmudic texts, a selection of philosophical and literary essays from ancient Greece through the Western classical period and up to visionaries of Zionism such as Ahad Ha'am and A.D. Gordon.

The faculty's ambition is to combine the intensive study experience of a Haredi yeshiva with the critical and skeptical approach of the academic world. They sit from morning till night in a crowded and noisy study hall. Students read the texts on their own ahead of the lectures, with a hevruta (partner ) assigned by the staff.

"They're not fools," Goodman says. "You can't indoctrinate them. The secular ones, and even more so the Orthodox among them, are strongly resistant to preaching. They're all really sensitive to that.

"But on the other hand, they come out of the army uncynical. They still have an idealistic gleam in their eyes, even if they are not naive. They don't buy into the myth that the Israel Defense Forces is the most moral army in the world, and they don't think that Israel is something it is not, but they see in it something that it could become.

"Soon they will be in career mode and they will enter an identity, a spiritual and intellectual coma for at least 20 years, until they will have exhausted their careers. Just before this spark goes out, we try to strengthen it. We also give them a social climate where there are others just like them."

"I met a lot of people from the national-religious camp," Lior Jorano says. As a training officer in reconnaissance courses, she "felt that they have the knowledge that I don't. At first it created distance, but later on the stigma passed, and after the army I wanted to make up that knowledge. Not by becoming religious, but it was important to me to fill this void that I felt was lacking in the society I grew up in."

"Today I understand that secular education in Israel is not really secular education," says Yair, also an elite-unit veteran, who grew up in Rehovot, and is set to begin a degree in social work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "I was never allowed to feel that the Bible is a universal book, but rather I was directed to think that it is a religious book, and that bred antagonism toward it."

"When I was traveling," Yair adds, "I was very interested in the philosophy of life of the people I met. In Central America it's Jesus and in India it's Buddha, and lots of times people asked me about Judaism and our historical figures and I was pretty embarrassed to say that I didn't know anything."

"Overseas you're dying to encounter some religious ceremony in every village," Ben David says. "A wedding, funeral, holiday, anything, and suddenly you realize that here in Israel we missed out on everything. Even the Jewish ritual prayer book."

The secular students, who are the majority, are comfortable being secular. "It's hard at the academy to put a finger on who is religious and who isn't," Jorano says. "This is a framework that enables you to get close without being religious; a place that lets you enter the world of Jewish books without having to get into hard-core matters of prohibitions. There is no going from one extreme to another."

"The academy is very different from the secular batei midrash," Besel says, having previously tried several Jewish study programs in Tel Aviv. "There is great value in the Orthodox-secular togetherness. And it's not Tzav Pius either [an organization devoted to reconciling disparate groups in Israeli society], but rather examining and exploring together, with both of us accepting a different viewpoint on the text.

"The same religious or halakhic [legal] text can make me form completely different conclusions. We read an excerpt from Mesilat Yesharim by the Ramchal [Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato], and I asked the Orthodox girl I was studying with what the text does for her. She said it would lead her to pray every morning, while I felt that it was pushing me to do significant non-religious work."

"It's funny that anybody would call this becoming religious," Shahaf says. "There is no hint of that, not even between the lines. It doesn't cause us to take upon ourselves the burden of the mitzvot."

There is no Holy Ark and there are no prayers in the Ein Prat beit midrash. Orthodox students can pray at the synagogue in the neighboring community.

The one time during the year when a prayer service is held at the academy is on Yom Kippur. Most of the program's alumni, who today number some 500 people, come back for the occasion, and the prayer service is led by a cantor, but also by 20 male and female prayer "leaders" in the men's section, the women's section and "the mixed section." Anyone who does not wish to pray can attend lectures and workshops held at the same time, and the academy even sets aside a room with food and drink for those who don't fast.

"I don't have a problem saying that I am 'strengthening'" - a term usually reserved for people becoming more religious - "but I connect it to society, not religion," Yair says.

"The world I had until two years ago is very materialistic, and there are aspects of the Orthodox world that speak to me because they are about values and things that go beyond matter. The secular world today is moving toward a place I connect to less. But it's not becoming religious in terms of permitted and forbidden, and it's not only Judaism. I don't see a difference between Buddha, Moses and Jesus. I am a universalist - in reading very great people in Judaism, I see the universal. I don't want to put a fence up around any religion."

Seeking isolation

The Ein Prat academy tries to maintain isolation, not only from the labels of Orthodox and secular, but also from politics and current affairs. Hence its location in the Judean Desert.

"Our only ideology is connecting to great ideas and great books, certainly not connecting to the earth," Goodman says. "In many respects, we are in the perfect location, isolated in the desert but also close to Jerusalem, which has the world's best lecturers on the subjects that matter to us. It is also really important to us to be next door to a place like Alon, because it's a mixed community, Orthodox and secular. But it is true that [being in the West Bank constitutes] a poor situation politically, because ultimately it hurts my ability to get funding, and also not all of the potential students and lecturers are willing to come here."

Academy officials are aware that if they want to grow significantly, it means moving to within the Green Line.

The faculty is diverse, with Orthodox and secular people, right-wingers and left-wingers. Micha Shalvi, formerly the principal of the Experimental School in Jerusalem, who teaches Zionist philosophy at the academy, takes his students on a tour of the separation barrier to let them relate to another experience.

"Naturally we are people with political understanding and awareness," Ben David says, "but at the academy we live in a kind of bubble. Each of us asks himself in the course of the program, Where do I fit within Israeli society and where do I want to make an impact? And there is a great deal of awareness regarding the various layers of the conflict.

"It's good that this thing isn't brought up explicitly at the academy, because things take much deeper root in me when they arise through inner self-growth," he adds. This framework generates in you an incentive to build yourself up from inside.

"It provides you with resources and shapes perceptions regarding the relationship between man, the state and the people. And it's in Plato and Aristotle and Ahad Ha'am and Pinsker, who address my attitude as an individual to the community I live in.

"These ancient texts also provide tools for understanding more modern texts. In the beit midrash there are books by [sociologists] Oz Almog and Baruch Kimmerling about contemporary Israeli society. When you learn about a classical topic, it provides a basis for understanding the texts of today," he says.