How Israel’s Pre-army Gap Year Programs Became a Big Hit Among American Jews

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Yoav Persitz, Keren Binderman and Ella Rosenfeld, American participants at the Nachshon mechina program at Kibbutz Shoval.
Yoav Persitz, Keren Binderman and Ella Rosenfeld, American participants at the Nachshon mechina program at Kibbutz Shoval.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Yoav Persitz had just completed three intense days of hiking through the Judean desert with a heavy pack on his back. At night, forbidden from bringing a tent along, he slept in the sand right under the stars.

“These are things you don’t experience in America,” says the 18-year-old, who hails from Tenafly, New Jersey. “I’m out of my comfort zone here, but you know what? It’s been a good thing. I like being physically challenged like this.”

Persitz is one of eight American high school graduates participating in this year’s pre-military gap year program at Kibbutz Shoval in southern Israel. Unlike the nearly 60 Israeli participants in the Nachshon mechina, as such programs are called in Hebrew, Persitz is under no obligation to enlist in the army at the end of the year. Should he wish, he could go back to the United States and begin his studies at Rutgers University, where he has already been accepted.

For Jewish high school graduates seeking time off before heading to college, gap year programs in Israel have always been a popular option, especially those run by the big Zionist movements and major Jewish denominations. But while these programs may be a great way to see Israel, as their alumni can attest, they aren’t necessarily the best way to meet Israelis. That’s because Israelis don’t participate in them.

Yoav Persitz: 'I'm out of my comfort zone here, but you know what? It's been a good thing"Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

With a growing number of mechina programs starting to accept applications from high school graduates outside the country, spending a gap year in Israel under one roof with native Israelis has finally become an option. And many are jumping at it.

According to Dani Zamir, CEO of the Joint Council of Mechinot, which runs a network of nearly 60 pre-military gap year programs in Israel, until about five years ago, there were hardly a dozen “chulnikim” – the term used for participants who come from abroad, with “chul” being a Hebrew acronym for “outside of Israel” – enrolled. This year, there are 160, and Zamir projects that within a few years, the number participating in this special track, known as “Yachad” (the Hebrew word for “together”), will top 500.

“We are definitely not about encouraging these kids to volunteer for the Israeli army,” says Zamir. “We want them to go back to college. In fact, we think it’s a good thing that they go back and eventually become our ambassadors.”

While the initial motivation for opening the mechinot to young Jews from abroad was to provide them with what Zamir describes as the “ultimate Israel immersion experience,” thought was also given to how the Israeli participants might benefit. “Most young Israelis couldn’t care less about what happens in the Diaspora,” says Zamir. “But when they have a kid from America in their room with them for an entire year, that changes things. It is the first exposure for many of them to what life in the Diaspora is like. And trust me, the friendships that are created in these rooms last beyond just one year.”

The Nachshon mechina program at Kibbutz Shoval.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Rising popularity

Until a few decades ago, almost without exception, young Israelis began their compulsory military service straight out of high school. But like their peers abroad, Israelis, too, began discovering the benefits of taking a gap year after graduation. In certain circles in Israel, in fact, it has become almost de reguier. Indeed, if not for the growing popularity and rising number of mechina programs in Israel from year to year, the option of a true “Israeli immersion” experience might never have been open to Diaspora Jews.

When the first mechinot were established about 30 years ago, their primary purpose was to help prepare young Israelis for meaningful service in the army. That is still key to their agenda, but as they evolved, they came to embrace other missions with broader appeal, such as leadership building, group living and volunteering.

For many years, the only gap year option available to Israelis was the shnat sherut (service year), which involves volunteer work and communal living, usually under the supervision of a youth movement. In recent years, however, the mechinot, which are somewhat more regimented, have started to overtake them in popularity.

The first mechinot, set up about 30 years ago, were religious and catered exclusively to young men. Today, the majority are secular or pluralistic and accept both young men and women. Most are located in kibbutzim and moshavim, providing an opportunity for participants to engage in agriculture, but a few can be found in urban settings as well. While each mechina has its own specific focus, they strive to provide participants with a deeper understanding of Israeli society, both through classroom activities and trips around the country. Participants live in close quarters, often six-to-eight per bungalow, and they are frequently in charge of preparing their own meals. As part of their preparation for the army, they go through intense physical training and learn survival skills.

Facilities at the Nachson mechina program at Kibbutz Shoval.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Fifteen mechinot currently accept gap-year participants from abroad, with close to 90 percent of the “chulnikim” coming from North America, primarily the United States. Because basic Hebrew is required for admission, says Zamir, most applicants have at least one Israeli parent.

Persitz, who falls into this category, attended public school in New Jersey. He says he heard about the mechina program through friends who were active in the Israeli scouts movement, which is very popular among children of Israeli expats in the United States. “The mechinot have become extremely popular in the past five years,” he says.

Another reason the program appealed to him, says Persitz, was that it gave him time to make a better-informed decision about whether to join the Israeli army or go back to the United States and study at Rutgers. “Going straight into the army would have been difficult,” he says. “I feel that I need to be more ready for something like that, and I hope that after doing this program, I’ll have a better idea of whether I am.”

Keren Binderman, from Crestkill, New Jersey, is spending the year at the Kibbutz Shoval branch of Nachshon, while her twin brother Dan is at the more centrally located Kibbutz Galon branch of the same mechina. The children of Israelis, they moved to the United States when they were three. Explaining why she chose a mechina program, Binderman says: “I wanted to do a gap year in Israel, but I wanted something different – not a total classroom experience, but at the same time, not just hanging out at the beach.”

Already accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, Binderman says she is still debating whether to go back to the United States when the program ends. “Joining the army has always been something in the back of my mind, but now more than ever.”

According to Zamir, most of the “chulnikim” do ultimately go back.

Ella Rosenfeld, of Sunnyvale, California, says she liked the idea of getting out of what she describes as her “Silicon Valley bubble” where “everyone thinks the same.” This particular mechina appealed to her, she says, because of its emphasis on hiking and outdoor activities.

Ella Rosenfeld, right, says she wanted to get out of her 'Silicon Valley bubble where everyone thinks the same.'Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

‘Interesting and intense’

The option of spending a gap-year at an Israeli mechina is not limited to Hebrew-speakers. The Jewish Agency admits Diaspora Jews to mechinot it sponsors at eight locations around the country. Known as Kol Ami, this special track is run entirely in English, which means that the Israelis who participate must be fluent. The breakdown between Israelis and non-Israelis is also more equal at these programs, with “chulnikim” accounting for close to half the participants. In addition, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem runs its own gap year program for both Israelis and North Americans, known as Hevruta.

For Israelis, these programs are quite affordable, with the government subsidizing about 75 percent of the costs. The participants from abroad – at least those who treat it as a proper gap-year program and do not commit to joining the army – are not eligible for government funding and are required to pay the full price, which can range from $11,000 to $13,000 for the entire program. Zamir insists that the mechinot do not profit by accepting “chulnikim.” “We barely cover our costs,” he says.

Shimon El Ami (better known as “Shimku”) served for eight years as director of the Telem mechina, run by the Reform movement in Israel, before his recent retirement. Its two urban campuses, one in Holon and one in Jaffa, began accepting “chulnikim” from the start of his tenure, and the numbers have been growing ever since. “It’s mainly word of mouth,” he says. “Some of these kids have friends in Israel, or their parents have friends in Israel, and that’s how they hear about it. The idea of being able to spend 24/7 with Israelis is what really appeals to them.”

Yehonatan Mileguir, who hails from Newton, Massachusetts, is spending the year at the Telem campus in Holon. A child of Israelis, he moved to the United States when he was four and says that one of his reasons for choosing a mechina program was to improve his Hebrew.

But that wasn’t the main reason. Mileguir had been accepted to Georgia Tech and was debating whether to take a gap year when he finally made his decision in May, right after the latest bout of fighting between Israel and Gaza. “I went to this very progressive high school, where people were posting blatantly false things about Israel, and I felt like I was being constantly attacked,” he says. “And it’s not like I was this insane Zionist who felt Israel could do no wrong. But they weren’t prepared to listen to anything I said. Knowing that when I went to college it would only get worse, I figured this would be a good time to take a year off, be with Israelis and learn more about who we are.”

The entrance to Kibbutz Shoval.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Mileguir says he is definitely planning to begin his studies at Georgia Tech next year. “I don’t think the Israeli military is the right thing for me,” he says.

Maya Wegier, who is spending the year at the Telem campus in Jaffa, grew up in London. Her parents, who are from England and Chile, met in Israel, and she first heard about the mechina program through their Israeli friends.

“I didn’t want to go to university right away, and this sounded like an interesting option,” she says. The emphasis on volunteering, which she says has always been a big focus in her life, and the location of this particular mechina appealed to her.

Wegier hasn’t decided yet whether she will return to London at the end of the year to pursue her undergraduate degree, but she says “that is the direction in which I’m leaning.” Meanwhile, she says, it’s been “interesting and intense” living in such close quarters with 55 other “mechinistim,” as they are known. “I’m not used to being around that many people,” she says.

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