BEIT ZERA – In the all-purpose room that serves the gap-year program located on this northern Israel kibbutz, just a few relics remain of the big holiday bash held here several weeks ago: a cut-out of Santa Claus taped onto one window and a cut-out of a dreidel on another.
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“If you want a better idea of what this place looked like then, get a load of this,” says a young woman with a head of blonde curls as she whips out her smartphone to play a video. It features a bunch of young people dancing wildly to loud music, a large brightly lit Christmas tree in one corner of the room and a Hanukkah menorah in another. “We called it our ‘Hanuchristmas’ party,” she explains.
By now, the space has been repurposed into a classroom and the young men and women are taking a break between morning lectures. Today’s subject, Christian identity in Israel, is being taught by Shadi Halul, a former lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces’ Paratroopers Brigade and director of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association.
Halul is the driving force behind this new, first-of-its-kind premilitary program that recruits both Jewish and Christian Israelis.
Over the past 15 years, programs of this type (known in Hebrew as “mechinas”) have become a rite of passage for many young Israelis graduating from high school. Originally set up to serve young religious men, they have gained more widespread appeal over the years. Today, there are even premilitary programs catering to the Druze and Bedouin communities, where volunteering for the army is commonplace.
The original goal of these programs, which are subsidized by the government, was to prepare participants for leadership roles in the army. Now, though, they have come to embrace broader educational objectives. In addition to physical training and survival skills, premilitary programs offer classes in a wide array of subjects, meetings with political leaders and social activists, volunteer opportunities in disadvantaged communities and educational trips around the country.
All participants must commit to serve in the Israeli army after completing the program. For most Jewish Israelis, military service is compulsory, so this requirement is not a hindrance. For non-Jews, though, military service is voluntary.
Halul has emerged as a leading activist in recent years in a movement that encourages Christian Israelis to volunteer for the army, believing that military experience is key to integrating into Israeli society.
The idea of setting up a premilitary, gap-year program for Christian Israelis first occurred to him about 10 years ago when he visited an old army buddy who was running a mechina.
“I saw beautiful boys and girls bonding there and I wondered, ‘Why couldn’t there be something like this for Christian kids?’” he recounts.
Initially, he says, he envisioned a program that would exclusively serve Christians. “But eventually I came to the conclusion that it would be better to have Christians and Jews together, because that would give the Christians both an opportunity to brush up on their Hebrew before joining the army and to acquaint themselves with Jews their own age.”
As a rule, Jews and Christians in Israel attend separate schools and rarely cross paths. Indeed, many of the participants at Kinneret – the name of this premilitary program, established in the Beit Zera kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee’s southern shore – said this was the first time they had ever made friends with members of the other religion.
This inaugural group of 28 is an even split of Jews and Christians. Among the Christian participants, most identify as Aramaeans and only one as Arab. Descendants of an ancient people that originated in Syria and Upper Mesopotamia, the Aramaeans were formally recognized as a separate ethnic group by the Israeli government in 2014. Although Israelis tend to view them as part of the larger Arab minority, the Aramaeans do not regard themselves as such.
The Kinneret participants hail from around the country and include residents of Nazareth – the largest Arab city in Israel – a desert kibbutz and even a West Bank settlement.
Most of the participants within the Christian group are male, whereas most in the Jewish group are female. That could explain why many of the romances that have blossomed here in recent months – based on information the participants were more than happy to share – are interfaith.
Four months into the program, the participants act as though they have been hanging out together their entire lives. But that wasn’t always the case. As several participants recount, the initial encounter between the two groups was a bit awkward.
“For me, it was difficult to communicate with the Jewish kids because my Hebrew was not very good when we started,” says Nour Naoum, who hails from the northern Arab town of Shfaram and will be the first member of his family to serve in the Israeli army. “I wanted to enlist because I thought it would make me feel more part of this country,” he adds, his arm slung around the shoulder of his Jewish girlfriend, Yael.
Naoum is aware, though, that Christians like himself who volunteer for the army are often regarded suspiciously by Israel’s Muslim Arabs, who tend to shun military service.
Shaked David, who grew up in Hod Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, says she was very concerned about the language barrier during the program’s early days. “At the first meeting we had, everything that was said in Hebrew was immediately translated into Arabic for the benefit of the Christian participants,” she recounts. “It really slowed things down and I remember thinking to myself that I was going to die if this continued much longer.”
Her boyfriend, Pierre, also from Shfaram, speaks Hebrew much more fluently now, but still leans on her for help. “When he doesn’t understand something, I simply whisper in his ear to explain, so he doesn’t get frustrated,” she says, patting him on the shoulder.
Dana Shemesh, who comes from the village of Bat Hefer, near Netanya, says she always wanted to attend a premilitary program where she could meet people different from herself. “After all, we are not alone in this country,” she notes.
At first, she thought of applying to one of several pluralistic programs that welcome both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. “But when I heard from a friend that there was a new program opening for Jews and Christians, it sounded much more exciting to me,” she says.
For many high school seniors in Israel, the tour of premilitary programs has become the equivalent of the college campus tour in the United States. Rotem Kinori, who hails from the city of Holon, south of Tel Aviv, said he shopped around before landing on Kinneret. “When I met some of the other kids who had signed up for this program I felt an immediate click,” he explains.
Today, he shares a room with three other young men, all Christian. “We’re the best of friends now,” says Kinori. “I share all my secrets with them.”
Sure, there are occasional fights, says Yarden Danino, from Kibbutz Yotvata in southern Israel, but not about the issues that usually divide Israel’s Jews and non-Jews. “We’re more like married couples here – we fight about who’s cleaning up, who’s doing the cooking, who’s washing the dishes, things like that,” she says. “We rarely discuss politics.”
Only on two occasions each week are the participants separated into groups according to their religious affiliation. For one hour, the Christian participants attend a religious class with a local priest, while the Jewish participants study Judaism. The Christian participants also receive several lessons a week in Hebrew and, while they’re in class, the Jewish participants learn some basic Arabic. Although Hebrew is the group’s main language of communication, David says she increasingly catches herself throwing in phrases in Arabic.
“It’s gotten to the point,” she says with a smirk on her face, “that it’s a lot harder for our Christian friends here to gossip about us when we’re in earshot.”