While religious pre-military academies have recently been reporting fewer 12th-graders are interested in registration for next year, their non-religious counterparts are experiencing the reverse.
The religious academies are suffering a slump due in part to the unpopularity of the IDF since disengagement, while many secular youngsters are beginning to see Torah study in a liberal environment as a challenge worthy of a year before their induction.
The smaller number of religious teenagers opting for pre-military academies, as reported Sunday in Ma'ariv, has been linked by some academy heads to the ongoing effect of last summer's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. While a number of senior national-religious rabbis called upon religious soldiers to disobey orders and take no part in evacuating the settlements, the academy heads mostly counseled their alumni, soldiers and officers in elite units, to carry out their orders. Some of those rabbis now fear that criticism of their position has made them less popular with politically-oriented youngsters.
But not all educators see such a direct connection. Some believe that the academies have had it coming.
The first academies were founded in the late 1980s, at first as a solution for religious youth who weren't prepared for the rigors of yeshiva life and therefore didn't join the Hesder program in which students combined a shortened IDF service with serious Torah learning. The academies offered a one-year program of study, specially geared toward motivating for army service. In a few years, they earned a reputation as breeding grounds for officers in elite infantry and special operations units. Thousands of gung-ho youngsters lined up to join and 15 academies sprung up around the country, eager to conquer the IDF command in God's name.
"What we're seeing now is what Max Weber called 'decline of the revolutionary charisma,'" said Micha Goodman, co-head of the Ein Prat academy. "The academies had a very clear agenda: They believed that the State of Israel was part of the process of redemption, they didn't expose their students to any other viewpoints and they subjected to them to what was in effect religious indoctrination. But once all the targets had been reached, and the academy alumni had already joined every elite unit, there wasn't any challenge anymore in being the first religious team commander in Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit]."
And once they had managed to insert themselves in every part of the military, along came disengagement and proved that the army hadn't changed. As one religious educator put it, "They founded Eli [the first academy] so there would be no evacuation and, in the end, they hadn't changed the army a bit."
"There is a growing feeling of unease in the yeshiva world," said Shilo Plesser, head of the Hemdat academy. "People are beginning to ask why they have to learn there. Since many of the academies said that they have to be there in order to go out and take over the IDF, now that the army has disappointed many of them, they're beginning to ask what it's all good for. I estimate that about 40 percent of religious 12th-graders don't know yet what their plans are for next year."
Plesser is less worried for the future of his academy, which is in the Jordan Valley. "Unlike the large academies that were busy taking over the medium-level command of the army, we are much more concerned with personal development," he said. "I think that youngsters will be looking more for that kind of thing."
Goodman also sees a demand for his type of academy. Unlike the traditional academies, Ein Prat accepts religious and secular students, boys and girls, and according to Goodman, the non-religious academies are flourishing.
"At the beginning, very few secular 12th-graders even thought about studying an additional year before their army service, and their parents were worried that the children might become religious. Now the idea has gained acceptance and even prestige. More young secular people want to study before the army and to prove that they can study Talmud without being religious."