Following the murder of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a group of friends who had served together in the IDF met to discuss what could be done to bridge the widening chasm between religious and secular Jews.
Ze'ev Nativ, director of the Nachshon Mechina Program, who was at that first meeting, recounts that he and his army buddies discussed the pre-army preparation program for religious young men, known as a "mechina." These year-long programs combine Jewish studies with preparation for military service. The religious mechina programs were designed to encourage religious young men to grow into leadership positions in the army and civilian life after the army.
Today, a new wave of religious-secular mechina programs has the same goals, combining study with community activism, and are open to secular Jews as well as the observant. The program's agenda was no less than trying to spark a dialogue between religious and secular Jews, and to begin to heal the rift in the nation.
"After Rabin's murder, secular Jews blamed religious Jews," Nativ says. "And religious Jews blamed secular Jews for blaming them. But we wanted to start a mechina that would find a common ground."
The Mechina Nachshon at Kibbutz Shoval, near Beersheba, was launched that same year with a small group of students. Incorporating studies about Judaism and Jewish identity, leadership, community volunteering and education about social issues, the program took off. Each year it has expanded: today, more than 70 students are enrolled on two campuses (the other is in Metzudat Yoav, near Kiryat Gat). And over the past 12 years, it has served as an inspiration for 16 other mixed secular-religious mechina programs around the country, from Kiryat Shmona to Beersheba.
While the mechina programs run independently, they all share one vision. Students live together, either in dormitories or small apartments, sometimes cook together, and learn how to get along with one another. Thirty to 70 participants are enrolled in each program, meaning that over the years, thousands of young Israelis have been involved in working towards healing their society.
"Mechina programs are the antithesis of the stereotype that today's youth don't care about Israel," said Shmaryahu Ben-Pazi, director of the Aderet Mechina near Bet Shemesh. "The programs teach young people to leave behind indifference and deepen their Jewish and democratic principles and values."
"These days, there are so many rifts in Israel," explains Aderet's educational director, Assaf Perry. "There's the rift between the religious and secular, between rich and poor, between the center of the country and the periphery. He contends that instead of "reaching out to the other, people are merely fortifying their own positions. We want to find a way to bridge these gaps and create a responsible, shared vision."
THE COMMUNITY dining room at Aderet is kosher, as well as Shabbat observant. But there is no kind of hard-line persuasion or competition about which way of life, religious or secular, is better. On Shabbat, members of the local community host mechina students for meals. All kinds of Jewish beliefs are accepted and according to the directors, questions are welcomed.
For Perry, the inclusion of all kinds of Jews is a vital principle. He used to work in a religious mechina but decided to move to Aderet so he could have contact with secular Israelis. He sought a vision beyond a certain sector. His career switch fits his ideal that "God believes in all the Jewish people, not just the religious ones."
Opposing the idea that "Zionism is dead," Perry wants to create a renewed Zionist vision that goes beyond the "individualistic materialism found these days," pointing out that a person can sit in his room, visit his friends on Facebook, listen to music on his iPod, and not care what goes on in the rest of the country.
Cynics might say that this individualistic paradigm can't be broken. There are too many young people who are already caught up in a post-modern, almost post-Zionist phenomenon that can't be turned off. Yet Dafna Lerner, who is enrolled in the Nachshon Mechina this year, disagrees.
"We're just like other Israeli kids," Lerner says. "Computers and iPods interest us. But we're also interested in changing society." As part of her year-long program, she is working with troubled children, as well as acting as a "big sister" to a local teen.
Igal Avrahami shares her idealism. Avrahami, a counselor at Nachshon, went through the program before he was drafted. He then returned to work in the program. "It isn't true that youth of today don't care," Avrahami argues. "I see that they have a will and a desire to change things. If they're given responsibility, they'll take it and contribute to the community."
In many ways, 26-year-old Amit Sheffer, of Gadera, was typical of Generation Indifferent. Yet he says his outlook changed after he took part in the Maayan Baruch Mechina outside of Kiryat Shmona. Growing up, he says, the only thing he thought about was "how I'll make money and how I'll be rich."
He decided to enroll in Maayan Baruch after mechina participants came to speak at his high school. "They talked about how much they enjoyed the studies there, and I couldn't understand because I hated studying," Sheffer explains. "I went and began studying and it was like magic for me - I realized how much I loved it."
The experience so inspired him that after the army he earned his teaching degree and now teaches literature in a school in Nazareth Illit.
"The mechina wasn't always easy, but I learned how to look at myself," Sheffer says. "I learned not to think about what other people want of me but what I want for myself - and this is the same life lesson I try to give to my students."
Nimrod Wolf, who worked as a counselor at Maayan Baruch for a year after his service in the Golani Brigade, agrees with Sheffer's assessment.
"Young people are looking for direction in their lives," Wolf says, "for something meaningful. Many young people avoid army service and don't want to contribute to Israel. But the mechina programs guide young people to participate in society, to participate in 'life.' And it helped me realize, as a counselor, what I wanted in my life."
Some high school seniors admit that there is a stigma attached to these mechina programs. According to Tomer Socolovsky, a 12th-grader in the Western Galilee Regional High School, people say, "the mechina year is [self-centered] because you don't volunteer all the time. You also study and travel." But Socolovsky says that it isn't "less good, it's just something different."
"From what I've seen in the different programs," Socolovsky says, "it's not only good preparation for leadership roles in the army, but also for life."
He's currently exploring his options for next year, and particularly likes the emphasis on ecological awareness in all the mechina programs, from the composting at Sde Boker to the house made from mud at Aderet.
At the Maagan Michael mechina, for example, participants take care of the beaches in the area, learning about birds, nature and other environmental issues. Students take an active role in planning the lessons and determining the content. "We want to teach young people values about their surroundings, society and the environment. And not just to be concerned about what is in their home," director Muki Betzer affirms.
THIS KIND of self-enrichment program, without grades or tangible benefits, flies in the face of the standard timeline for young people: high school, army, some kind of work, travel abroad, study and then a career. This is a year off for them to concentrate on living, understanding, developing themselves as people and future citizens.
"At first, my parents didn't understand why I wanted to enroll in the mechina, but they've seen how it has opened my perspective," says Amalia Singer, currently studying at Aderet. "I've learned about Jewish law, literature, philosophy, the economy - but not just in books, by working with people in distressed communities and traveling and meeting different Israelis."
She believes the program helps "make citizens who are more active in the community and can influence change."
"It was hard for me to explain why I wanted to do a year of this kind of program and then go on to do three more years in the army," echoes Avrahami. "But that was the only year of my life that I could take the time to really study things in depth."
He points out that the mechina's visits to Beduin communities in the Negev, for example, have given him the opportunity to understand the residents. And once "you meet people up close, you feel more of an obligation and a connection to them."
Ben-Pazi contends that learning about Israel's different communities creates common goals. Religious and secular soldiers respect one another and get along in the army because, he says, they have a common goal. Ben-Pazi wants young people in the mechina to find that common goal for society as a whole.
"By studying the history of Israel and the Jewish people, understanding the present situation, we work together for a better future," Ben-Pazi declares.
Most of the mechinot cost money - between NIS 750 and NIS 1,000 a month - but all offer scholarships. Programs rely on funding from the Education and Defense ministries, the IDF, and private donors. However, Mechina Rabin is an exception. Based in Tivon, the 50 participants pay nothing and support themselves by working as a group during vacations, mostly in temporary agricultural jobs.
Student Maytal Amiel says the free program attracts a wider variety of participants. She also believes in the principle. She says that two participants this year are Ethiopian immigrants who grew up in boarding schools - proof that the program reaches everyone.
Mechina Rabin's program includes three days of studies on a broad range of subjects and two days of community service. Amiel volunteers in a local high school, tutoring students for their final exams in the morning; in the afternoon, she works at a community center, organizing events for younger children.
"It's hard to have to do all the work and not have vacation," she says. "But I like the idea that we're [earning] our own way. People don't complain too much about it."
Rabin's director, Danny Zamir, explains that the program is designed so that young people learn to be responsible for themselves. He says that because students don't have to ask for money from their parents, they enjoy greater independence and accountability. "We make decisions as a group that teach people how to get along and work together," Zamir says.
Studies by the Jewish Federation of New York and Israel's Keren Avichai have found that many mechina graduates have, in fact, gone on to leadership positions in the IDF and after completing military service, come back to work as mechina counselors or serve in other community organizations. Graduates of Nachshon established Hevra Tova, a Web site that serves as a temporary volunteer employment agency, matching volunteers with organizations in need.
"We don't yet have a prime minister or Knesset member who came from a mechina, but I think there will be, one day," Perry says with a laugh - but then he turns serious. "So far, all of the graduates have proven that whatever they do, they do with concern and a sense of commitment."
And as Lerner says, "I know we can't change the world in one year, but we can put a finger on what's important to us."