Forming tomorrow's leaders: Celebrating 10 years of Jewish Agency mechinas

Today, The Jewish Agency operates 19 mechina programs throughout Israel, servicing almost 800 participants.

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog visiting mechina participants, prior to the pandemic. (photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)
Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog visiting mechina participants, prior to the pandemic.
(photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)
"Leadership doesn’t come only from certain sectors of society. Leadership can come from anywhere,” says Dana Zacks, director of the Israeli Society Unit of The Jewish Agency. Zacks, who oversees the organization’s network of mechinot, or gap year leadership academies, says that The Jewish Agency’s mechina programs nurture the next generation of leaders both from Israel and the Diaspora. 
Dana Zacks, director of the Israeli Society Unit of The  Jewish Agency (Credit: David Salem)Dana Zacks, director of the Israeli Society Unit of The Jewish Agency (Credit: David Salem)
This year, The Jewish Agency is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of its first mechina. The first mechina operated by The Jewish Agency was in Nitzana and included 23 participants. Today, The Jewish Agency operates 19 mechina programs throughout Israel, servicing almost 800 participants. 
The organization operates two different mechina programs. The first, Ofek, or “Horizon,” is designed for Israeli youth who would not otherwise consider spending a year after high school prior to their future army service. “A certain type of person joined mechina programs when they were first established,” explains Zacks. “Usually someone from the center of the country, who had participated in youth organizations.”
The Jewish Agency decided to open a mechina program to groups for whom mechina programs were not practical, either because they were too expensive or because they had not participated in youth organizations. The Ofek mechina program was designed for youth from the periphery, new immigrants, Muslims, Christians, Druze, haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), and other groups who were not well-represented in other mechina programs.
“We are trying to reach kids for whom going to mechina is not the norm. It doesn’t matter where they came from or their backgrounds,” says Zacks. “The main thing is that we identify in them a willingness to work hard and to extend an effort. They have the ability and potential, and can progress and become opinion leaders in their communities.” There are 12 Ofek mechina programs run by The Jewish Agency operating in Israel.
The second mechina program that The Jewish Agency operates is the Kol Ami, the Jewish Peoplehood Leadership Academy (“The voice of my people”), a program that draws young Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, who live together in a pluralistic environment. “This mechina deals with questions surrounding our responsibilities toward each other,” notes Zacks. “What makes us one people? What is the place that the State of Israel holds, both for those who live here, and for those in the Diaspora?”
Zacks prefers to call the mechina programs “Mechina programs for leadership,” rather than pre-army academies and notes that both Israelis and Diaspora youth who complete the program will use the skills that they learn in their respective communities, in leadership roles in the IDF, or their individual communities if they are living outside of Israel. Jewish Agency mechina programs are supported in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the Government of Israel, KKL-JNF, and donors from Israel and around the world, including generous assistance from the Alexander Grass Foundation.
Zacks says that unlike other mechina programs, The Jewish Agency programs last for seven months, which enable graduates of the program to begin their mandatory IDF service in March, shortly after completing the mechina, rather than having to wait an additional year.  
Eli Geta, age 18, was born in Ashdod to Ethiopian immigrants who had made aliyah in the 1980s as part of Operation Moses. Geta had a low military profile and was not considering mechina until his counselor in the “Aharai” organization, which works with teens and young adults in Israel in the country’s social and geographic periphery, suggested that he consider the Ofek program, especially since he would not have to delay his entry to the army for an additional year. 
Eli Geta of Ashdod, a member of the Ofek mechina (Courtesy)Eli Geta of Ashdod, a member of the Ofek mechina (Courtesy)
Geta was accepted to the “Erez” Jewish Agency mechina in Mevasseret Zion and has thrived, learning new skills and raising his military profile. “In mechina,” says Geta, “I have learned self-reliance, how to cope with difficulties, how to live together with a group of other people, and how to get along with others.” Geta hopes to join the Golani unit in the IDF and has become more self-confident, sharing his opinions and thoughts with others. The mechina experience has expanded his world, and he has met and made friends with fellow students from Ashkelon, Holon, the Golan, Jerusalem, and Ma’aleh Adumim. He has emerged from the mechina with greater strength and determination, both physically and mentally. 
Refaa Salamna, age 21,was born in Kaabiya, a Bedouin village near Kibbutz Harduf in the Galilee region of northern Israel. She grew up in a traditional Bedouin home and joined the first mixed Arab-Jewish mechina in Kibbutz Harduf in August 2018. The group was composed of five Israeli Arabs and six Israeli Jews, and Salamna says it was a unique experience. “Since we were the first group, we set it up on our own. We came with no knowledge of what to do,and we learned as we went along.” Salamna says throughout the mechina experience, the Jewish and Arab participants compared notes about their different cultural backgrounds. “If we were discussing a certain value, we would ask, ‘Is this the same term that Jewish people use to describe this value?’ Ultimately, we created a mutual understanding between the two groups.”
Refaa Salamna at Mechinat Harduf (Credit: Ayala Badash)Refaa Salamna at Mechinat Harduf (Credit: Ayala Badash)
Salamna says that the Jewish and Arab participants respected and accepted each other. “If someone had an unpleasant situation, he could speak and ask for help from someone from the other culture. Arabs and Jews could sit together, talk about important things, and speak about their culture and history.” She adds that as part of the mechina program, they studied together, which was novel, since few Arabs and Jews attend the same schools as part of their formal schooling in elementary and high school. “I never studied Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible], and on the other side, Jews don’t study the Koran. Both cultures come with stigmas, and when they meet, they begin to understand each other and understand the stigmas and to speak and say who we are and what we are together.”
For Salamna, the mechina program opened a new way of thinking and exposed her to different people and cultures she had not encountered previously. After completing the seven-month mechina, Salamna stayed on as a graduate assistant in the mechina for an additional year. Salamna is now a student at Tel Aviv University, where she studies Arab-Jewish culture. “The Arab-Jewish mechina gives me great hope,” she says. “If we can live together with our problems and with the good things and all the things we learned together, both societies and cultures can coexist.”
Gillian Rosenberg, 18, hails from Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. She arrived in Israel in August and joined the Kol Ami program in the Kiryat Ye’arim Youth Village, 20 minutes outside Jerusalem. While Israeli students consider a mechina a gap year experience that helps them get ready for their mandatory IDF service, for Rosenberg, the six-month program has been more of a classic gap year experience. 
Gillian Rosenberg (left), of Evanston, IL, a member of the Kol Ami mechina, is seen with a friend.Gillian Rosenberg (left), of Evanston, IL, a member of the Kol Ami mechina, is seen with a friend.
There are 30 participants in her mechina – 21 Israelis and nine students from countries outside Israel, including the United States, Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands. The first three months of the program are conducted in English, and the second three months are run in Hebrew. 
Rosenberg explains why she chose Kol Ami for her gap year Israel experience: “I wanted to be immersed in Israeli culture and to be with people from all over the world. Also, I like that the second three months are in Hebrew because one of my goals was to improve my Hebrew proficiency.” 
She adds that the pluralistic nature of the program, which attracts, in her words, “religious, secular, conservative and everything in-between,” presents an excellent opportunity to learn about different streams of Judaism and to be with people who are different than herself.
Rosenberg says that while language and cultural adjustments took a few weeks – “there was a bit of culture shock at the beginning, mostly for international participants” – ultimately, the two groups blended and learned together from each other. As a result of living day-to-day in Israel with Israelis her age, she says, “I feel a deeper connection to the State of Israel. Before the program, I saw Israel as a place that I could visit, but it didn’t feel like it was my place. Now that I have these connections with Israelis,I have a much more personal connection to the land because of the people, because I have friends who are basically like my family.”
The Israelis in the Kol Ami mechina, she says, gained an understanding of the different types of Judaism and Jewish observance. “Israelis don’t have any mandatory classes in school about Diaspora Jews and what it is like to live as a Jew outside Israel,” says Rosenberg. “It’s a really good opportunity for the Israelis to see what it is like somewhere else, and also reflect on what it means to be living in Israel.”
Dana Zacks summarizes the mechina programs’ effect on its participants: “You have 30 kids in caravans, with six or seven kids in one room. They have to live together and get along with each other. It teaches them responsibility. It’s a game-changer for them. We tell them, ‘You are the future leaders of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.’”
Jewish Agency Chairman of the Executive Isaac Herzog adds, “Whether it’s giving kids from Israel’s social and geographic periphery a more equal shot at success or those arriving from our global Jewish communities an immersive peoplehood experience, Jewish Agency pre-army gap year programs instill this wonderful generation with leadership skills, based on the ever-important value of mutual responsibility.” 
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel.