Snatching success from the jaws of failure

“The Goren family is a staunch supporter of our mechina, and they are closely involved in our activities,” says Shai Weisblum, the director of Oz Shlomo.

BUBLIL SERVED as a Navy commander in Sharm El Sheikh (photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
BUBLIL SERVED as a Navy commander in Sharm El Sheikh
(photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
Knowing that the corona crisis that is so much in the spotlight now will eventually pass and life must go on, the pre-army mechina (preparatory program) Oz Shlomo, aka the Kiryat Malachi Mechina, which has been operating in southern Israel for more than 18 years, recently held an event to honor past and present participants, as well as benefactors.
Oz Shlomo isn’t just another run-of-the-mill pre-army mechina. It is a unique program that was established with one clear goal: to increase the number of IDF recruits from communities from which the army generally doesn’t recruit. This is not an easy challenge.
It’s not a coincidence that the name of the mechina was changed to Oz Shlomo, in memory of Shlomo Goren, the first IDF chief rabbi, who is renowned for his commitment to religious Zionist values.
“The Goren family is a staunch supporter of our mechina, and they are closely involved in our activities,” says Shai Weisblum, the director of Oz Shlomo.
“I wasn’t around in the earlier years of the mechina,” continues Weisblum, “but I’ve heard many accounts about the intense resistance to its opening. Mechinot are basically incubators for creating leaders, and many people were of the opinion that this would not be possible in the social periphery. Most of the participants in Oz Shlomo come from poor families and not all of them attended school regularly. Every year, new participants join the mechina, which is funded partially from private donations, and by the end of the year, the lives of these boys have changed dramatically. Not only are these young men enlisting in the IDF, which they probably would not have done had they not spent a year at Oz Shlomo, but they are carrying out meaningful service in combat positions, and sometimes even continuing on to command positions.”
Over the years, 750 young men have graduated from Oz Shlomo, and over 600 of them have moved up the ladder of command in the IDF and served as combat soldiers, sometimes even in elite units. A not insignificant number have stayed on as career soldiers, which often enables them to complete academic degrees or transition to senior positions in the civil workplace. This is incredible, considering that these are mostly young people whom society had given up on for the most part.

RAMI BUBLIL, 68, a colonel in the IDF reserves and a leading attorney in Israel, is chairman of the Friends of the Oz Shlomo Mechina. The mechina operated out of Kiryat Malachi for many years until it was forced to relocate due to complaints by local residents, as well as municipal issues. Bublil is steadfastly committed to the mechina and is always investing time and effort to push the participants to reach higher achievements. The mechina really took off after Bublil took it on as a project and began functioning as a go-between with the military establishment.
“Bublil is extremely talented,” boasts Weisblum, “and because of his efforts and his connections with the military, Oz Shlomo has been a huge success. At the end of the day, the numbers speak for themselves. Today, our mechina has two separate campuses, one near Kiryat Malachi and a second in Or Yehuda, which is headed by Rabbi Boaz Sherman. We are officially part of the Yeshivot B’nai Akiva. Our program focuses on army preparation, Jewish study and community work.”
The narrative of Bublil’s life is a phenomenal success story, including his reaching great achievements and overcoming huge obstacles. Bublil, whose family was extremely poor, lived in a tiny one-and-a-half-room apartment with his parents, grandparents and eight siblings. He was not able to finish school, since he had to start working at a very young age to help make ends meet. When he turned 18, the IDF told him that he was not eligible to enlist.
“My dream from the age of 16 was to serve proudly in the IDF,” recalls Bublil, “but I was told that my kaba score was too low, and that was that. They just threw me away. So I fought for my right to serve – all the way up to the IDF chief of staff. In my mind, giving up my struggle was not an option. I saved the letter I received from the chief recruiting officer, which states that I was not fit to serve, but that didn’t keep me from trying to overrule the verdict.”
After the IDF reversed its decision, Bublil was sent to basic training in Machaneh 80 with recruits who were not in great physical shape. At each stage in his military career, Bublil had to fight to fulfill his dream.
“What I really wanted was to be sent to the officer training course. Four times I was prevented from taking the test to get in, on grounds that my pre-enlistment scores were too low. At some point, I approached Ze’ev Almog, who at the time was commander of the Red Sea Navy unit and later was promoted to major-general and was appointed as commander of the Israel Navy. Almog helped me, and this act changed the entire course of my life.”
Bublil was finally allowed to take the test and was accepted to the IDF officer training course, and later served as a Navy commander in Sharm El Sheikh. Bublil had his eyes on another position, but his lack of schooling once again made this goal extremely difficult to attain.
“After a long struggle, I finally convinced the IDF to allow me to participate in a course at the end of which I would be granted a high school bagrut equivalence. After serving again in the Red Sea area, I was granted leave to complete a law degree at Bar-Ilan University, paid for in full by the IDF. Years later, I continued on to a master’s degree, and then was granted a quick rise in rank from second lieutenant to major. I was awarded ‘outstanding officer’ at each stage.”
After finishing his law studies, Bublil was assigned to the IDF prosecutor’s office and retired as a senior officer and promoted to the rank of colonel from then-IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
Soon after entering civilian life, Bublil became one of Israel’s leading attorneys. After retiring from the IDF, Bublil decided that one of his most important goals was to help young Israelis who grew up in underprivileged families and had little hope of improving their lives to join the army and flourish, just as he had. Bublil wanted to show them how with a little faith and a lot of ambition, they could move mountains.
Bublil has also served for many years as a member of the Bar-Ilan Board of Trustees, as well as co-chair of the Israel Bar Association’s Military and Security Committee. As part of his reserve duty, Bublil has participated in a number of IDF group trips to Poland, which were led by then Brig.-Gen. Amikam Norkin (who is now a major-general in the Israel Air Force).

ACCORDING TO Weisblum, operating a pre-army program entails overcoming a great number of obstacles.
“First of all, there is the educational challenge. Because our participants have varying educational backgrounds, we plan out the content of our classes ahead of time and then sit down together every couple of months to assess where we stand. Another challenge we face is of course staying in constant contact with our cadets once they begin their army service. In addition, we make great efforts to help them integrate into society after they finish their army service. We hold lectures and get-togethers, which help everyone stay connected.”
One of the biggest difficulties that the mechina staff deal with on a daily basis is lack of funding.
“Our mechina follows the standards of all pre-army programs,” continues Weisblum “which is that the community covers 60% of costs and parents fund the remaining 40%. In our case, most of the parents cannot afford these amounts, and that’s why we invest a lot of time and effort into raising funds. This is the only way we can remain open and offer these kids this great opportunity.”
We spoke with Bublil about an Oz Shlomo event that was held at the mechina’s modest building in Mercaz Shapira. He’d recently recovered from a serious illness, and sounded overjoyed to be well enough to participate in that event.
“I’m thrilled to be able to celebrate 18 years of this incredible program, and to have seen each year how a group of boys graduate and enlist in the IDF as proud soldiers – the very same individuals the IDF had deemed were unsuitable for service. My life’s goal is to share my experiences with these boys, and show them that with the correct attitude, not only can they enlist in the army, but they can become senior combat soldiers in elite units and even achieve academic degrees later on. I cannot think of anything else in my life that is more important than helping these young people achieve these goals.”

Are you actively involved in the mechina programs?
I like to come talk with the boys and give lectures. Lately, I’ve been less involved, since I’ve been sick, but I’m feeling better now and I hope to become more actively present in the mechina again. I tell them, “When I was a teenager, I didn’t even know how to read. Now I have a master’s degree. The IDF told me they didn’t want me, but in the end, I succeeded and moved my way up the ranks in the IDF prosecutor’s office.” That’s the message I want to relay to them – if you believe in yourselves, you will succeed. If I could do it, so can you.

Do you feel like this is your mission in life?
Helping out others in my community has always been important to me. I learned this value from my father, who established the religious educational system in Jaffa when they needed help. This is just how I was raised – that we must give back to the community. All my life, I’ve been trying to help others in need, and I hope that Oz Shlomo will continue helping young men to succeed, have a meaningful military service and feel good about giving back to the State of Israel. Now, today, more than ever we need to take hold of our young people in the social periphery and help them enlist in the IDF, and become influential members of society who contribute to a healthy and strong community.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.