PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: Amichai Chikli

“The people who are filling the hi-tech world of Israel and our future generation of the Jewish state are completely disconnected from their heritage and Jewish identity,” Chikli says.

Amichai Chikli (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amichai Chikli
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amichai Chikli
ID: Head of Tavor, one of the most dynamic secular mechinot (pre-army academies) in Israel
The people of Israel owe a huge debt of gratitude to a boring lecture on international relations that Amichai Chikli sat through in college. There he developed a procedure of how to help revive what he calls the “identity crisis of secular Israel.”
I met Chikli, 36, on a cold Jerusalem night. He was born in Jerusalem to parents who made aliyah, his father from Tunisia and his mother, a convert to Judaism, from France. He studied in a Masorti high school in Jerusalem and, upon finishing, attended a pre-army program in Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch.
At that time, secular Israeli teens were not attending mechinot as they were perceived as the domain of the strictly Orthodox who had created the concept years before. There he was exposed more intensely to religious texts and to a wide range of Jewish and Zionist thought, which had been developed throughout the ages. He served as an officer in the IDF’s Golani Brigade, as well as in special units such as Egoz and Shayetet (Navy Seals). Today, in the army reserves, Maj. Chikli serves in Golani as the chief commander of the unit responsible for evacuating the wounded.
While in officers’ training, he felt there were too few secular trainees. After discharge from the army, he took a hard look at the neighborhood in which he grew up as well as at his friends working in Israel’s hi-tech industry. He concluded that traditional and secular Israelis have a syndrome, which he refers to as “the periphery of consciousness.” These are people whose path to success is clear. They are well educated and high earners but lack a Jewish identity. Judaism was considered the sphere of the Orthodox, which led to an identity crisis for the “secular.”
“The people who are filling the hi-tech world of Israel and our future generation of the Jewish state are completely disconnected from their heritage and Jewish identity,” he says. “This creates a crisis for Zionism itself.”
With the document that he wrote during that boring lecture and because of his growing awareness of individuals on the “periphery of consciousness” in Israeli society, he began the mission of his life, the creation of vibrant pre-army programs whose mission is to raise an Israeli generation proud of its Judaism.
The program would allow for the study of Jewish texts and history, and would fill the vacuum of the identity crisis with an educated Israeli generation focused on building a better Israel while not avoiding the past. After a long struggle, marred by the logistic and bureaucratic problems that only Israel has, he found a location and built his pre- army mechina in Upper Nazareth in northern Israel, adding strength to its northern periphery.
I challenged him on the question that is on the minds of many of Israel’s younger generation. In a progressive post national world where the Holocaust is a distant memory, what does a young person answer when asked, “Why Zionism?”
Chikli begins by quoting Herzl’s statement at the First Zionist Council, “Zionism is first a return to Judaism even before it is the return to the land of the Jews.” Chikli believes one cannot disconnect the question of “Why Zionism?” from the question of “Why Judaism?” In order to understand the need to build a Jewish state, you must first understand Judaism. He recognizes it can mean many things making it impossible to define, but compares it to birds in nature. “Though there are many unique species,in order to fly they all need wings.”
He seeks to empower his students with three “wings” with which Judaism can fly. The first is the universality of Judaism as represented by “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is compatible with a State of Israel whose mission is not only the revival of a particular culture but also sets an example for the entire world. The second is the idea of Shabbat. Chikli, the head of a mechina with mostly non-observant students, believes that the social concept and family orientation of the day of rest is an idea that can connect us with our Judaism, even if we don’t take it to the level of strict halachic observance. He also views Shabbat as the victory of the soul over the physical body. The third and final “wing” is Torah study. Judaism detached from knowledge of its texts is doomed to failure. The texts may be approached critically, but they are an essential part of Jewish and Zionist identity.
Chikli is now looking beyond his neighborhood, and trying to make a case to the young Jews of the Diaspora as well. When we pinpoint the difference between the Jewish community in Israel and in the Diaspora and generalize, we tend to frame them as having different challenges, especially in regard to the challenge of identity. Though there are those who maintain that in terms of identity young Israelis are in a better position, Chikli thinks the opposite.
He believes that both communities face the same problems, such as the confusion between nationalism and religion, between Judaism and Zionism, and the idea that if one is not Orthodox then the ancient Jewish texts do not belong to him. Chikli ventures that is where the opportunity for a new conversation lies. When we understand that we have the same issues and become part of the same conversation to tackle them, then we can find common ground between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. “I am not willing to give up,” he says.