The prefab houses Israelis call "caravanim" sit in a tight cluster, between an industrial-sized chicken coop and acres of dusty farmland. The few trees are newly planted and leafless. Handsome young residents - tanned, fit, confident - pad the narrow boardwalk that serves as Main Street. Israeli flags flap from poles and gutters. The student village at Moshav Yahini looks every bit like the controversial settlements thrown up quickly by the "hilltop youth," the radical wing of the settler movement. But there's a big difference: Yahini is in the western Negev, not far from the Gaza border but well within the "green line" that separates Israel from the disputed territories. And the residents who built this village are not settlers intent on holding on to the territories. They are college students who want to help expand the Jewish presence in the largely uncontested Negev and Galilee. Some 20 students from nearby Sapir College live in this, the newest village established by a program called Ayalim. It's a partnership involving the Israeli and local government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, US Jewish federations, and various foundations. Ayalim provides scholarships and housing subsidies to encourage students to live about as "off-campus" as you can get; in return, the students help construct their own villages and perform social service projects in their adopted communities. The goal, organizers say, is to "form the basis for permanent settlement and social involvement, while channeling the goodwill and energy of many young people in Israel for national service as part of their personal fulfillment." SPEND A few hours with the students, as I did recently, and you might think you had traveled back to Israel's pioneer days. The students display the kind of national purpose that supposedly faded in the "post-Zionist" era. You know the story: When Israel joined "McWorld," its youth became jaded, materialistic, and disinclined to sacrifice their personal happiness for the greater good. Only among the religious Zionist camp, we were told, could you find the real spirit of the "halutzim," the hardy, even foolhardy, idealists who made the desert bloom and cities rise from the sand dunes. And yet as many as 5,000 students applied for Ayalim's 300 slots. The lucky few are dispatched to desert towns like Kfar Adiel or Dimona, or northern towns like Kiryat Sh'mona, a shlep from the bright lights of Israel's big cities. They include religious and secular young people, kids from the city, and those already living in what Israelis call the "periphery." I met Shirelle Peleg, 23, who wants to be a filmmaker, and Yaniv Samuel, 27, who is studying industrial management and works for Fedex. Yaniv told me his parents struggled when they first came to Israel from India and said Ayalim gave him the opportunity to emulate their immigrant drive. The Yahini students have an extra burden too, living so close to Gaza. Rocket attacks are a way of life at Sapir College, where a student was killed in February and warning sirens regularly interrupt classes. Many of the student village's residents work with shell-shocked kids in nearby Sderot, while others help staff night patrols in neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim. AYALIM AND its five student villages are a blip in the scheme of things. The settlement of the Negev and Galil gets a fraction of the attention - in Israel and in the world media - of the settlements in the West Bank. But certain small movements have always had an outsize influence in Israeli society, like the Nahal military units that helped establish many kibbutzim. Such efforts have carried huge symbolic weight in Israel - and even helped define the national character. Ayalim offers an antidote to the malaise that marked Israel's 60th anniversary. Ayalim also offers another way of thinking about "national service." In the United States, the Iraq war has exposed the sharp divide between the minority of young people who serve in the military and the majority who don't. The repercussions are seen and heard across the political landscape. John McCain is basing his campaign in part on the notion that his military experience makes him more qualified that Obama in foreign affairs. Many in the pro-Israel community insist that "all options remain on the table" to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions - but are vulnerable to charges that relatively few in the upwardly mobile Jewish community would serve were we to open another Middle Eastern front in the war on terror. The United States doesn't need, and couldn't afford, a universal draft. But we need new ways for young people to serve their country. Two areas seem particularly ripe: the "gap year" between high school and college, and college itself. We need an expanded system of student aid, akin to Army ROTC, that offers college tuition money in exchange for community service. And we need projects, like Ayalim, that wed community service a sense of national mission. Bill Clinton established AmeriCorps, whose participants earn a $4,725 scholarship in exchange for a year's worth of service. But even after President Bush doubled the program in 2003, it offers opportunities for only 75,000 young people. Happily, Barack Obama and McCain advocate its expansion. I'm guessing American youth, like their Israeli counterparts, are ready to give back. We just have to give them the chance. < The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at http://njjewishnews.com/justASC/.