A brave woman who can find? Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. -Proverbs 31:10
In recent years, especially since the Rabin assassination, the concern over commitment to democracy, and the perceived need to bridge the religious/ideological rifts in Israeli society, have led to the establishment of a number of pre-army programs seeking to prepare young leaders secure in their own identities, open to hearing other voices, and committed to civil discourse. Generally these are one-year residential programs involving study, in-depth exploration of the country, intensive group living, and service. Participants must postpone their draft date by a year, and pay a substantial tuition fee. The programs have been very successful in attracting impressive cohorts of bright, thoughtful kids who are able to spend a year growing, thinking, and maturing before entering the army. On the other hand, they have found it difficult to attract young people from immigrant communities or lower socio-economic levels, where postponing your life by a year - for a program that costs money, yet - is not really an option.
And so, a few years ago, we began to think about trying out a shorter program one for those high school graduates whose draft dates fall in the winter or spring and who thus have at least a few months of "down time," who are thus available for a pre-army program without deferring their draft by a year. In thinking about how to build a three-month program for a relatively small group (our goal was 25-30), it occurred to us that recruiting a balanced group of males and females, Orthodox and not, from different types of communities and ethnic groups was going to be impossible. And so we arrived at the idea of a program for women only, aimed at building a pluralistic community and at empowering young women as self-confident leaders before they entered the male-dominated world of the army. The New York Federation agreed to support the experiment, and we are now in the midst of the second module of Atzmech (a play on the word for empowerment and the feminine form of yourself); last year ten girls completed the program; this year we have 13: Two who immigrated alone from Russia as teenagers, three whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia, three who grew up in Orthodox communities, and five from mainstream non-religious backgrounds, from towns and kibbutzim around the country. Many of them have never before lived together with people who keep kosher and who feel commanded to pray every day. For others, it is their first experience of having to maintain their religious identity in a community that doesn't take it for granted.
The girls have had to develop a constitution for their temporary commune, and they get a weekly group budget for food and recreational activities which it is up to them to allocate and spend; as it is up to them to decide how to operate their communal kitchen. Their days are filled with informal courses on Jewish text, Israeli society, democracy, gender studies, leadership skills, and useful arts (first aid, auto repair, carpentry). In addition, there are three mornings a week devoted to community service, frequent guest speakers and cultural events, and a weekly full day excursion in the Galilee, usually involving hiking, historical sites, and encounters related to modern social issues. We like to see the Galilee as the test-site for a new, improved Israel, so it serves as a perfect educational laboratory for this program.
Of course, there are issues: issues of group dynamics, of freedom vs. authority, of conflicts in values and backgrounds. But as heterogeneous as the group is, what they have in common, remarkably, are enthusiasm, curiosity, open-mindedness, and the desire to be challenged. Be it hiking, cooking, hanging shelves, analyzing a text - they are keeping us on our toes, and working with them is a great source of satisfaction and optimism for our entire staff. They are teaching us a thing or two about the power of sisterhood and about the possibility of pluralism. There is something deeply satisfying for an educator to feel that the students are leading the way.
(Atzmech is a project of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education [www.galilan.com/~hamakom], which operates other pluralism projects; the Galilee Circus and other Jewish-Arab cooperation projects; and various study tours and training and research programs for North American Jewish communities)