It is one of the basic beliefs of Israeli civil religion that army service is a sacred obligation. Moreover, it is generally seen as a time of growth, maturation, and acculturation the ultimate melting pot, the place that "makes you Israeli." By the same token, the army is often the first meeting of religious and "secular" Israelis, who go to separate schools, belong to separate youth movements, and tend to live in segregated neighborhoods. This mixing has always been seen as not entirely positive from the point of view of the religious community. The ultra-orthodox, of course, see the army experience as a potential disaster, where norms are violated, temptations are rife, role models are lacking, and the threat to faith and observance so great that the community has accepted a life of poverty (yeshivah students lose their draft deferment if they work) and vilification rather than serve in the army. It is generally accepted among the religious Zionists (whom we may call "modern orthodox") that military service is a positive value and an obligation imposed by the national sovereignty that Zionism achieved and strives to maintain. Indeed, in recent years the orthodox have taken the lead from the kibbutzniks as volunteers for elite combat units and as officers. On the other hand, it is also generally accepted in this population that the realities of army life are such that there is no place for a religious girl/woman there. Due to the necessary violations of modesty and separation, and the general norms of "roughness" that characterize armies, the army is perceived by religious families as a threat to the values and character of young women, and it is considered preferable (and acceptable in the wider society) for these women to sign up for "national service," spending a year doing community service as teachers, counselors, etc.
The enthusiasm for the army (for males) in the religious Zionist community has not, of course eliminated concern about the influence of the army experience on personal observance and belief. One solution has been the " hesder " yeshivah program, in which orthodox men intersperse yeshivah study with their military service. Another approach, for those who are not yeshivah "material," is the pre-army preparatory program ( mechinah ): participants defer service for a year and spend the year in an intensive residential program of study, community service, leadership training, and physical training, to "harden" their characters and bodies before they jump into the melting pot.
In the wake of the success of these programs, and in the context of the secular "awakening" after the Rabin assassination, a new phenomenon has become popular among middle class kids: the secular or pluralistic mechinah . Similar to the pre-army programs developed by the orthodox, these generally enroll 30-40 kids in a year of study, service, and training designed to help them clarify their Israeli/Jewish identity, develop a deep and thoughtful commitment to the state, the Jewish people, and the army, and to "grow up" a little before facing the challenges of the military experience.
A group of local community leaders has recently gotten organized in our area to explore the possibility of opening such a mechinah , possibly here at Shorashim. They invited me to be involved, and, if the project goes forward, I probably will. However, it will not be without ambivalence:
For over fifty years now, 12th grade graduation has been followed by army induction for the great majority of Israelis. Shouldn't the public school devote some resources to preparing for this major life-cycle transition, instead of devoting all of its energies during 10th, 11th, and 12th grades to preparing for the strictly academic matriculation exams? Essentially, the mechinah programs provide a 13th grade, in which all the difficult value discussions and issues of character education that the high school studiously ignored can finally be dealt with. I am sure that there are arguments for this approach (e.g., what are schools for, anyway?), but somehow I feel we are just picking up the pieces, not dealing with the fundamental problem. What of the vast majority of kids, who will be unwilling or unable to take (and pay for) this extra year? And in the grand scheme of things (and the proportions among them), do we really want our kids to spend a whole year just getting ready for the army (when they will also take a year to get over it later)?