In the U.S., when applying for a job or meeting someone for the first time, one is often asked where he or she went to school. The next obvious question what is what one studied.
These questions are asked not only with the intent of getting to know someone, but also to put the person into context, if you will. If the answer is “I studied law at Harvard University,” it is likely that we categorize them differently than if they said “I studied plumbing technology at Everest College”.
Unfortunately, the respective answers have a lot to do with one’s economic background. Wealthy children who grew up in safe neighborhoods with parents who were often home tend towards different schools than poor kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Israeli culture, this can also be said about the mandatory army service- certain units and jobs can lead to better career opportunities, increase social status, and provide a prestigious resume for the rest of one’s life. One’s IDF service can either open doors for many years, or, in the case of low-level positions, shut those doors forever. Said simply, in Israel, the IDF unit in which one serves sets a young person on a path for years to come.
But young women from Israel’s cultural and geographic sidelines — the ones who lack the confidence, networking opportunities, or education to apply for prestigious units — are likely to take the least-challenging roles the IDF offers and lose an important chance to improve their social standing. They are often slated for jobs as truck drivers, secretaries, cleaning weapons, or selling coffee. If one of these individuals told their friends that they wanted to become a lawyer, chances are they’d be met with laughs.
Their lack of opportunities in the IDF translates into a lack of opportunities far into the future — and missed potential for the IDF and for Israeli society.
The founder of ALMA Academy for Female Leadership, Michal Barkai-Brody realized this when she entered her army service at age 18: “I grew up in a privileged life in Tel Aviv, I had everything I ever wanted, and I always felt like I had every opportunity at my fingertips. I felt like I can do anything in my life. Me, my friends — we felt this incredible, inner strength, that anything was possible. But later, as an officer in the IDF, I saw another Israel. I met so many wonderful girls that needed to overcome all different kinds of barriers, those that come with background, gender, economic status, and low self-confidence. It was clear to me, since then even, that this is what I wanted to do: to start a Mechina, a pre-military academic program for women’s leadership”.
So she did — Michal started a Mechina program, a preparatory course for pre-army girls. By providing Israeli girls with six months of studies, hiking, volunteer service, physical training, and more self-confidence, ALMA paves their way into some of the most prestigious army units available. They are given a network of people: teachers, educational counselors, advisors, volunteers, and peers who are all dedicated to each other’s success, which for many of them, was never previously available.
ALMA advocates for them directly to the IDF, providing the IDF with a stronger base of new soldiers, substantially raising the girls’ chances of desirable assignments, and changing their trajectories for a lifetime.
So far, this method of pre-army intellectual enrichment, physical training, and giving back indeed shapes the future of the girls who participate. Before the program, 17 out of 18 of the first cohort of the ALMA program were slated for lower positions in the army, but in six months, they gained the leadership skills necessary to become medics, educators, and commanders. In the end, they all graduated from the army with honors and over 50% with even further excellency distinctions.
One of the girls in ALMA, who is currently an IDF officer, tells of the dramatic difference in her pre-army life versus her current situation: “After ALMA, I went into basic training for the IDF. The soldier who slept in the bunk next to me saw my sweatshirt, with the name of the Youth Village where I grew up. She asked me what kind of job I’d had there. She assumed I’d been a volunteer member of the staff. It didn’t occur to her that I might have once been an at-risk teenager who lived in a Youth Village. I have Alma to thank for that.”
For Barkai-Brody, this program represents her vision for an egalitarian Israel, where girls from vastly different places and mentalities can grow together and work towards a better life for themselves, their families, and for Israel.