Earlier this month, we commemorated the 20-year anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Personally, I recalled how desperate and confused we all were at that moment in time: desperate for wisdom, for understanding, and, of course, for a way back to optimism. There was none to be found, and so we were forced to talk to each other, to see if conversation could pull us out from our collective darkness.
I was a soldier at the time, guarding Israel’s borders. I had grown up in a traditional Conservative home, but was exploring my identity at that time. After the assassination, however, so many questions arose for us all, specifically having to do with Jewish identity in the aftermath of a Jew murdering another Jew in the Jewish state in the name of Judaism. It also became clear to me during this time that our most serious and dangerous conflict was not at Israel’s borders where I was stationed, but inside Israeli society.
As a response to our national despair, people started having conversations — organized dialogues specifically billed as “meetings between secular and religious Jews.” I was eager to attend one of these meetings in search of wisdom and guidance following Rabin’s murder. How, I wondered, were we to move forward?
I attended a talk led by a well-known, celebrated rabbi from the Religious Zionist movement. In the audience, I waited to be inspired by him, to hear words that would resonate with me. Instead, this is what he told us: “We are all one family.” Over and over again, he repeated this. “We are all one family. It’s okay to disagree, but we shouldn’t hurt each other.”
What? I kept thinking to myself. This is all he has to say? Obviously, we are one family, I thought. Obviously, we shouldn’t hurt each other. And yet, here we are. Where was the wisdom? Where was the deep thinking? Where was the difficult, yet authentic conversation we were meant to have that would allow us to move on from this?
I left the meeting in a deeper despair than when I entered.
Rabin’s assassination and the conversations that happened after did reveal to me something pivotal, nonetheless: In addition to the variety of languages spoken in Israel — Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian — there was another more serious divide in this country. There was a gap between those who spoke “Jewish” and those who spoke “Israeli.”
It was as though the language of Judaism belonged to one group and the language of democracy to another. I realized then how desperate we were for a language that could transverse both the religious and the Zionist, and more important how critical it was that we all either learn to speak both languages or become much more active listeners. Without the ability to understand each other, without the framework to know that of which the other is speaking, without the will and means to connect to each other, our society was doomed to fail. Borders or no borders.
* * *
Today, 20 years later, there is a place in Israel where the kind of deep conversations we needed after Rabin’s assassination are happening. One place, among others, is inside mechina pre-army programs, like the one we host on Hannaton.
Historically, the mechina program was brought into being by the Religious Zionist movement as a means to strengthen the identity of young Orthodox Israelis before they entered the army. The programs were a great success and continue to be. Since 1995, however, we’ve seen in Israel an increase in other types of pre-army mechina programs, including secular and mixed (religious/secular) programs, with a variety of different focuses. All of them, however, are dedicated to building Israel’s future leaders. Today there are approximately 22 mechina programs defining themselves as Orthodox (20 geared towards men and 2 towards women), 10 secular-identifying mechina programs, and 15 mixed or pluralistic programs, where religious and secular come together.
Young adults who choose mechina typically are completing high school, but don’t want to enlist right away into the army. Instead, they defer service for one year. In mechina, participants live together, learn together, and work together. Most of the programs incorporate a volunteer element, too, through which participants contribute to the local community and society-at large. In the Lower Galilee, where Hannaton sits, this means our students get to know people raised with ideologies and beliefs perhaps very different from the people in the communities where they were raised.
The pre-army year is also spent learning — about Judaism, about tradition, about community. Many students, we find, are also seeking to answer the deep philosophical and existential questions that often arise in our late-teens and early twenties: Why are we here? What does all of this mean? And why should I care? For Israelis, these questions apply not just to their own existence, but to the existence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. These questions are critical, yet fraught with complications and challenges, particularly for young people who will, in a year, be entering the military and dealing with complex situations. Through it all, however, we talk. We talk and we listen. We listen and we learn. We learn and we understand. And through understanding, ultimately, we connect.
The Israeli government recognizes the necessity of this project and therefore provides partial, but respectable funding to each successful mechina. Thus, despite the many challenges the State of Israel faces 20 years after Rabin’s murder, I feel as if there is hope for our future. I see it in the faces of the students I interact with every day here on Hannaton; and I hear it as I eavesdrop on their conversations, which aren’t always pleasant. In fact, at times those conversations become heated arguments …as they should be, and can be when all parties agree on a shared end goal. In our case, the goal as a more pluralistic, democratic Israel.
* * *
Today the question of the borders of our country is still a defining one. However, an important question remains: what of the society that will exist between our country’s borders? Who will we be? Who will lead us? How do we connect to each other in a way in which dialogue can happen and in a way in which actions may move us forward? When a society is weak internally, it does not matter how powerful its army is. It’s like an empty temple. It will take only a small breath to knock it down. Just as it did 20 years ago.
As someone who was once a young person motivated towards social change, but deflated by events, I believe our first critical step is to offer a safe space in which young people are encouraged to talk, to learn, to explore their identities, to question the decisions of our current leaders, to dream out loud their visions for our future, to put their ideas on the table, even, and have them supported or challenged by their peers. This is our mission in Hannaton’s mechina, at least.
Just as a couple under the chuppah does not know what will happen tomorrow, but are nonetheless committed to loving each other through the unknown and dealing with it together, we seek for our students a community with which they can commit together to working towards a more egalitarian, pluralistic Democratic Israeli society, no matter what disagreements, no matter what language they speak, no matter what events tomorrow brings.