Tomorrow at 7 a.m. we are taking our youngest daughter, Yarden, to Ammunition Hill to begin her two-year army service. Given what an emotional event this is for most families, the drop-off routine is the most non-ceremonial act one can imagine. A couple hundred families show up with their to-be-recruits and stand around until their kid’s name shows up on a digital board, along with the bus number they need to board. I still get a chill, trying to imagine which of these hundreds of kids being seen off by their families will see real battle, on which of our borders, who will lose dear comrades in battle — and who may live to experience peace treaties in our day.
For me, an equally significant part of this day is that it will close a chapter in our lives, a “stage in life” that each of our daughters experienced, in succession, in the last few years. They each decided to take a gap year after high school, and enlist in a mechina — which literally means “to prepare” but actually is a pre-military leadership academy.
Here, preparing for the military has little to do with drills or getting into shape. The main preparation is to build character and start transitioning to a world where you are part of something that is larger than yourself. This gap year combines intensive community service, study and cultivating a deep appreciation for Israel, through exploration of the country, top to bottom.
It sounds like a pretty straightforward gap year option, but on a much deeper level, I see the mechina innovation as one of the most interesting and impactful entrepreneurship projects to come out of Israel in decades.
Each mechina has a slightly different focus. Some are more intensive on the study side; others on the volunteering end; and others for the all-out Israel exploration, and agrarian embrace of the land. Some mechina programs undertake ambitious urban renewal efforts; others have an “eco” or sustainability focus. Many of them deliberately combine participants from different stripes of Israeli society — religious and secular, city and periphery. The Hevruta mechina is a Shalom Hartman Institute gap year program that fully integrates North American and Israeli students together, combining change agents from a diverse range of Jewish backgrounds and perspectives.
What they all have in common is that 40 to 50 18-year olds from all over the country live together, self-govern their community, and open themselves up to intellectual and even spiritual development that they would never have reached in their regular academic lives. What they all have in common is a breaking down of barriers so that an openness to listen to the “other” becomes natural. They also form a lifelong network and support mechanism taking them through their army service and beyond.
The common thread is that these kids live in sparse, I mean sparse, conditions for the year, and are given assignments — think of them as missions — where they have to figure out how to do more with less, and go way out of their comfort zones in order to accomplish the said assignment. At the Nachshon mechina, our daughter Noa had to find her way as a volunteer at a Bedouin community center for kids-at-risk. At the Nofei Prat mechina, Tamar’s “social projects committee” was tasked with building (from scratch) a week-long day camp during Chanukah for 180 Ethiopian youth, so that the kids’ parents could continue to work, while they were off from school. Her budget was less than a shoestring, and she was told to go raise the remainder. And Yarden, who will get her green uniform sometime tomorrow, was busy with her committee’s renovations of the still-young campus of the Aderet mechina, which sits alongside a high school for youth-at-risk. When the vegetable patches they planted weren’t getting sufficient water, they were told to figure out how to build an irrigation system. The tools for doing so had to be figured out from scratch. When the kids wanted to build a geodesic dome at the mechina to allow for more communal hang-out space, they knew they would be the designers, architects and logistics operation for doing so. Bare-bones materials were acquired on a paltry budget.
The academic angle is especially interesting. Most of the lectures given are arranged by the mechina students. As each of the core topics is covered during the year, these kids have to contact speakers, big name ones and just interesting ones who are less famous, and convince them to come lecture to their cohort: no compensation, not even for transportation. There’s a lot of hustling, and a lot of figuring out with your peers, what is the best way to cover each topic.
Most of the content is around the history of Israel; philosophy; religion; and life-related dilemmas. There are no tests and no grades. Yet we found that, for the first time in their K-12 lives, our daughters were actually paying attention in class, and actively engaging with the material being taught. My husband would get an excited phone call, after a lecture delivered by a fellow mechina student, where our daughter Tamar would ask a flurry of questions about the history of the Oslo Peace Process.
With each of our kids, we watched during the course of the mechina year, as the talented professional team helped each student to call on resources they didn’t even know they had, to become thoughtful, committed and nurturing citizens. They imbued the kids with an extraordinary sense of purpose, to give back to the State of Israel, and help it become a better country than the one they inherited.
I lecture frequently about Israeli innovation to visiting corporate and government audiences. So often, my colleagues and I are asked to share Israel’s formula for becoming a tech powerhouse. We respond that there’s no one secret ingredient; rather, each country has its own innovation story based on its own history, culture, and geography from which its strengths grow.
The compulsory military service, for all eligible 18-year-old high school graduates, is often cited as one of the anchors for Israel’s flourishing tech ecosystem. Indeed, the graduates of the elite units often go on to found some of the most groundbreaking start-ups. I always note that I don’t wish mandatory military service on any country – there’s a reason that we have it. But if a country like Israel does rely on the thousands of young recruits as the backbone of its human military edge, then what we have done with the IDF as an institution in Israeli society is pretty remarkable.
Like so many aspects of the building blocks of Israeli entrepreneurship, these things are often hard to replicate in other countries. But the mechina model is different. The pioneers of the mechina movement have constructed a model that I believe can be piloted in other places. Already, through various cross-pollinating, some of the Ein Pratt Academy leaders from Israel have managed to advise NGOs and governments in Zimbabwe and the Ukraine on how to build similar leadership academies. Active discussions for doing the same in the Netherlands and the US are underway. And some elements of the mechina ideology have emerged independently in the most successful entrepreneur-generating academies in Africa, namely the African Leadership Group, founded by Fred Swaniker. In this case, Swaniker had already identified the skills training needed for mission orientation as a key part of the curriculum, and noticed striking similarities to the mechina content in Israel. He was recently named on the Time 100 list for his groundbreaking work in building a new generation of entrepreneurs throughout the African continent. Shmaryahu Ben Fazi, the founder of the Aderet mechina, is talking about joining with other mechina heads and bringing a pilot program to the US.
As policy-makers in many countries wrestle with how to create something impactful for high school graduates at this critical phase in their lives, I invite them to look at what Israel has done with this stage in life. In my view, this model is no less transformational than the drip irrigation that we have exported to markets around the world over since the ‘60s and ‘70s. In this case, it is not tech, but rather a concrete and replicable social innovation that Israel has to offer. The key is an openness for a year of scrappy living, and a mindset that forces the youth to take on assignments where the key element is: figure it out. The outcome could be a generation of purpose-driven youth who have more tools and determination to serve and take on the challenges of their communities.
As for tomorrow morning, we are optimistic that Yarden will have a meaningful service in the army, and will call on skills that she honed from her year in mechina. Indeed, the day will close an inspired chapter in her and our lives, as a new one opens. She will also have to put up with our taking her to a corner of the drop-off scene to bless her, quietly and inconspicuously, as we did her older sisters before they boarded the bus for the induction center: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; May His face shine down upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His face to you, and bring you peace.”