Most students who attend Orthodox Jewish high schools in America are strongly encouraged – either formally or informally – to spend at least the year following graduation studying in a yeshiva in Israel, and a majority of them do.
That year spent in Israel is a cherished luxury for those who yearn to focus all their energy, nearly all day, nearly every day, absorbing the canonical Jewish texts and commentaries, without the distractions of secular life or study.
But not all observant high school graduates are prepared to sit and study Jewish texts for upwards of 10 hours a day, for an entire school year. For those students, the choice has long been either giving in to pressure and signing up for an unwanted tour of duty that too often has unpleasant if not downright dangerous consequences, or to forgo altogether what may be the last opportunity to study Jewish text in the Jewish homeland at all.
A speical program in Israel for post high school observant boys from the Diaspora has appeared on the scene. This program is known as a “mechina,” and, at least thus far, its combination of text study with Zionist and educationally-inspired tiyulim (hikes), chesed (community service) and rigorous physical activity has provided the right answer for those who want to live in Israel before college, but for whom a traditional yeshiva was not the best fit.
Like a yeshiva, a mechina is based on traditional Torah learning, but it also dedicates a significant chunk of its curriculum to developing Torah-based leadership skills and real-life tools outside of the classroom.
Noah Lerner, from Edison, New Jersey will be attending Rutgers University next year. This year Lerner is at Mechinat Yeud, a two year old program on the outskirts of Efrat. Despite being from an observant family, Lerner was not planning on spending a year in Israel. He was eager to get on with college and move swiftly towards his goal of becoming a successful businessman. But now that he is more than halfway through his mechina year, Lerner could not be happier about his decision.
It was only by accident that Lerner found out about Mechinat Yeud. He was sitting in the library during a free period in the beginning of his senior year, when he was approached and told there was someone in another room talking about a program in Israel that was not a yeshiva. Lerner went to the session more out of boredom than interest in the program, but was excited by what he heard.
The learning is very important at Yeud, but what Lerner really loves is the opportunity to immerse himself in Israeli culture, “to have The Land be the classroom, to see the places I’ve learned about, to strengthen my Jewish identity in a way I’ll never have the opportunity to do again.”
A typical week at Yeud consists of rigorous learning sessions and lectures by leading Torah scholars, but also learning through experiences such as hikes Yam l’Yam (from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret), explorations of archeological digs, krav maga sessions, modified IDF boot camp, sessions on biomedical ethics and Jewish Law, volunteering at an animal therapy center, sessions on Jewish leadership roles in their future communities and working with “little brothers” with special needs or from underprivileged homes in the local communities.
Shmil Atlas is the executive director of Mechinat Yeud. He recently spoke at length with The Jewish Press in an effort to explain what he hoped to achieve by creating Yeud. He said he and Rav Yaacov Shapiro, the founder and head of Yeud institutions – there is a Midreshet Yeud as well – had a vision of creating something dramatic and different with a year long educational program for observant young men from the diaspora.
Atlas says there are currently two ways the Modern Orthodox world responds to the secular world. One is to become more isolated, to withdraw into what comes closer to a charedi experience, in order to shut out the outside world. The other way is to daven, to engage in chevrusa learning, but when not specifically engaged in prayer or Jewish learning, to step completely outside of the “bubble” and act exactly like everybody else, i.e. not live as if Jewish values bind you when not engaging in “Jewish” life.
There is a third way, according to Atlas, and this is what he and Rav Shapira emphasize and nurture in the boys who study at Yeud. They have the opportunity to, yes, of course, study Jewish texts, but also to learn how to live a full Jewish life, how to take care of others, to see the connection between all Jews, to take what they learn formally and show them how to continue that connection and love of the connection throughout their lives – that is the goal.
Some boys who come to Israel for a year to be in a yeshiva don’t have the “sitzfleish” or inclination to study within four walls all day. These boys end up going into Jerusalem and hang out on Ben Yehuda Street for hours, sometimes days on end. Rather than having a good Jewish learning experience, they turn off and do things that are destructive to themselves, to Judaism and to their connection to the Jewish world.
Jonathan Sulski was born and spent his early years in Johannesburg, South Africa, but went to high school in Dallas, Texas, where he attended the Yavneh Academy. Yavneh is a highly competitive school: 94% of its faculty having graduate degrees, it offers nearly a dozen AP courses and has a low student-faculty ratio. Sulski is now a mechanical engineering student at Drexel University. He was not interested in a “slouch year” program in Israel, but wanted the ability to get out of the classroom, and connect his Torah learning to the people and the land of Israel, as well.
Sulski told The Jewish Press, “Mechinat Yeud offered just what I was looking for. It provided the perfect balance between learning and exploring and getting to know the country. My year spent at Yeud was one of my greatest life experiences.”
By offering young men the opportunity to develop many different types of connections to Judaism and the Homeland of the Jewish people, to combine it with pure text learning, the Yeud staff and administration believes many more young Jewish men will have a Jewishly fulfilling experience, one that will last them their entire lifetimes.
The goal of Mechnat Yeud, according to Atlas, is to prepare the students religiously, spiritually, physically and emotionally for the next stages of their lives as proud Jews committed to Torah, to the State of Israel and to their future families and communities.
One of the best breaks Yeud has had was its ability to hire Josh Ettinger, originally from Detroit, Michigan, who made Aliyah in 2004. Ettinger studied for two years at the prestigious Yeshivat Har Etzion (known by most, simply, as “Gush”), served in the Israel Defense Forces in the Sayeret division of the Golani Brigade, and completed a BA in political science and army strategics from Bar Ilan University.
Ettinger’s brains, brawn, Zionist spirit and American Jewish beginnings makes him the perfect program director of Mechinat Yeud. Ettinger lives on the campus with his wife and two young children; Yeud barbecues are held outside their home on a regular basis.
Unlike Noah Lerner, Matan Geller always knew he would study in Israel after high school and before college. Geller is from Skokie, a Jewish suburb of Chicago. Geller’s parents are both strong Zionists and he has always loved the Israeli culture. For Geller, Mechina Yeud felt very natural, something he would have looked for if it had not existed. The one issue for Geller is that he really wanted a program that was not solely text learning, but where he would also have the opportunity to learn with Israelis as he was particularly interested in being immersed in Israeli culture.
Geller told The Jewish Press, “If I wanted to learn all day in a Beit Midrash, I might as well have stayed home in Chicago, but I wanted to be in Israel, the place G-d gave us, the whole thing, and not just what’s inside the books.” Because of his particular Hebrew aptitude and desire to learn with Israelis, Geller is able to learn with the students in the hesder yeshiva program Yeud partners with, so that his is a total immersion experience.
Of the dozen Mechina Yeud program participants thus far, the vast majority returned to the States to attend college. Only one has already made Aliyah, and is waiting for his call-up date from the IDF. Another current participant is thinking seriously about staying in Israel when the year ends.
Amiad Fredman of St. Louis, Missouri, was in Mechinat Yeud’s first class. When asked how he felt about his mechina year, Fredman wrote, “Yeud successfully bridged the gap between the Beit Midrash and the land of Israel, and showed us that one is not complete without the other. They taught us that every step you take in the holy land of Israel is one with purpose. Because of Mechinat Yeud, I did not just live in Israel for the year, I lived Israel.” Fredman is currently enrolled at the University of Maryland.
Mechina in Hebrew means “to prepare.” Most mechinot in Israel are pre-army ones which prepare observant men for their experiences in the largely-secular world of the IDF.
Atlas says that Mechinat Yeud is also meant to prepare young men, but “it prepares them to live Jewish lives, whether in the IDF, in Israel, or anywhere in the world.”
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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