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.