Gill, participant, July 2015

Every year since birth, I have spent four months in Jerusalem (summer and the first two months of the school year), and eight months in the San Francisco Bay Area (the rest of the school year). This imbalance was due to the requirement for education to be centered in one place. After high school, I decided to correct the imbalance and spend a full year in Israel.  I wanted to fill a gap in my experience and better understand the Middle Eastern aspect of my upbringing and persona. I am not yet halfway through the year in Israel, and it has already had a deep impact on my thinking and outlook, far beyond what I anticipated.

I always felt that I was in a unique position to understand and perhaps even influence the delicate situation in the Middle East. As an Israeli, I have had many of the formative experiences of an insider, which allow me to appreciate the emotional attachment to Israel, and the place of emotion in the Middle East conflict. My earliest memories are of the sounds of the Intifada, of distant gunfire coming from Bethlehem, which I can see from my bedroom window in Jerusalem. I can recall refusing to leave the house without my plastic sword and plastic body armor. At the same time, as an American, I experienced the completely peaceful surroundings of the Bay Area, where the idea of conflict was never on my mind. I gained an outsider’s perspective, a more detached point of view that allows me to respond to the situation in the Middle East without too much emotion. I had a high-school classmate, whose father was a Palestinian who immigrant to America, passionately pro-Palestinian and equally anti-Israeli. Eric and I became close friends, and because of my emotional detachment, I could also speak with his father, hear of his animosity toward Israelis, and gain insight without reacting to his strong views. Thus from my upbringing I gained an intuitive grasp of the Middle East conflict. I felt I possessed a balanced approach to the issues, but I had no idea how I might contribute.

I chose to spend my gap year in Israel in The Upper Galilee Leadership Institute, a program designed to develop leaders for the Israeli society. The program provides a detailed education in all aspects of Israeli culture, including the history of Israel, the highly varied demographics of the country, Judaism, Islamic studies, critical thinking, and more. Of even greater importance than these subjects, and the theme around which the entire gap year revolves, is leadership. In the first few months we were given the tools to lead, after which we were thrown in the deep end and told to swim. We are responsible for organizing all activities, including inviting lecturers, planning visits to the communities of Israel (diverse Jewish, diverse Arab), planning week-long treks for experience in navigation and survival, celebrating holidays with the kibbutz in which we live, cooking our own meals, and so forth. It is up to us to make the best of the year, with the advice and guidance of our supervisors.

The program is intended for highly motivated young Israelis, and aims to provide them with the background, capability and confidence to impact their surroundings in beneficial way. I feel I am gaining all of that and more.  I have a growing interest in the content and direction of the curriculum, and I am fully attuned with the spirit of the program.  It is with a deepening level of engagement and much strengthened sense of purpose that I look forward to finishing the year.

After years of excellent instruction in fine schools, my pores were clogged with knowledge. The past four months of my gap-year program in Israel have given me fresh enthusiasm and a focus for learning. I was inspired by an instructor who taught us to appreciate Islam, for its contributions to society, for laying the basis for exact sciences, for starting the first universities, and for its language, the only one at the time able to express complex ideas. Even more important than what this instructor teaches is the way he does it. He tells us stories, he whispers, and he shouts.  When we do not know the answer to a question he tells us we are fools, that the Muslims in the village next door know more about us than we do about them. And at the end of every lesson he pleads with us, telling us how we must spend every possible minute learning. He tells us that he shouts and calls us fools because he loves each of us as his children, that we are the future of Israel, and that if we don’t study as hard as we can and constantly thirst for more knowledge, we will be doing a disservice to our country and our past. I find myself fascinated by the history, politics, and religions of the Middle East, and I wish to learn more. I do not want to be a fool.

The largest amount of time in my gap year program at the The Upper Galilee Social Pluralistic Leadership Institute in Israel is devoted to community service. During mornings every week, I work at a school for autistic children, where I work with two children, teaching them to swim. During afternoons every week, I am with an organization that finds lonely and often poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors nearby.  We keep them company, help with domestic chores, and bring them groceries. The spirit of these community service activities was explained by lecturers in the program, who made a distinction between volunteering and “social involvement.” A volunteer is an outsider who comes to the rescue when something is wrong.  Social involvement entails the wish to be part of a long-term, positive change. By becoming involved, you show that you want to gain a deeper understanding, while acknowledging that people managed on their own before you arrived.  As there is no such thing as true altruism, you gain more from social involvement than from volunteering. You learn more about yourself and more from the people you work with. The distinction between social involvement and volunteering, and applying it to everyday life, matters to me.  I understand social involvement as anything done deliberately for an individual or a group in need over an extended period of time that has a positive effect on them. I will apply this understanding throughout life, not only under special circumstances, but in everything I do.

Michal and Danni, Parents of a member of the first graduating class of the Institute, 1999

Throughout Israel's 50 years existence as an independent state, serving in the army has always been uppermost in the minds of our 18 year olds. The security of our state was at stake, and serving was seen as an almost sacred obligation and duty, which was carried out with much pride. Today, our society is at a crossroads, confronted with many dilemmas. Peace treaties have been signed with some of our neighbouring states; others will hopefully follow in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the county cannot afford to be less vigilant. With the influx of so many immigrants in recent years, the social fabric of the country has undergone change. Religious issues have also surfaced. Keeping all this in mind, it is understandable that there is an ongoing search for personal, social and national identity among our youth and a perceptible shift away from former firmly entrenched norms and values. Our youth have questions and they seek answers. This is where the Mechina [Leadership Institute] comes in. It fills a need at a crucial time. Our daughter, aged 18, has been based for the last ten months, together with a group of youth of the same age, on a kibbutz in Upper Galilee. She is a participant in a pre-army, post matriculation course and has had an exceptionally enriching and rewarding experience. The framework provided helped expose her to the multi-faceted aspects of Israeli life. They received lectures by top teachers in personal identity, philosophy, tolerance and leadership and other relevant topics. Trips were arranged through-out the country to meet with, at first-hand, members of the various ethnic communities and to learn of their problems, there-by bringing into focus the plurality of our social fabric. They worked as volunteers with the young and the aged. They were invited to army bases for informative lectures. Debate was encouraged and a forum given for expressing and listening to opposing views on the important issues facing our youth today. On completion of the ten months, I have no doubt that the course has contributed in no small measure to preparing our daughter to face her future in a more confident, thoughtful and balanced manner and has helped to shape her sense of identity. Her horizons have been broadened beyond the limits of her school experience. On a personal level, therefore, I am deeply grateful for this. However, there is the broader issue of national responsibility, which has at all times infused the course. The organisers deserve to be lauded and encouraged for their initiative, drive and vision. I sincerely hope that the Mechina will be the fore-runner of many more to come, for in its success.