It was 18-year-old Maya Maymoni’s day off from service in the Israeli Air Force. And she did what she had learned in Nachshon, her year-long pre-army leadership program between high school and induction into the Israeli army: Maya volunteered her time.

In celebration of Tu B’Shevat in January, Maya and her friend convinced a local grower to donate 200 trees that they could plant with 30 adults at a residence in Jerusalem for people living with mental illness. They were volunteering with Hevra Tovah, supported by UJA-Federation of New York, which allows for participation in a variety of social action activities.

“At Nachshon I learned to pay attention to other people who need help, to do things not just for myself, but for other people as well,” she says. “That was the most important thing I learned.”

In Israel, there are more than 30 pre-army preparatory programs, known in Hebrew as Mechina, the word for preparation, that are bridging social gaps in Israeli society and training new leaders for the country. Each “gap year” program includes a focus on Judaism and volunteer service with an emphasis on social responsibility.

UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People is helping this growing phenomenon with support to

  • 10 pre-army programs, both secular and Orthodox
  • Two post-army programs that allow mechina alumni to continue to engage in community service projects throughout the country
  • The Joint Council of Zionist Pre-Army Leadership Development Programs, designed to support the network of mechinot, offer direction and advocate for funding of the programs

“Mechinot programs are clearly driving positive social change within Israeli society, bringing together diverse segments of the population and fostering new future Israeli and Jewish leadership,” notes Sarah Biser, chair of the Jewish Peoplehood in Israel task force.

‘Best thing that happened to me’

Maymoni speaks fondly of her Nachshon days. Mornings began with several hours of study and discussion groups that encouraged participants to develop a connection to the Jewish people. Afternoons were filled with organizing volunteer projects or trips to get to know the country better.

“Nachshon is the best thing that happened to me. It prepared me for life. I’ve been all over the country and traveled a lot. It’s very important to know the country and speak about politics and religion,” she says. “We had a lot of discussions and I got a better understanding of these subjects. There are a lot of different kinds of people at the mechina, some believe in God, some don’t. You start to speak with people, you learn more.”

Maymoni brings equal affection to her post-mechina involvement with Hevra Tovah, Hebrew for Good Society. Hevra Tovah allows graduates of Nachshon and other mechinot programs to volunteer with social action projects. Although Hevra Tova is designed for post-army young adults, Maymoni volunteers when she can while she is still doing her military service.

This past Chanukah she joined Hevra Tovah in a “Light in the Heart” project that included 8,000 volunteers with nearly 100 holiday events for children in hospitals and older adults in nursing homes.

“It was touching and exciting to see the children’s happiness and smiles when we sang and drew pictures together,” she notes.

The mechina and Hevra Tovah programs have inspired Maymoni’s goals following her army duty.

“After the army I want to go to the Jewish Agency and help care for other people.” She adds with modesty, “I hope I will be accepted.”