By Deborah Danan/JNS.org
“Put your hands behind your back and get on your knees,” 19-year-old Noam Ohayon exhorts me.
“Now fall forward on your face,” he continues. “Without breaking your fall with your hands.”
Even though I’m kneeling on a mattress, I can’t do it. Each time I try, my hands broke their clasp and hit the mattress first. I just can’t suppress the instinct to protect my face.
Ohayon, his voice full of mirth, then puts things in perspective.
“Now imagine having to do that outside in the height of winter on the Golan [Heights] on a concrete path full of stones and ice,” he says.
The exercise is just one of many challenging drills Ohayon had to endure in what is known as “Shavua Na’or,” or Na’or Week, at the Tamir pre-military preparatory academy in the northern Israeli town of Katsrin.
The academy is one of 54 similar institutions, each known in Hebrew as a “mechina,” across Israel. The academies groom high school graduates for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Tamir, however, is a mechina academy with a twist. Many of its students don’t want to enlist, and in some cases—particularly for those with criminal records—the Israeli military doesn’t want them. Geared toward at-risk teenagers, many of whom hail from low socioeconomic backgrounds in Israel’s peripheral communities in the southern Negev region and the northern Golan region, Tamir picks up the pieces broken by circumstance and puts them back together again.
Established in 2003, the weekly Tamir schedule is diverse, ranging from grueling physical drills, volunteering in the community a few times a week and Jewish religion classes. While the academy is religious-Zionist in orientation, the Jewish classes do not involve Talmud study and are closer to life-coaching sessions. To date, Tamir says that it has transformed the lives of 500 young men, inspiring many of them to believe in their own worth for the first time in their lives. All of its graduates enlist in the IDF, and 80 percent end up in combat units. Another 30 percent become commanders and officers, and 15 percent wind up in elite units.
One Tamir graduate, Avichai Yaakov, went on to become a war hero before becoming the executive director of the mechina academy. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Yaakov was deployed to the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles. Yaakov’s commander, Roi Klein, died when he threw himself on a grenade to protect his men. Yaakov assumed command and went back into the inferno a total of nine times to save the lives of other soldiers trapped under heavy fire. He was subsequently awarded an “Ittur Oz,” one of IDF’s highest honors for acts of bravery.
Yet Yaakov’s army service wasn’t always a given. Deemed an “IDF orphan,” the term describing the offspring of those killed during service, Yaakov was exempt from conscription. Nevertheless, he was determined to serve in a combat unit. He reluctantly enrolled in Tamir’s program, but made it clear that he would only stay for a month.
“Of course, I ended up staying the whole year,” Yaakov tells JNS.org.
The lessons he gleaned at Tamir served Yaakov throughout his army career, and then as a husband and father to four children. Now he spends his time imparting those lessons to the next generation of fighters.
“Just like I did, the students learn that they have strengths they weren’t aware of,” he says. “All their lives society has put into their heads the feeling that they can’t succeed. Suddenly, they’re in a place where people have faith in them, where they are told that they’re the only ones in control of their lives.”
The last sentiment echoes one of Tamir’s core tenets. By design, students are left entirely to their own devices. Apart from sticking to four rules—no alcohol, drugs, violence or transgression of the laws of Shabbat in public spaces—students can do whatever they please. Should they wish to sleep all day and skip classes, that’s their prerogative.
Noam Ohayon was one such student. Now in his second year at the mechina, he spent the first three months at Tamir staying up all night with his friends and sleeping all day. But one day, a counselor he respected gave him the keys to the storeroom and put him in charge of maintaining the courtyard. The job came with a noon start time—more than comfortable for the average employee, but no small feat for a teenager who had not been awake before sundown in months.
Within two weeks, things began to fall into place. Careful not to attribute his transformation to any type of earth-shattering epiphany, Ohayon insists his life changes were the result of ordinary steps such as having a routine.
“Just waking up in the morning, going to pray, eating breakfast and going about my job of supervising courtyard duty was enough,” he says. “It was like, ‘Whoa, I got up in the morning, I guess something’s going on here after all.’”
Occasionally, however, the routine is broken by field exercises like Na’or Week. The four-day drill, named after the commander for an elite unit in the IDF Golani Brigade who leads it, has gained notoriety among Tamir students. More than 90 percent of them fail to make it to the end. With swaying payot (sidelocks), a slight frame, and a soft voice, Commander Na’or isn’t exactly the picture of tyranny. Yet according to Ohayon, the boys are terrified of him.
“He’s just there to kill you,” Ohayon says. “But not once does he raise his voice. His quiet and his inner calm, that’s what’s scary.”
Na’or Week’s all-night 40 kilometer (25 mile) masa alunkot (stretcher trek) includes sprints and crawls through knee-deep mud and icy temperatures, not to mention the sleep deprivation. The trek, and the face-to-the-ground exercise this reporter endured, are just some of the endurance exercises students need to pass in order to successfully complete Na’or Week. Ohayon, one of the few Tamir students who passed the four-day test, will enlist in the IDF next March as part of the elite Duvdevan unit.
For Ohayon, Na’or Week is a microcosm of the Tamir academy experience.
“It breaks you and it builds you anew,” he says.