An Army for the People
“I have horses and a stable. The stable is cleaner, more suitable for living, than the homes where some of these kids come from, if they have homes. If you saw them, you’d cry; it’d break your heart.” Those words were uttered not by a social worker but by a hardened army commander who heads a unique unit in the Israeli army, a unit unlike any in the armies of the world. Yesterday, I visited his base, Chavat HaShomer, with the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows program. We sat in the commander’s army and talked with the commander, his staff, and even some of the graduating soldiers. Chavat HaShomer is a training center for Israel’s most troubled boys (there is a parallel one for girls) to get a new start on life. Sixty-five percent have not studied past 10th grade. Some were drug-addicts. Some were abused. Some lived on the streets. Some have long arrest records. For most, this base is the end of the line.
“We don’t want anything from these kids,” says the commander. “We only want to give to them. To help them.” Few of the kids will ever see combat; most are being trained towards a profession – to be a mechanic, or a driver, or a chef – so that, after the army, they can go back into society, have a job, and live productive lives off the streets. What does this have to do with the task of the Israeli Defense Force? Nothing, some might argue. “On the one hand, the narrow task of an army is to win a war,” the commander tells us. “Our task has nothing to do with IDF’s mission. But the government asks this of us, and we do it.” But the commander and his staff are not just following orders; he and his staff are deeply passionate and committed to their work.
A female commander sits with us. She is 19 years old and is responsible for 11 soldiers. “I wanted to do this work. I wanted to contribute something to Israeli society, to give back. It’s really hard work – I have to go back and forth between pushing the boys to show them what they’re capable of and being compassionate and nurturing when they need it. Our first group graduated today. It’s an amazing feeling to see how far they’ve come.”
The mifakdot – female commanders – train the boys. When commanders were male, the boys would act violently towards their commanders, but not towards the girls. We ask one of the soldiers, “Was it hard for you to take orders from a girl?” “Oh yeah, at first it was really hard, but there is a system and we had to learn to respect the system.” While the boys are technically getting vocational training, what they are really learning is life skills: discipline, self-respect, self love. “The first thing we tell them,” says the commander, “is that we believe in you. We trust you. These kids have never had someone tell them that before. Nobody has ever told them they can amount to something. We tell them, ‘you can do it.’”
As an educator, one of the things I was reminded of in that moment was how critical it is for us, if we are in the role of teaching, to build trust with our students – adults and children alike – and to remind them that they can do it, that ultimately we can help but it is they, not us, who must “do it” – who must read, or fix a computer, or shoot a basket, or overcome an addiction. Each of us is what the Piazachne Rebbe called a “self-educator” – the teacher can help us, inspire us, remind us and show us how much more we are capable of, but in the end, it is we who teach ourselves.
I was also reminded how, sometimes, having no choice helps us. All of the boys made a conscious choice to sign up for this unit - they expressed an interest in getting better, but once they are in, they know that they're in. "There is nowhere for these boys to go. In a few extreme cases, they might be sent away from here, " says the commander, "but for the most part they know they are here, we are totally committed to them succeeding and finishing what they started." "It helps us," says one of the soldiers. "The commanders don't give up on us. We've got to keep going even when we don't want to."
A couple of the boys sit with us. One has an American parent, speaks English and Hebrew fluently, and grew up in a religious community. When he started to have doubts about religion and not to keep Halakhah, his parents friends shunned him. “I would go over to my friends house and their parents would tell me that they weren’t home. But then I’d ask my friends and they’d say, “what? I was upstairs on the computer. When I was 14 or 15, I would do drugs – hash mainly. I dropped out of school, had a long arrest record; I would just sleep all day. My brother convinced me to do this program. It saved my life.”
Ask most people to think about Israel’s army and, sadly, the world’s idea of the IDF doesn’t include a place like Chavat HaShomer. This isn’t the whole story, but it’s an important part of the complex story that is Israel; it’s a story that should be told.