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“I’d like my students to know that anything is possible.” Meet the CEO of Mechinat Lapidot

Shani Cohen went to a religious girls’ high school in Tzfat. Then she went against the grain and joined the first class of Tzahali, a mechina for observant women. Here’s what Shani has to say about her journey and why she returned to the mechina world as CEO of Mechinat Lapidot

03/05/2023 - 14:22

This is Shani Cohen’s first year as CEO of Mechinat Lapidot. The long path she took to get here taught her a lot about strength and what she wants to pass on as an observant woman, an officer in the IDF reserves, and an educator. That path wasn’t straightforward. It all started with a notice announcing that Tzahali, a mechina for young religious women intending to join the army, was accepting applications for its first class. Going to mechina wasn’t in keeping with the outlook of her religious girls’ high school, but Shani followed her heart.

“I grew up in Tzfat,” she says. “At the end of high school, I went along with the flow and went to tryouts looking for alternative civilian service (sherut leumi) with meaning—an experience as a therapist, or youth villages. I felt that they weren’t able to see my abilities. I got pushed into other things that didn’t interest me so much. A friend told me she’d heard about Tzahali. We realized that we had to establish an underground and talk about it quietly. We came for the interview, and everything was really make-believe, there still wasn’t anything to see. They just talked with us about spirit, but I felt that I belonged.”

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How a mechina is born

At the start of the next year, with butterflies in her stomach, Shani arrived at the new mechina—a mechina not yet fully built, with a flexible schedule and lots of room for initiative and creativity. The experience that lay in store for her and the classmates who became her close friends was unforgettable. “We started putting together how we wanted our mechina year to look from the ground up, in terms of classes, content. We decided we were doing training exercises and playing basketball. Everything was new. At the weekly class meeting, we felt that we were the ones in charge,” she says.

Events that took place in Israel shortly before the mechina’s founding in 2006 brought the students of Tzahali to launch a project under Shani’s leadership. “It was right after the Disengagement, and we thought about how we could do something good for society. We decided to open a summer camp for evacuees from Nitzan. We took it upon ourselves—I took

on management of the project, we executed it professionally, and together we built a meaningful summer camp program. It was a crazy challenge. It was where I discovered my abilities as a leader and manager, and also my ability to project authority among my fellow mechina students.”

“You need to make the most of every minute” 

Inspired by her time as a manager and the mechina experience in general, Shani became a basic training squad leader in the IDF. After her first class graduated, she was selected to attend officer training and proceeded to become a platoon leader, a deputy company commander, and a platoon leader in companies of soldiers with psychological difficulties. She fell in love with being able to make a difference and mold soldiers through treks, classes, and military heritage. From there she went on to serve as a company commander at Training Base 1, and then to a staff position as head of the Department of Operational Activity in Judea and Samaria. Yet far removed from military education, Shani missed being an educator and talking about values. She decided that she wanted to keep contributing to society as a civilian.

Back to mechina

“It was pretty clear to me that I also wanted to show my appreciation for the place where I’d come of age. It was important to me to go back to Tzahali as a counselor. I was a counselor for the class of 2015. It was the same process I underwent. I wanted to give them the knowledge and experience I’d accumulated. It was very intense, but also meaningful. The students came open-minded and ready to listen. They were thirsty for a group talk, a lesson, a workshop, and seriously gung-ho. It was really meaningful, because I sensed that whatever I gave them, they’d accept happily. That’s also a big part of why I love the mechina world. Eighteen-year-olds are at a meaningful age, and it’s an amazing opportunity to influence students who are about to join the army.

In general, I think going back as a counselor is a way of showing gratitude, and aside from that, the privilege of influencing and molding the next generation through things you’ve experienced has stupendous value any time. It’s supremely important. There’s a shared language, and it’s your turn to make a difference.”

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Mechinat Lapidot

“Life took me where it did, and I became an attorney. After three years in the private sector, I understood that it wasn’t for me—and I happened to get a message about the search for a CEO for Lapidot. I sent in my CV right away. Without blinking.

“I got the job. This year’s class started off with 60 students. There are a lot of challenges, liveliness, vitality, and the delight of doing—all the values that sound cliché. I’m proud to tout them, because that’s really what happens here: volunteering and doing and motivation, and also the desire to load up on spirituality. It’s very refreshing.”

For a religious girl who decides to serve in the army, says Shani, going to mechina is a real privilege. “Whoever decides to go to Lapidot for a year of mechina understands—that’s a courageous, mature, and very intelligent decision—understands where she’s headed even if she doesn’t know where she’s going,” says Shani. “A religious girl has untold challenges, in the army and afterwards: Shabbat, mitzvot, social challenges of how to choose to present yourself. How you understand where you are along the spectrum that’s called being religious. What’s important to me and where my red lines are. How I define what’s okay in terms of what goes on around me, including on the part of those who are higher-ranked. It means setting boundaries and being able to say it doesn’t work for me if they talk a certain way when I’m in the meeting.”

“Make the most of this time. Afterwards, life happens. You need to make the most of every minute”

 

Shani is excited whenever she feels she can make a difference and set an example. If there’s one message she wants to communicate to her students, it’s that they can do anything.

“I’d like my students to know that anything is possible. You have to dare to dream if you want to make a dream come true, as a person or as a nation. I want my students to reach high and not give themselves a pass. That means getting up early in the morning for a training exercise, going to class even if I’m tired—being committed to my choices. I have no doubt that that’s got to be in the personal example they see. That means showing that I’m also living life to the fullest. I work out, I volunteer, I’m a mom, and I still have time for my friends, because I consider that a value. I always try to broadcast to my students: Make the most of this time. Afterwards, life happens. You need to make the most of every minute. Time has tremendous value.”

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