If you took the the interview with Shachar Bar-Itzhak, cut it up, and remixed, it might sound like a collection of clichés or a carefully prepared message. “Being a cog in the system.” “Even if I give my most, I can do a little more.” “We create self-actualization, the top of Maslow’s pyramid.” “It’s not just that the people are good for you, but you’re good for the place and the community, too.”
However, if you listened to the complete interview, you’d understand that it isn’t a collection of clichés. It’s a way of life, an anthology of lessons and insights that Shachar gathered over the years. We assume that her parents and others played an important role. However, you can’t overlook the impact of her mechina year, which planted the seeds for an inspiring journey.
“That’s the secret”
Pleased to meet you. Shachar Bar-Itzhak is a deputy company commander at Chavat HaShomer, where she trains soldiers from special groups. She now lives in Eshchar, a mixed religious and secular community. After she graduated from high school, Shachar embarked on a year at Mechinat Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem. “I knew that at a mixed (religious and secular) mechina, I would find my place,” she says.
During what Shachar describes as “a formative year,” she met people who became her “friends of virtue.” “We talked all the time,” she says, “about being a group, about unity, about the power we have to make a difference and how we’d accomplish good things going forward, as a group. That’s what friends of virtue are.”
“If mechina is about studying, giving back to the community, army prep, and physical training, then you can do mechina on your own, alone, without a group,” says Shachar, “but there’s also something really profound about the experience of being part of a united group. That’s the secret of the mechinot: doing good together, as a group, and that’s also the secret of a community-building group.”
Shachar at mechina
The kernel of a community
“Am;VaAretz is an organization that works to establish young communities in the Negev and Galilee. Come be a part of missions of national importance, take the initiative, and connect! Come be part of a community!” This is how Am;VaAretz, a group of soldiers pioneering new communities, describes itself in the “About” section of its Facebook page (Hebrew).
When Shachar was at mechina and experienced the power of being part of a group, she had no idea of where she would encounter it in the future. She didn’t know that during her military service, she and her friends would form groups to settle the Negev and Galilee, she would be responsible for content for the leading forum of a nonprofit for pioneer soldiers, and she would live as part of such a group in Arad while serving in such an intense position in the IDF.
“It all started in Kerem Shalom,” says Shachar. Two of her friends participated in a seminar hosted by Derech Prat, a social leadership program of the Ein Prat Leadership Academy, in Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz near Gaza. They conducted a kabbalat Shabbat, and someone from the kibbutz came over to them with tears in her eyes, saying that she wasn’t used to seeing the kibbutz shine that way, full of light and people.
Shachar’s friends created a WhatsApp group and started organizing weekends at the kibbutz, with 30 or 40 people coming every time. “We started talking about a group that would settle there,” says Shachar. “We organized a huge event with more than 200 volunteers. It started gathering momentum.”
Later, groups were created for the communities of Ein HaShlosha, Kisufim, and Tzochar. “We understood that it was time to run with it, to figure out what we were going to do, and do it in a way that’s organized, correct, and professional,” explains Shachar. “A soldier who decides he’s going to spend weekends away from home needs support, a well-run framework.”
They subsequently founded Am;VaAretz to coordinate the activity. “My friend who came up with the idea and some of our other friends and I became the leading forum in the organization,” she recalls. “We started documenting our activities and organizing weekends.”
Today, the organization has five unique community groups with different target locations. “People find us on Facebook, or a friend who’s already joined. In general, the most serious people in the group came for a weekend, fell in love with the idea—and the rest is history.”
The Am;VaAretz Arad group
Cut and paste
Rewind. Excited parents, a huge backpack, a white shirt. When Shachar was drafted into the IDF, she was on track to command special groups within the army as a noncommissioned commander in the Education Corps. She commanded Druze soldiers in Michve Alon for a year, and that was her last stop before officer training.
By the time she arrived at the corps’ course for new officers, says Shachar, “they were talking a lot about ethics.” Then she realized that this was what they’d been talking about at mechina. “We talked about being a cog in the system, doing more, and knowing that you can always give more.”
After the officer course and the corps’ own course, Shachar served for a year as a Nachal commander, then spent a year and three months as a commander at Training Base 1. Now she’s a deputy company commander at Chavat HaShomer. “As far as I’m concerned, I can say I’ve done enough,” she says proudly, yet immediately dismisses the idea: “there’s something courageous about giving 99 percent instead of 98. Right up to the last percent.”
Shachar gives the same 99 percent of herself to Am;VaAretz, even after spending 40 days at a time at Training Base 1 when she was a commander there. “It’s grueling. Honestly, after a while I’d go home for the weekend instead of the community-building group,” she admits.
“It’s self-actualization, though: coming home, saying hi to your family, doing laundry, and saying that I chose to spend that weekend three hours from home. Spending a weekend with the group, on the surface, you just have an amazing time enjoying yourself, sitting and talking with your best friends, but underneath, you know it’s not just that the people are good for you, but you’re good for the place and the community, too.”
“Whether it’s attending prayers in Kerem Shalom, building an observation point in Arad, or putting together a community event in Tzochar,” continues Shachar, “all those things do a lot of good deep inside, and people want that. They want to do good, even during COVID.”
The similarities between what Shachar has done and what the staff of Mechinat Beit Yisrael did are not insignificant. “My mechina is located in a disadvantaged neighborhood. The staff decided to go and start Beit Yisrael as a community in Gilo in order to make the surrounding area a better place,” she explains. “And creating a community-building group? It’s the simplest cut-and-paste job ever, just looking at my counselors and the process I underwent at mechina, and wanting to recreate it and bring it forward. In the end, I want to see community life that’s good for the surrounding area and good for me too—and copy it.”
Shachar as an officer
First lesson at mechina
Shachar clearly took a few lessons with her from mechina. “If you survey all the members of the group now, they’ll tell you, ‘These are the people I want to live with when I grow up.’ It’s amazing. It’s exactly the friendship of virtue that they taught us about at mechina,” continues Shachar. “That was my first lesson at mechina, by the way. The day candidates came for screening, they talked with us about friendship and what friends of virtue are and how to do good together. It’s something that the mechinot are successful in creating, and I want to keep doing things that are good for me and I know are good for other people.”
As Shachar sees it, one of every two teenagers in Israel should spend a year at mechina. “The whole beauty of the mechinot is the heterogeneity of students who never in their lives heard of a mechina and wound up there by accident, and students who grew up in an environment where it’s really common and always knew they’d go to mechina,” she explains. “It’s the places in which mechinot are less common where mechina staff need to go. If we want to reduce gaps, it has to be available to everybody, not just one social class.”
Shachar’s development, choices, and actions are a source of inspiration, and her need to make a difference and do good everywhere she goes don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. “Right now,” she reveals, “I’m at the point of deciding about my next position in the army. I think that when a person feels that he’s successful at doing good where he is, he needs to stay there and keep building his influence.”
Asked to think of a parting message, Shachar says, “Even if you’re not sure mechina is for you, go and check. What’s it to you if you go to an open house?”
Want to find out more about Am;VaAretz community-building groups? Click here (Hebrew).