In response to a crisis of faith that many young adult believers experience during their mandatory army service, Messianic leaders and former soldiers established a program for young believers about to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of Messianic youth turn away from their faith during their army service. While some may return to faith later, sadly, most do not.
Many factors contribute to this. Soldiers are busy 24/7 and they lack time for prayer, reading the Bible, quiet time and attending a fellowship. They experience a loss of identity and may feel isolated, many times being the only believer in their unit.
In recent years, leaders in the body of Messiah have become aware of this and have come up with a program to support the Messianics currently serving and strengthen them during their service. They hold meetings, conferences, a pre-army preparatory program called Natzor (besieged) and now the army preparatory program, Hitzim (arrows), which was launched in September.
Matan Ohana, who runs the program on behalf of the Netivah center, is on a mission to reduce the number of Messianic soldiers who leave their faith.
“We, the body of Messiah in Israel, fight in various battles on the subject of our faith, but we are losing the war when such a big percentage leaves the faith,” Ohana told KNI. “If we do a rough calculation we would understand that at any given moment there are 350 to 450 Messianic soldiers in the army. If 30 to 40 percent leave their faith during the service, it means about 100 to 150 teenagers leave their faith every three years. This statistic is troubling and sad and we have to pray and work to improve it.”
So why a preparatory army program?
“The religious Zionists were in our place not too many years ago. In the 1960 to ’70’s they numbered tens of thousands. They understood that their youth, who serve in the army, were losing their Jewish faith and assimilating with secular Jews and the secular army lifestyle. So they decided to open a number of army preparatory programs to strengthen the faith their followers.”
Today there are dozens of religious Zionist preparatory programs in Israel and hundreds of graduates every year. The success is apparent: Hundreds of thousands still belong to religious Zionist communities, comprise parties in the Israeli parliament, are ministers in the government and army commanders. Moreover, the percentage of religious Zionists who leave their faith is smaller than those who come to faith.
“During my service I saw how the graduates of pre-army preparatory programs were more prepared for the difficulties and challenges of the army and many of them rose to commanding positions,” Ohana said. “It confirmed to me that we, the body of Messiah, also need a preparatory program. I realized that we need to strengthen our youth in their faith prior to the army, develop their character and help them succeed in the army and beyond.”
Yoel Goldberg, director of the Netivah center that works with Messianic youth in Israel, took on the challenge. Together with Lech Lecha, a discipleship organization, they have founded the Hitzim preparatory program, which began in September.
Ohana told the leaders it was crucial to assemble a suitable team. They selected two female and two male counselors who had completed their military service and stayed strong in their faith in the army.
During the course of the program, the team saw a positive change in the youth on both a social and spiritual level. They became serious and developed a willingness to learn from the duties and responsibilities placed on them.
“Towards the end of the program we started to realize what we went through, what a powerful, unique, special and learning process,” Ohana said. “The youth learned so much and we learned from them. For me the end of the preparatory program was very touching, it was hard for me to stop crying: To see the 19 young people who invested time to prepare spiritually and draw near to God prior to their army service, was a significant and powerful experience for me.
These youth are now graduates of the first Messianic preparatory program in the body of Messiah in Israel.
“That has been a vision for many and an event that I, personally, have been waiting, working and praying for,” Ohana said. “This is the beginning of something much bigger that will bear much fruit for God.”