Preparing Israeli Youth For Spiritual Survival In The Army
When I turned 20 while in the army, one thing troubled me deeply: most of the believing friends I grew up with did not continue to follow the Lord.
When I entered the army in the late eighties, there were very few Messianic believers serving in the IDF. I was part of the Golani Infantry Brigade, another guy was in the paratroopers and another in the Givati Infantry—we were scattered across the army.
In the next few years there were more and more Israeli believers serving in the IDF, and a few started gathering for Bible studies and fellowship. When I turned 20 while in the army, one thing troubled me deeply: most of the believing friends I grew up with did not continue to follow the Lord. Over the years, a lot of Israeli youth raised in Messianic homes have walked away from the faith. A lot.
Some began to have romantic relationships with non-believers. Some simply didn’t know how to defend their faith, or know what they really believed. So when they served in the military, they were completely disoriented.
In the army everything is challenged—morality, values,our Biblical understanding, ethical decisions, and, of course, our spiritual walk. Military service is one of the most difficult, challenging times for a believing teenager. It is a spiritual desert. Emotionally, it is one of the most pressured times in life. Sexually, it is a temptation. It is a struggle.
We’re talking about the ages of 18, 19, 20, and 21. Men serve three years; women, two. It is a decisive stage of life when one is making critical decisions on who they are and what they believe. They are in the most precarious and challenging stage of their lives.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Our organization, Netivah (translation: “Pathway”), serves these teenagers with a total of 22 conferences, camps and programs each year to prepare them spiritually for what’s ahead! We provide spiritual “boot camps” from the seventh and eighth grades through the army years for Messianic Jewish young people. How do we encourage and challenge them? How do we provide them with what they need in order to last all the way through their two or three years in the military?
The sooner we can bring them into regular fellowship with a group of other believers, especially their own ages, the better the chance they will live for the Lord and their faith will not be shaken.
About 10 years ago we began a program called Netzor for high school graduates just before they go into the army. Netzor is a 10-day course that challenges these teenagers to know what they stand for and to encourage them to make a decision now! There are kids who have been raised in the faith but have never made a wholehearted commitment to serve Yeshua, no matter what. These are the ones who lose their way in the army. This year we are expecting 60 to 70 to go through the Netzor training.
CHOOSE THIS DAY
I really believe it is our responsibility to show them there’s a decision to make. It’s like in Joshua 24, when Israel’s leader said, “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve.” The children of Israel came back and said, “We’ll serve God.” But we also know that Joshua warned them that they could not serve God and other gods at the same time.
“Netzor” means “to be safe, to be guarded.” Proverbs says, “Above all things guard your heart.”
We help these young men and women guard their hearts and prepare them for the many challenges and distractions awaiting them during their military service. We talk to them about values; about Biblical mandates—what it means to be a servant. Our goal is not to make better soldiers, but to make better disciples for Yeshua who are serving in the military. We desire to make better messengers of the truth, and the hope that the Gospel promises to the young men and women they will be serving alongside.
Our goal is not to make better soldiers, but to make better disciples for Yeshua from those who are serving in the military.
YOUR JOB: TO BE A LIGHT
There is nothing we can do about going or not going to the army. This is our society; it’s part of our culture, part of our ongoing struggle for our state to survive. And of course, we want to encourage them to do their best as unto Yeshua wherever they are.
These believers know serving in a high place in the IDF is respected in our society, and we need to be really good soldiers. But we tell them, “It is not about how you will be the best soldiers or officers. It’s about being a light wherever you are!”
One of the things we share is that sometimes God will put them in the worst place, in the most difficult place, with the most difficult people in the army, because there they can be an influence. There they can share the Gospel and the truth with the people around them.
It’s not always popular to talk in this way, but I think when they finish this Netzor program, they go with the understanding of what it means to be a servant of Yeshua while serving in the military.
FIRST BIG CHALLENGE
There are three big challenges Messianic believers face in the military. First of all, our soldiers talk about the spiritual dryness during their military service. It’s fully understood that the routine of one year, two years, three years, surrounded by non-believers, of being challenged day after day for their faith, is wearing; it is not easy for these young men and women to stand for their faith during this long period of time.
We see the military as a spiritual desert, and we want to provide them with water wells along the way, from one well to another well, from a water spring to another water spring. You’ve not heard heartfelt worship until you’ve heard 120 soldiers who have been spiritually dry all week come into a time of worship and prayer where we provide a spiritual oasis for their souls.
I’m a worship leader, and sometimes I’ll stop playing and we will just sing, and you hear the voices of their hearts crying out to Yeshua. They know they are very much in a spiritual desert.
SECOND BIG CHALLENGE
The second challenge is commitment to sexual purity. For guys, there is pornography and constant temptations. For girls, there is nothing more attractive for young non-believing soldiers than a sweet, pure, young lady that’s been brought up in a Messianic home.
One of the things we have found is that our guys and our girls are just not prepared for this challenge. It is not just sexual. It starts with genuine friendships. For example, here’s a sweet young girl who’s grown up in a Messianic home; she is a true believer. And the guys are hitting on her left and right. She is not used to that kind of attention because in Messianic circles, in our camps and conferences, guys are respectful. But non-believers are very direct and don’t hold back!
Actually, our youth who have grown up in Messianic homes are quite impressive. They are respectful. They are good soldiers. They do well. They have a high level of values, and we find even Orthodox girls falling for these Messianic boys! Why? Because they’re good guys! The Messianic boys then look at these girls and say, “Wow, I’ve not seen girls like this in our Messianic community!” So there is temptation from every angle.
THIRD BIG CHALLENGE
The third challenge is how to share their faith and be a light. Messianic soldiers must be equipped, because for the first time in their life they’re being asked real, honest, elemental questions about their faith. Until now they’ve been able to just speak to whomever they feel most comfortable with. In high school you choose your friends; you choose who you are going to tell you’re a believer, and you’re honest and open with those whom you choose. Not so in the military. There you are—24/7—with a group of people who can see everything about you.
You are not being examined just on your outward behavior, but they are examining everything—every word you say, every attitude you have. They are measuring your behavior against what you say you believe. So there is no hiding who you really are in the military; it will come out. It will come out in the type of soldier that you are. It will come out in your behavior, with the words you speak, the values you hold. Some young believers don’t want to be under that kind of scrutiny so they might not tell anyone about their faith.
But many Messianic soldiers really want to be a testimony—want to be a light. For them, one of the big challenges to sharing the Gospel is that there are Orthodox guys and girls who do know the Bible. They know the Scriptures from a rabbinical perspective. Their challenges are deeper. They respond with, “Show me from the Scriptures. Prove to me that you know what you believe in.” So that’s one of our challenges in Netzor. You must know what you believe, why you believe it, and how to defend it.
COMING FROM ALL OVER ISRAEL
In our Netzor pre-military program, we gather boys and girls from all over the country, from all the congregations in Israel. We typically host 60–70 teenagers who have just graduated from high school who are about to begin their military service. It is a 10-day intensive program where we sleep outside on the Golan Heights. We hike with them and create bonding and relational activities. We bring in soldiers on active duty who share what it’s like to be a believer in the military.
We study the Bible with a strong emphasis on God’s instructions concerning our lifestyle. In a long four-hour session, we discuss ethical dilemmas and values. We then give them cards on which to write down their ethics, values and commitment to Yeshua.
MAKING WRITTEN COMMITMENTS
We challenge them to write several aspects of their own personal commitments on each of these values: honesty, purity, relationships with others, respect, family relationships, growing spiritually, and continued relationship with their congregation. They know they are making commitments before the Lord. We then laminate this card for them to put in their Bible.
It is a wonderful tool to help these teens keep themselves accountable. We know because of the testimonies coming from these young people after they have been in the army. Their personal, written commitment was, and still is, of great help to keep them strong in their faith.
Then there are others who, though they grew up in Messianic homes and have known the truth, have never surrendered to the Lordship of Yeshua. At Netivah, they have that opportunity.
At graduation, we invite elders and leaders of their congregations, parents and youth leaders, and we challenge them to keep these young men and women in prayer and in close relationship. The Netivah pre-military program has become a safety net—an instrument of God to keep young soldiers strong in their faith.
All of our 22 or more annual meetings, camps and programs keep us pushing forward constantly. For example, we feel we must have four to six meetings per year for our soldiers. Most of our conferences are over a Friday-Saturday when the soldiers are on leave. And here is our telltale statistic. Around 90% of the men and women who serve in the army and attend the soldiers conferences have grown up also attending the youth conferences! We have to start early! And we have to continue our relationship throughout their teens and their military service. We have seen that our outreach to believing soldiers is critical to their victorious walk with the Lord.