An inside peek in the graduation ceremony of Messianic army preparation program

Natzor - preparation program for the Messianic army recruit (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

Natzor is a ten-day intensive army preparation program for Messianic 18 year olds who have graduated high school and await their enlistment to the IDF. Run by Netivah youth ministry, this session marked the 15th consecutive year of the program.

I attended the recent graduation ceremony, held at the Baptist Village close to Petach Tikvah in central Israel. This session included 66 participants.

After a few words of prayer, the participants entered the venue, marching to parade music, carrying two flags; the flag of Natzor, and the unique flag for session, decorated with sweet potatoes for some reason. As they arrived into the amphitheater, they split into two rows and placed the flags in front of the stage next to the flag of Israel. As soon as the youth took their seats, they did “hakshev,” the military attention call, and then shouted their “misparey barzel,” the quick and efficient attendance check system used by the IDF infantry.

After showing their families how they had mastered the military discipline, the youth were asked to sit down, and the worship team was called to take the stage. Six of the participants took the stage and led the audience in worship. After the worship, Joel Goldberg, founder and director of Netivah, took the stage for a twenty-minute message.

Joel Goldberg, founder and director of Netivah youth ministry (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

“Ten days of games, activities, trainings, and anything you can think of. Rolling in grass, in thorns, doing ‘schnitzel’ you called it? You know to prepare a schnitzel you dip in water and then in bread crumbs, so they made schnitzels in the sand during this time. But most importantly, we learned from the Word of God. That was the main thing. We did a lot of dumb things during this program, so thank you for flowing with us. But the most important thing is that we follow Yeshua, that we are his disciples. Look around, look at one another. These are your mates. This is your graduation class. I want to remind us of what we learned during these ten days. I want to talk about ‘your gentle spirit,’ in Philippians 4.”

As Goldberg said this, the verses from Philippians 4:4-8 appeared on the screen.

“Philippians 4:4 says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!’ Philippians was written from prison, by a person who was going through tremendous difficulties and challenges. He says, ‘guys, I want you to be happy. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s challenging, even when you don’t feel good, even when it’s cold.’ The army is maybe not a prison, but there are some similarities. Sometimes the conditions are even better in prison,” he said with a chuckle. “It can be hard to rejoice under those circumstances. Still, Shaul says this, and he continues with ‘Let your gentle spirit be known to all men.’ What is this gentle spirit? It’s the way you act, your attitude, the way you speak, the way you treat the people around you. It’s true for everyone here, but in the army, the challenge is even bigger. We spoke about the relative morality, remember? We will be challenged about the most basic things we know to be true. And we will have to take a stand for them, and stand firm. This gentle spirit Shaul refers to means that God puts the Holy Spirit within you, so that you will stand firm against all challenges. But he also says it shall be known. People will look to you. And they will say ‘They are different. Why are they not like the others?’ And one day they will say about you in the unit, ‘Oh, them? No, they would never lie. They never curse. They don’t speak behind people’s back. They don’t speak vulgarities like all the others.’ You will be different. When Paul says it shall be known to all, it means that each and every one who meets you and talks to you will say ‘something is different about these people.’ And he continues and says ‘The Lord is near.’ Don’t give up. Don’t let go. The Lord is close, and he wants you to live for him and live in a way that glorifies him.”

Goldberg continued through Philippians with the next verse, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” He emphasized that this means that God must be in the center, and they should bring their troubles to him. “Why supplication? Same reason as he said to rejoice. Because the situation will not always be easy. Sometimes there will be challenges. And sometimes your prayer will not just be ‘Abba, we are so happy to be here today,’ but it will be ‘Abba, help me,’ ‘Abba, I don’t know how I got here,’ ‘Abba, help me go through this day,’ ‘Abba, tell another believer to call me today, because I don’t know what I’ll do here alone.’ This is the reality of military service, and we have soldiers here that can testify. Sometimes all we need is to say, ‘God, I need you today.’”

Natzor graduation ceremony (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

Goldberg added, “Shaul also says ‘with thanksgiving.’ The best time to praise God is when you are in a military march at the 15th kilometer with a stretcher on your shoulder, and it hurts, and you cry out to God, and you just sing worship songs under your breath. You’re not allowed to talk, you’re not allowed to complain, but you can sing within your heart. Those are the best times to thank God and praise him.”

Goldberg went on to the next part of the verse, which is: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The word ‘guard has the same root as Natzor in Hebrew, and Goldberg emphasized that. He said that the word ‘guard means to safeguard, keep, or keep safe, and from the same root also comes the military term referring to the safe mode of a weapon. Something that is guarded and locked well. “This is the spiritual situation we need to be in,” he said.

Goldberg continued, “And then Shaul says ‘Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.’ To dwell is not necessarily to sit and read for hours. But our thoughts and concentration, and our personal conduct is before God. It’s on these things. It’s about truth. Yeshua says these things too in Matthew 7. He says that good trees make good fruits, and bad trees make bad fruits. If we are rooted in God, we will make good fruit. But if we are rooted in a bad place, or not rooted at all, we will make bad fruit. I want to encourage you – be attentive to the Word of God. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Don’t let go. Stay close to your family. Stay close to your congregation. When you’re home for Shabbat, don’t be too tired to get up in the morning and go to the congregation. Don’t make excuses. Your gathering is important, and if we are not in fellowship with our congregation and our family, we might find ourselves in fellowship with other people.”

After these words, Goldberg turned to the parents that were there. “I want to encourage you,” he said, and pointed to the participants. “These young people need you now more than ever. They need you to be there for them. They think they don’t need you, but precisely because of that, they do. They need you to call them, send messages, send pictures from home. Tell them you miss them and love them. Go visit them when they close a Shabbat on the base, as much as possible. Send them packages. Be in contact all the time, they need you.”

Then he turned to the pastors, youth leaders and congregation elders in attendance. “Youth leaders, listen up – you didn’t get rid of them. It’s just a bit more effort now. So I encourage you, make an effort, don’t let the soldiers go. They need their home congregation more than ever. If you don’t have a soldiers’ program in the congregation, this is the time to create one.”

Goldberg finished his speech by saying, “My time is over – and your time starts.” Turning to the youth he said, “Serving in the IDF is a privilege. It’s not just a national burden, and not just a national obligation. It’s a privilege to serve in the State of Israel in the Land of Israel. It’s a privilege to be a witness, a light, and a tool in the hands of God while you serve your country. Be strong and courageous. We all love you.” He turned to the Netivah staff. “Right?” They affirmed with an applause, and then he closed with a prayer.

Two participants then came up to the podium to share personal experiences from the program, and then they showed all the attendees a 15-minute summary video of the past ten days. Tents, trips, teachings, games, worship, bus rides. One could almost think it was a summary video of a high school summer camping trip, if it weren’t for the midnight drills, the wooden rifles, the push-ups, the military discipline and the camouflage face paint.

Participants receiving their graduation gifts (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

Once the video was over, they called up the participants one by one by name, to receive their graduation gift – a backpack with Natzor’s logo filled with things which were lined up on two tables in the front. After that, they gave thanks to the staff and the hard work in planning and preparing for the camp. Finally, they asked Pastor Shmuel Aweida from Haifa to come up for a closing prayer.

“We thank you for these participants. Thank you for being the one who watches over Israel who will neither slumber nor sleep. You are our security. We pray they will go forth into this new phase of their lives, guarded in your grace and truth, wherever they are, whether in the field or in an office. We commit them into your loving strong arms, God of Israel, Lord of Hosts, in Yeshua’s name, Amen.”

After the ceremony was over, I interviewed one of the participants.

“I have not had this much fun, or been this blessed ever for the past three years,” she said. “The amount of people I got to know, and who supported me. I feel so calm and ready for this next phase in my life now, and the leaders were so caring, they spoke to each one of us, it was wonderful.”

Despite the drills in the middle of the night, the running, and those “schnitzels”?

“Well, only the boys did schnitzels,” she told me, “but yes, it was fun. For some girls, the military parts and the discipline were difficult, but I liked it. And since it unifies us, and since we know it’s more like a game, and the leaders afterwards hug us, you don’t really feel the tiredness, because it’s just fun.”

So would you say it’s breaking you down like the military basic training, but lets you try it out in a supporting and loving place, so when it happens again in the army, you feel you’ve already done it, and it’s less of a problem?

“Exactly. But I don’t think it was as intensive as the basic training. It was intensive with very few hours of sleep, getting up, doing the same thing, and two-hours lessons after having slept for just two hours. Last night we did a full march with bags and full equipment. We were not allowed to talk. They woke us up at 2:30 in the morning, and we arrived at 6:00 AM. When we arrived they gave us Bibles and pins, we did a group photo, and then the bus brought us back to the camp. And this was after everyone had gone to sleep at midnight. And I also had guard duty that night, so I only slept two hours. But when we came back to the camp, they gave us five hours of free time to get ready, so I could catch another three hours of sleep.”

And you would still recommend others to do this program?

“Absolutely. It’s worth it. But don’t give away too much spoilers in your article. Let the next years’ participants be a bit surprised. If you come with the right attitude, and you give God his place, it’s a blessing.”

Hypothetically – a teenager who lives in rebellion against God and against his parents and doesn’t want to go to the congregation, and his parents force him to attend Natzor – what would happen?

“That happened. At the end he said ‘This year was my worst year when it comes to my connection with God, and I didn’t want to come here, and I was bummed out. But people kept being nice to me, told me to stop moping, so I changed my attitude and I really feel I reconnected to God in this program.’ It was really encouraging.”