It’s May 2016. I meet Niv at a salon in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, accompanied by her mother, who is almost as equally excited as her daughter. They check out hair extensions and then Niv, a dancer who is about to turn 18, gets her hair and makeup done. She’s never been pampered like this before. Niv feels like a supermodel, at the center of everyone’s attention.

Back home she puts on her blue gown. Her father takes pictures of her as she walks down the stairs. Then they go out to the garden to take some more pictures. Her younger sister and the family dog are watching them through the window. This is a big day for Niv, for her family and friends. Tonight, Niv goes to her prom.

Back in the 1990s, when I was graduating from high school in Israel, there was no such thing as a prom. Now, like numerous aspects of American culture, it’ gained wide acceptance as a rite of passage for soon-to-be Israeli soldiers (though not everybody is so amped about it). These days, prom is held for high school students in virtually every city in Israel, with the exception of the religious educational system.

Like the American version of prom, Israelis celebrate the big day with dates, gowns, corsage, tuxedos, and sometimes even limos that drive happy teens to the venue, where they have drinks, catered food, and a dance party. A lot of money goes into the big night, especially for young women. A designer dress could cost 600 NIS ($165), and then there are the matching shoes and purse, jewelry, makeup and hair, and even trips to the tanning salon. Israeli teens obsess over their chosen outfits and planned hairdos in WhatsApp groups for weeks leading up to the event itself.

For American seniors, prom is a passageway between high school and college. Here in Israel, high school graduates continue to the obligatory army service; perhaps the prom is a form of escapism, a way to feel “normal,” young, and carefree before putting on the uniform to serve the country.

Slideshow: Prom in Israel
Getting ready for—and enjoying—the big night