Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Year(s) In Israel: Good, Bad, Ugly?

Chana’s husband Heshy recently posted a note on Facebook that briefly touches upon an issue I know Chana has already discussed quite thoroughly: the year in Israel. As someone who did not attend a seminary before starting Stern College, and who is firmly rooted in halacha, I have always found Chana’s perspective to be unique and very much worth listening to.

I attended a yeshiva in Israel for two complete years before I entered Yeshiva University. My experience was very positive overall, with a few bumps along the way that I would attribute to either my personal relationships or the often kind of crazy group of guys I ended up going to yeshiva with.

As a ba’al teshuva originally coming from a very traditional, though not entirely halachically observant background, I imagined I would be behind the curve with regard to my learning skills, religious observance, and other areas. I was honestly shocked beyond shocked at the behavior, language, and general demeanor of the majority of guys I encountered when I began Shana Aleph. These young men were products of the major yeshiva high schools (co-ed and not) in North America, which, due to my complete ignorance of such institutions, made me think they’d also be serious about learning and growing, being open minded toward deepening their already firm religious commitments and personal hashkafos.

Boy, was I wrong. As I learned, it turned out that so many of the big-named Jewish high schools out there were very unsuccessful at making sure the guys who went there were truly observant, enjoyed learning, and developed toward adulthood. I’m not pointing fingers at the school as the only factor in the issues that plague teenagers (male and female) across the Modern Orthodox world, but I certainly think these schools are a major factor, along with inattentive/overly lax parents, peer pressure, and the secular media.

Anyway, my intention in this post isn’t to bash Modern Orthodox high school education or the students or parents that are a part of this system. Rather, I want to focus on what I have seen and experienced, while in Israel through my time at YU until the present, that suggests the year in Israel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that it just isn’t obligatory for every single kid out there.

Based on my rather positive experience in Israel, I used to be of the mindset that everyone had to go, or at least should go to Israel for a year (or two) post high school. After seeing a few friends attend my yeshiva after starting off somewhere else, it seemed like everyone had a yeshiva/seminary they could attend, it’s just a matter finding which one is the right fit. Certainly going to the wrong yeshiva can be detrimental, but with the multitude of options out there, there had to be some particular school that fit every personality, right?

As it turns out, it’s not so simple.

I heard Dr. Pelcovitz quote that there is strong evidence from research done on high school students who attend a yeshiva or seminary in Israel that there is a subset of teenagers who should never have gone in the first place. Something like 10-15% if I recall, but don’t quote me on the numbers. These students tend to degrade and become less religious and connected to Judaism because of their experience, basically having the total opposite effect that they and perhaps their parents had intended when sending them on that El Al plane to Ben Gurion.

I never had any real issues or negative encounters with rabbeim, as some people I know (or personally witnessed) did. These students probably fell into this group Dr. Pelcovitz mentioned, and were either in the wrong yeshiva, or perhaps in the wrong country entirely. I personally observed a few individuals who were, by nature, rather inquisitive and not so willing to listen to or accept anything the rabbis told them. I’m not in any way suggesting that this is a fault on their part, because I have no right to judge them or say they have a corrupted mindset that wouldn’t allow them to experience a religiously defining experience. However, they probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place, because their personal netiyah was not of the sort that would benefit from the format of current yeshivas in Israel. I don’t think they necessarily disliked rabbis or Judaism, but I do think that this manner of study and the environment they found themselves in were not the best conditions for their personal growth and investment in what Judaism and being observant of mitzvos really meant to them.

I guess you could say I was one of the “success stories” who came to Israel looking to learn, grow, and further solidify by Jewish identity. I saw other students (few in number) who had similar mindsets, while most of the guys eventually came around and benefitted tremendously from their yeshiva experience did not arrive with those intentions whatsoever. They were happy to be away from their parents, came to Israel because it was the thing to do, and perhaps pondered the notion that they might get something out of it. When the time was right, when their minds and hearts were open, they found their niche and successfully developed it over the course of one or two years in Israel.

Then there are the “flip outs.” Some students go to Israel seeking to flip out for one reason or another, and for some students it happens to just grab them and never let go. In either case, I personally would like to make the distinction between those who honestly discover their true “calling” as it were, and those who devolve into a cult-like relationship with their Judaism and rabbeim.

I firmly believe that there are supposed to be specific individuals (I say individuals, because Chazal have many quotes about these people, and they call them “yechidim”) who should be learning Torah 24/7, and who then become our next generation of teachers, rabbeim, rosh kollels, poskim, and gedolei hador. But, they are few and far between. However those people get to be where they need to be is irrelevant, but hopefully they will catch the opportunity to maximize their potential and fulfill their divinely ordained role in this world for the betterment of all of klal Yisrael.

While this process can often be shocking to their parents, family, and friends, I think (and have seen) that those who are truly honest and level-headed about becoming more “yeshivish” or whatever you want to call it, will find ways to gracefully handle the transformation and how it affects those near and dear to them. As one of my rabbeim told me in a pre-Pesach shiur for guys going back for bein hazmanim, for every chumra out there halacha also has a legitimate kulah that is perfectly acceptable. One should strive to find the proper balance between his personal observances and the needs and sensitivities of those around him, especially parents, and it is far better to be maykil, and know that you are personally fulfilling halacha, than to stick to your guns about a chumra and stir up trouble back home. The cost of losing or estranging a person’s relationship with his parents (in particular), family, and friends isn’t worth the chumra that you’re forcing down their throats.

Realistic, rational people consider this approach and utilize it to the maximum. They are sensitive and caring toward their fellow Jews, aware of how their actions might upset or disturb someone, and do their very best to maintain their higher level of observance while simultaneously continuing to nurture their connections to those who matter most to them. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, and it can take time to show that despite your “change” (which may include appearance, actions, speech, etc) you are serious in your new commitments to Judaism, find great meaning and fulfillment in them, and still truly care about those around you and how your new mode of life can affect them.

These are the types of more right-winged “yeshivish” people I think are worthy of admiration and respect. To them, their new hashkafos and observances are real, which they achieved through self introspection, along with guidance from rabbeim and mentors – but primarily because they chose to want to live this way, not because they were told or forced to.

That leads me into the second category – those who “flip out” because they are under the impression, whether self motivated, or directly told by certain rabbeim, teachers, or mentors, that this is the proper and only way for a Jew to live. That anything else is meaningless, not frum, and anyone who doesn’t live this way can be lumped together with groups like the Reform and Conservative, who have legitimately done far more harm than good for our global Jewish community. These are the people who march triumphantly back to America, and instead of applying their growth in Judaism to real-world situations, flout their previous lives under the banner of being “frum.”

In the process of gallivanting around in their new “frum” trappings, spouting off “Baruch HaShem’s” and “Bli Neders” in an unrestrained and thoughtless fashion – as though it were obligatory to end every sentence with such aphorisms, they begin to distance themselves from their parents and loved ones – either intentionally, or as a result of their behavior. They radiate arrogance, despite the fact that they claim to be humble, righteous and devoted to their religion. They seem to forget that parents, even not-religious, or not-as-religious parents are absolutely worth every notion of respect, and worse, they seem to worship the rabbeim and mentors that got them to make this transformation.

Suddenly, the person you knew, who was once at least individualistic enough to think for him/herself now has to ask their rebbi a shayla about every single thing that happens in their lives – and take their advice (it’s not always about psak) as l’havdil, the word of G-d. Meaningful discussion about the wealth and breadth of Jewish haskhafa and differing viewpoints becomes insignificant next to the power of their rebbe’s/teacher’s words. It becomes a duty to “educate” others to become like they are, and exactly like they are, instead of encouraging others around them to grow on their own and find their hashkafic niche within Torah observant Judaism.

I personally think that these individuals, like the first category Dr. Pelcovitz talked about, should probably never have gone to Israel in the first place. Sometimes these young men and women do need further guidance and the opportunity to grow – and thus attending a yeshiva or seminary, or perhaps pursuing focused Judaic studies with a rebbe or institution in America will be necessary – and I firmly think everyone has to discover their needs in these areas. However, some people, who were fine and had a proper serious approach with their previous religious observance, only become corrupted in this fashion when exposed to more right-wing sentiment, because they aren’t strong enough to resist and think for themselves. Some become convinced on their own while others get caught up in the fervor of a dynamic rebbe who becomes their sole link to “authentic” observant Judaism. In both instances thoughtful logic and tact get thrown out the window in favor of a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, which can only, and does, lead to conflict.

I think that this is the major reason for the “flip out” crisis that faces so many Orthodox families today.

I believe it is wrong to teach someone that there is only one “correct” way to be observant of Torah and Mitzvos within the context of proper halachic observance. Halacha is halacha, but there are chumros and kulos, and there are certainly a plethora of hashkafic fashions in which a person can conduct his/her life within the greater umbrella of halacha, which isn’t more proper or acceptable than any other. I personally find many things to respect in all the hashkafos out there, and I also have critiques of each viewpoint – because none of them are perfect. Each has its own positive, neutral, and negative elements, and it is up to the individual to determine where he or she best fits in after much soul-searching and exploration. This doesn’t mean that someone has to do anything differently from their parents, as long as they find that meaningful, but if there is something spiritually lacking in how they were raised, then it is that person’s prerogative to find out where they need to be to best serve G-d throughout their lives.

This means that every person has his/her own individual levels of Torah study, chesed, tzedaka, leadership, communal involvement, teaching others, etc. As long as they are within the realm of halacha as determined by own established mesora, no one should have a right to look down on anyone for being different from them in nuances of their lives. I remember a pair of shiurim I heard in Israel about Yom Ha’atzma’ut, one given by a more chareidi rabbi and the other by a da’ati leumi rabbi – and the da’ati leumi rabbi emphasized that although they disagree about how to approach Yom Ha’atzma’ut, they agree on the other 99% of halacha (the issue was hallel with a bracha or not). That is how Jews are supposed to be – all different, yet similar to one another in our obligation to halacha.

Teenagers who are otherwise level-headed and observant, but cannot withstand the pressures and influence of right wing teachers should either go to a different yeshiva/seminary, or not go to Israel, just as the students who get totally turned off to Judaism should explore other options that best suit their individual needs. I think it would be far better to remain more stationary in their identity – though certainly maturing through further Jewish education in some form – than become so “religious” that they close their mind to everyone they know and place all their faith in one teacher.

Being so dependent upon a single individual, no matter how great he or she might be, is not what Judaism is about. We don’t believe in infallibility, that’s for Catholics. Yet, I’ve seen too many young men and women voluntarily (seemingly) give up their free-will so that they can be “frum” and will ask a shayla for every little thing in their lives.

This especially applies to marriage and dating, when this sort of cult-like sickness can alienate parents from children who choose to follow a rebbe’s advice against anything their parents say. It’s one thing to want to live a more observant lifestyle than your parents may have initially wanted for you – that will inevitably happen for children who experience a greater quantity and quality of Jewish education than their parents – but that can be handled in a respectful fashion where hurt feelings can be avoided. It’s entirely another thing to disregard the words of the people who gave birth to you, raised you, and know you far better than any rebbe whose shiur you attended for a year or two – despite the religious differences – and only have your best concerns at heart. As much as an influential teacher/rebbe may claim to care or actually care about you, the two are completely incomparable.

Specifically related to how one dates, who one dates, the length of dating/courtship, who one talks to while dating, as well as the length of engagement are all hot-button topics for these sorts of people. Parents often don’t “get” what their kids are doing, and the kids very often don’t give their parents the time of day to properly, methodically, and respectfully explain their beliefs and what their intentions are. Too many resort to subterfuge, telling some details but not the important ones, in an attempt to make their parents feel at ease with the process, which will only shift into crisis mode when they suddenly show up with a young man or lady and tell their parents that they’re getting engaged.

To me, this is the ultimate chutzpah. Perhaps it stems from what I learned while in Yeshiva, that parents are of paramount importance and we, the younger generation, should strive our hardest to go against the trend of modern children who berate and belittle their fathers and mothers. One of the most helpful pieces of advice one of my rabbeim gave me when I talked to him about starting to date when I went back to America was that I should first talk to my parents, tell them that I am ready to start going out with the intention of getting married, hear their perspective, and discuss practical points regarding my future, such as what would happen if I got married in undergrad, who would pay living expenses and for grad school, etc. The point was to find out my parents’ thoughts on the matter, make sure we all understood one another, and to reaffirm that despite our very different levels of religious observance, we are all one family and can live together in peace, with great love and mutual respect.

Granted, there was still a bit of tension along the long journey that led eventually led me to the chupah with ASog because life is never perfect, but we avoided most, if not all major conflicts. Since then, I’ve seen others butt heads quite unnecessarily with their parents because they won’t approach this matter with the proper measure of respect and understanding.

In the end, I have come to recognize that Chana has been right all along, and not every needs to, or even should attend a yeshiva or seminary in Israel. I hope we can all be more understanding of those who, for legitimate reasons, choose not to, spend that year in Israel. I also hope that we can all strive to help those who are hurt by their Israel experiences, who either have become disconnected from Judaism, or who have become so enthralled in harmful zealotry, bringing them back to a more proper shvil zahav.


  1. I really appreciate this piece. It puts to words many of my more ambiguous thoughts on the topic. Well said!

  2. I was not able to attend Seminary for reasons above my control (visa, etc). I went to Stern as a real freshman instead. I made the conscious decision that it is not where you are but what you do that matters. I strongly believe that personal growth can come at any point and at any place.

    I was able to take a semester off and be a madricha in a seminary. During the interview process I was asked by the Rabbi of one of these seminaries: "Since you didn't go to Israel, are you frum?". Those words were like daggers. After I hung up with him, I burst into tears.

    I think people put an overemphasis on this one year--when in reality, you don't become a person in one year. This year CAN have a huge impact in your life (if you let it) but it does not MAKE you. This is one of the reasons I told my girls after seminary that davka right afterward they should not date. Because after this boost of inspiration, you have to make it concrete and make those changes a part of who you are.

    In general, we should all be more open minded and less judgmental about people who are different and had different experiences that we did. I think if possible, people should go to seminary/yeshiva (that fits them) but there are many that thrive better in different environments. I think that the perception that the year in Israel is the end all, be all of one's religiosity, is a reflection of the issues with our current Jewish education system (but that, sigh, is a different topic).

    I could say much more on this topic but I feel like I already wrote a megillah lol so for now, this will suffice.

  3. I read your blog and I was very intersted in it. You bring out many good points. I would like to add to it though. We have had three children do Shana Alef in Israel in different Yeshivas and Seminaries. Our 3rd just returned from Shana Alef. His was not as great an experience I will not mention the name of the Yeshvia. He was accepted to two other Yeshivas and was about to go to another one when he got accepted to the yeshiva he went to without even applying - just based on the interview. We thought it was main stream and we got advice from others that it would be the right place. It started off amazing, but he did not fit into the Yeshiva's box quickly enough. Although he is FFB he still had questions. He was beinngng to see the true joy of Yiddishkeit because of his great rebbes who helped to guide him - when he was asked to leave with 6 wks left of the school year. The Hanhala was old school, they "whipped" the boys with harsh our son they would say "your life will amount to nothing","you don't know what we are doing financially for your parents to keep you here", and there was more. But still he remained and despite this he learned to stay under the radar, and he bagan to grow with such nachas to us. He called my husband and said "abba, I am so happy and so excited to wake up tomorrow and serve HaShem!" Did his rebbes see this growth? yes. did the Hanhala? no - but they did admit after speaking to the Rebbbes that our son was growing a lot just not at the speed that the Yeshiva would want. Is it about money? About the "look" of the Yeshiva? They will admit it had nothing to do with drugs or the like our son just didnt fit into their Yeshiva (at the right time) and he was asked to leave. He could have come because he felt abandoned and alone. But he wanted to complete the year. He was accepted to another Yeshiva but it was not the same. He was alone and lonely - he learned as best as he could but not to the level that he feels he could have had he been able to stay the last 6 wks. He is now back home and he is lost. Please click on this link: Our son was not the only one asked to leave but others who did drugs and had girlfriends and did 'things' with these girls were allowed to stay. I am in education - but even those in chinuch have kids who are harder to handle - but there are times when these boys are kicked out for not "fitting in the box" at the right time or not in the box of the Yeshiva. HaShem accepts us all for who we are and I understand the frustration. But Rabbi Kraus is right in what he says. MOST kids do not learn at the same rate as others. Its a painful experience for the child it harms a child for a while. If there is a supportive family and parents who help the child then that is a step up, but still there is damage done. If there isn't a supportive family or parents then who knows what will be. if Yeshivas are going to accept these boys they better do their investigation just like one would a shidduch before accepting the boy. Many yeshivas are looking out for the "look" of the school and the money that can be attained. I'm sorry to say.

  4. Kindred Spirit - thanks, and glad it spoke to you.

    ZP - thanks for your perspective. I'm always interested in hearing from students who start as real freshmen at YU/Stern.

    mom - thank you for the insightful response. Having never gone through thus process as a parent, I think you added a much greater dimension to what I wrote. I appreciate the more inclusive parent viewpoint. I imagine it's very tough on parents to see their children struggle with the Israel experience, as you've demonstrated.

  5. Thanks for posting - I only helps other parents on this road to Israel. Parents have to know their kids and Yeshivas have to investigate the child - not just accept blindly. I"YH all will be ok with our son - I will keep you all posted.


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