Thursday, April 6, 2017

From the Desk of An 18-Year-Old Yeshiva Student: L’Shanah HaBet B’Yerushalayim?

Over the last several decades, it has become the norm in most Modern Orthodox communities for high school graduates to study in Israel for a year at yeshiva or seminary. This remains the case, with a slight modification: yeshivas are now pushing the standardization of two years of study in Israel, the second year being more popularly known as Shanah Bet. (As of now, this is not the case with women’s seminaries. To my knowledge, many or most seminaries do not have a second year program, and the ones that do contain few students.)

There is often a fair deal of pressure and confusion involved with this decision, especially at this time of the year. I hope this article provides an opportunity for first-year yeshiva students who are reading this article in the safety of their living rooms, having come home for bein hazmanim, to sit and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of returning to Israel for a second year, without the noise of their rabbis and fellow students.

I have compiled a list of the most common reasons that I am aware of as to why yeshiva students return to Israel for a second year of study. Most people will come back for more than one of these reasons, but to make this more fun, I have characterized each reason and given it a name. They are:

1. The Shteiger

Many people return to yeshiva for good reasons. These highly motivated young men learn seriously throughout their whole first year. After this, they decide that they want to come back for more. This is great, and I think that this should be highly encouraged. However, let us not kid ourselves into thinking that this is the only type of student that exists, as we will see in the following examples.

2. The Do-Over

This is the guy who horsed around during his first year and wasted most of his time. At some point during the year (maybe even at the very end--yikes!) he turned around and got serious. Now unhappily realizing that he spent his year partying and goofing off, he comes back for a second year to make up for what he missed.

Interestingly enough, I suspect that not all “Do-Over”s are even conscious of this. I imagine that many of them actually change their attitude from a passive one to a serious one much earlier on in the year, but at that point think to themselves, perhaps subconsciously, “I guess I’ll always have next year. Why work now?” This can severely cripple one’s growth during his first year.

3. The Treasure Hunter

Watch out for this one. This is the guy who was “looking for something” during his first year in Israel, but he just didn’t quite find it--whatever that mysterious, unidentifiable “thing” was. Usually, he is guilty of not spelling out specific goals for what he wants to get out of yeshiva. So, instead of actually facing reality, this poor guy spends another year of his life in a cloud of confusion, hoping that he will someday find what he is “looking for.”

For advice on how to clearly map out your goals for yeshiva, please see my last article “How (Not) to Ruin Your Year in Israel.”

4. The Relapse Preventer

I find this person to have the most frustrating reason for coming back to yeshiva for a second year. This guy gained a lot in yeshiva, and he has been genuinely changed by the experience. However, he fears that one year of yeshiva is not enough to prevent him from returning to his previous habits, once back home. Therefore, he grounds himself in a safe yeshiva environment, where he hopes that time will be his friend, and help save him from such an outcome.

I know that this slightly shifts from the main point of this article, but the following must be asked: Is this student’s previous environment so toxic to growth that he is afraid of going back there? Doesn’t the mere existence of such a person testify to the problems of the Modern Orthodox environment?

And if the concern here is not his returning to his home, but rather what he will encounter in a college campus environment, does this change anything? Isn’t it the job of a self-defining Modern Orthodox community to properly educate him to learn how to integrate into a non-Jewish environment while strongly retaining a Torah observant-Jewish identity, not the job of a yeshiva?

Think about it.

5. The Tzioni

This person’s reason for coming back is not really relevant to the quality of his tenure in yeshiva. Instead, this guy has decided that he is going to live in Israel, maybe for the rest of his life. In fact, I have heard from one person, and I am sure that there are others, who claimed at the very beginning of his first year in yeshiva that he had “made Aliyah.” (A discussion of the practicality of such a decision is beyond the scope of this article.) Often, such a person is without a plan in this regard. So he plays it safe and stays in yeshiva for another year.

6. The Conformist

At many yeshivas--both teachers and peers--pressure students into coming back to Israel for a second year. They may use scare tactics (see “The Relapse Preventer”) or just an avalanche of peer pressure.

I wasn’t even aware that such a phenomenon existed until one of my friends pointed this out to me. This friend studies at a hesder yeshiva, where this predicament seems to be more prevalent, since a large number of American hesder students usually return for a second year. This friend told me that in his yeshiva, somebody who doesn’t come back is regarded as a failure, a dropout.

However, the hesder yeshivas aren’t the only guilty ones. One of my friends attended a meeting with a rabbi to discuss the possibility of coming back. This would have been fine had the meeting not been scheduled, without warning, by the rabbi.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of my British friends told me that an extra year in Israel makes all the difference for  shidduchim in Britain. I wonder if the same can be said of America.

I’ve even begun to notice a change in the wording of some rabbis when they speak about this. Instead of saying “please stay,” they will say “please don’t leave,” as if we’ve already committed to staying longer.  As my hesder friend said to me, “It’s not a one-year program anymore, Ezra. It’s a two-year program.”

Now, I don’t want to make the rabbis look like the bad guys here. I assume that all of them have the best intentions for their students. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why do the rabbis of many yeshivas feel so strongly about Shanah Bet? On average, parents and students do not seem to feel the same way. Perhaps I will discuss this in another article.

With that, I will say this. Shanah Bet is simply an option, not an inherently good or bad thing. Like most other options in life, it can be beneficial to some people and detrimental to others. The best way to determine whether or not it is the right to decision for you is to determine the reasons why you want to come back.

If you are “The Shteiger” or even “The Do-Over” then these reasons are probably already pretty clear to you. If you are “The Relapse Preventer” or  “The Tzioni” then maybe you should consider other solutions to the problems you may encounter: in the case of the former, think about alternative ways to retain your updated approach to a Torah lifestyle, and in the case of the latter, start planning out your new life in Israel, but don’t come back to yeshiva just to avoid planning your future.

If you are “The Treasure Hunter” then you’ve got some serious work to do. Please do yourself a favor and don’t wallow in your confusion, floating around like a ghost haunting the halls of your yeshiva. Figure out what it is you really want.

But please, please, don’t be a “Conformist.” Your life and your time are much more important than the approval of your rabbis and peers. But by all means, do speak to your rabbis about this, but only with ones whom you feel comfortable talking to. However, many rabbis unfortunately have a“one size fits all” mentality when it comes to this. It doesn’t matter how many success stories emerged from people who went for Shanah Bet. What works for everyone won’t necessarily work for you. Do what’s best for you.

Special thanks to Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, CJ Glicksman, Yoni Benarroch, and my Dad for assisting me with this article.

Friday, March 10, 2017

From the Desk of an 18-Year-Old Yeshiva Student: How (Not) to Ruin Your Year in Israel

I wasn’t going to write this article because I first thought that the information in it is obvious. What prompted me to write this was seeing people without goals waste their year in yeshiva or ending up stuck in the wrong one. Unfortunately, people usually don’t realize this until it’s too late. Here’s how to avoid becoming one of them:

1. Becoming a Proactive Student

The point of studying in a yeshiva or seminary is to accomplish goals that you set for yourself, whatever those goals may be. Yeshivas are means, not ends, for achieving these goals. Most yeshivas have their own goals for their students. Few do not.

Proactive students write out a list of their goals before choosing a yeshiva. Reactive students have vague goals or no goals at all, thereby submitting themselves to whatever goals their yeshiva has for them. They may or may not accomplish these goals, depending on how much they care about them and how motivated they are. Still, these goals are not their goals.

You can be a proactive student, a reactive student, or somewhere in between. The choice begins before you begin looking at different yeshivas. Simply by choosing to become a proactive student, you are ready to move on to Step 2. Choose wisely.

2.  Write Out Your Goals

Before you even consider different yeshivas, write out a list of goals you have for yourself for the following year. Think “what can I get out of a year in yeshiva?” If nothing comes to mind, you may want to rethink boarding that plane in September.

Goals can range from “Assess the validity of Torah” to “Learn which commentaries to look at for different types of questions that arise when studying Talmud” plus everything beyond that and in between.

Maybe you want to improve the quality of your prayers. Maybe you feel that you want to connect more to Torah observance, but are lacking the necessary inspiration. Or maybe you want to simply explore the ancient and timeless wisdom that the Torah has to offer. But whatever, you choose, be specific.

Also, consider if you are putting too much on your plate. Be honest with how much you are capable of handling and make sure to prioritize.

Every person should have their own unique goals for themselves. These are not  the goals that your teachers, rabbis, or parents may have for you. If their goals are different from yours, talk to your guides and get them to elaborate why their goals for you are different from the ones you have for yourself.

Use your own mind to reach a conclusion. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. Your guides are great for advice, but you should be trying to develop into your own person during this year.

3. Choosing a Yeshiva

Once you’ve made the list, you are ready to pick a yeshiva. To do this, first figure out what its goals are for its students. You have selected the right yeshiva once your goals line up with its goals more than any other yeshiva’s.

A good way of finding out what different yeshivas’ goals are is to look at their websites, schedules, current rabbeim, and most importantly: current students. An even better way of doing this is simply to ask them.

Don’t waste time during interviews. Ask “What is your yeshiva’s goals for its students?”, or, my favorite question to ask during my interviews last year, “What makes your yeshiva stand out among all the others? What can I get here that I cannot get anywhere else? What would I be missing out on if I didn’t come here?”

Watch out for red flags: If you get vague answers, like “the guys”, “the rabbeim”, or “the environment”, ask for more details. Every yeshiva is going to tell you things like that. Also look out for a yeshiva that claims that it is the best yeshiva for everybody. Every honest yeshiva knows that this is not true. Anybody who makes this claim does not have your interests in mind, only their own.

WARNING: DO NOT seek advice from a former member of a yeshiva or one of your teachers if the information on this yeshiva is outdated. Many yeshiva applicants make this big mistake. Try to get the most recent information possible by talking to current and newly former students, or to one of your teachers who are in contact with them. Many teachers form their opinions on yeshivas with outdated information and do not change their minds, even many years later. They have good intentions, but do not become a victim of this.

4. Maintenance

As a close rebbe once said to me, “You won’t know whether or not a yeshiva is the right place for you until you go there.” After the first couple of weeks of settling in, go over your list of goals, and make sure they are in line with your yeshiva’s goals.

Make an appointed time, once a day, week, or month, to check your list to make sure that you’re following through. How often you do this is up to you, but it is too important to forget. You must keep up with yourself throughout the year in order to get the most out of it.

5. New Goals

As the year progresses, you will likely discover new goals that you have for yourself. When a new goal comes to mind, write it down, think about it, and if you choose, add it to the list and keep up with it. But make sure that a new goal is your goal.

Students who, instead of writing down their goals, keep them bouncing around in their head have a tendency to forget about their goals and subconsciously replace them with their yeshiva’s goals. Don’t do this. Think carefully before you add --or even subtract-- a goal.

6. Making the Switch

If you realize that your goals do not line up with the goals your yeshiva has for you, you may want to look someplace else.  Switching yeshivas is a tough choice for everybody who does so, but you will be very glad down the line if you switch to one that’s better for you, even if your friends, parents, and teachers look at you funny. Be brave.

How do you know which yeshiva is the right one? Go back to Step 1. Now that you’re actually in Israel, hopefully with friends in other yeshivas, use your new environment to your advantage.

If you are currently a first-year student in a yeshiva in Israel, and are considering returning for a second year, then this article should be helpful to you too. I will give a thorough treatment of the “Shana Bet” topic in my next article.

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

From the Desk of An 18-Year-Old Yeshiva Student: A Heartbroken Mother And An Overnight Chareidi

Originally Published in The Jewish Link of New Jersey on Thursday, February 9th, 2017.       
In my last article, I shared a personal epiphany: The tendency of many Modern Orthodox Jewish communities to send their high school graduates to Israel to study in yeshiva or seminary for a year (the Jewish gap year) reveals some weaknesses of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Now that I am currently studying in yeshiva in Israel myself, and have a broader understanding of the subject, I will expand upon my position, and describe the best way to make use of this information to reach a solution. (If you’d like to know more about how I came to the decision to study in Israel, then feel free to take me out to lunch. But I won’t be discussing that here.)

There are two primary reasons why Jewish high school graduates study in Israel for a year. One reason is that they are happy with their upbringing, which comprises their home, school, and community, and would love to take a break from their current environment to join their brothers and sisters in the Jewish homeland to continue their education, learn more Torah, and begin to build an independent, adult life.

The second reason, which I described in my last article, is that they are not satisfied with their upbringing, which has left them with a bad taste in their mouths, so they turn to the Jewish gap year to satisfy their desperate need for a totally new and fresh perspective on Judaism, or as my friends and I call it, “religious rehab.”

Both of these reasons are real, and they are both legitimate. I am not claiming that one is more common than the other, but I am claiming that the second reason is problematic, and is prevalent enough to deserve at least the attention of a Modern Orthodox newspaper.

The following story will help illustrate some of the points I spoke about in my last article, regarding the issue of dissatisfied high school graduates:
       My fellow students and I, most of whom would identify as Modern Orthodox, were participating in an interactive Jewish philosophy class. The rabbi teaching the class was explaining to us the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when people encounter new, unfamiliar information that they may initially perceive to be true, but immediately reject its legitimacy due to the hefty implications that would come with accepting it as true.
       Our rabbi then elaborated that many people reject God and Judaism as Truths because of the implied responsibility that comes with accepting these ideas. He then assigned us a five-minute exercise: to write down our fears or experiences of cognitive dissonance that apply to us regarding "believing"--defined in that class as well as in this article as accepting God and Torah as Truths.
       After the allotted time, we were asked to share what we had written. For a few moments, everybody remained quiet. Then, a few brave students spoke up. The first one said that he is actually compelled to believe so that his family won’t otherwise ostracize him. In other words, the only thing that attracts him to the Jewish religion after years of being brought up in a Jewish home by loving parents is the mere fact that he was brought up in a Jewish home by loving parents. He doesn't necessarily want to be Jewish; he just doesn’t want to upset his mother. The messages of the authentic value of Judaism that his parents tried to convey to him were never received.
       The second person who spoke up took a different route. He said that his biggest fear in believing is that it would force him to “drop everything and become Charedi.” He feels that the environment he was raised in at home is not genuine, so much so that it only leaves him with one option.

       These accounts support the point I made in my last article: many Modern Orthodox Jewish teenagers are temporarily leaving their communities to study in yeshiva or seminary for a year because they feel that their eighteen (or fifteen if you place all responsibility on your tuition dollars) years of Jewish education has not given them sufficient reason to stick with the program.

I am not going to point fingers. I will let the facts speak for themselves and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Here are the facts: in many homes, schools, and communities, there is unrest among the parents, teachers, and community leaders. Many of them know that the future of the Jewish people is in danger if most or all of their high school graduates do not take the gap year. I certainly observed this in my immediate surroundings as the people around me preached, almost beggingly, the importance of the gap year. This is what led to the social pressure that prompted me to write my previous article.

In fact, at one point during my last year of high school, I approached my rebbe, renowned Torah scholar and eruvin expert, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, and said, “Teach me whatever it is they’re teaching them over there so I won’t need the year in Israel that everybody claims is so important.”

Now that I’m in Israel, it has become clear that, for many communities, twelfth grade is just the last stepping stone to get us to Israel. We are all crossing a busy road, and the parents, teachers, and community leaders are the crossing guards, making sure that we won’t have any life-threatening interactions with oncoming traffic. Finally, we will reach the safety of the sidewalks of Israel.

One final point I would like to make to testify to the existence of this problem is that the gap year has now become standardized. In fact, it is so standardized that everyone has seemed to move on from selling one year in Israel to selling two years in Israel! (Hardly a day goes by here without a comment about Shana Bet. I will discuss this more in an upcoming article called “To Bet or not to Bet”.)

Why is this so?

Of course there are multiple possible answers to this, but can we just admit for one second that the people who are pushing it so hard feel that it’s a necessity and not an option? Yes, there are obviously other factors such as peer pressure and the like, but it is clear that high schools invest significant amounts of time and resources into this cause. In fact, many high schools have a “yeshiva guidance” department paralleling their college guidance department. On top of that, I personally know multiple people whose parents forced them to take the gap year. Would all this pressure exist if the gap year was really just to explore and enhance previous experiences? The gap year does not seem optional at all.
I now ask the reader to do an intellectually honest assessment: If you are a parent, teacher, or community leader, ask yourself, “ Do the young men and women I guide fit into the category of the satisfied customer who is seeking more, or into the category of the unhappy camper looking for a new site? Be honest. If you are unsure, ask the students themselves how they feel. If you are a student considering the gap year (and I’d be glad to share with you my own experience so far), ask yourself which category you fall into. This will affect major decisions you make later in life, such as how you will raise your children.

Have you finished thinking? Good. If you believe that you (or your child, student etc.) are in the former aforementioned category, good for you! If you are in the latter category, I implore you to ask the question I asked my rebbe: “What are they doing over there that we’re not doing here?” Once you figure that out, figure how you can do those things here too. The solution is that simple.