Flipping Out? Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel” – A Review

One of the most talked about issues within the Modern Orthodox world, whether in its publications such as Tradition 1, the Yeshiva University student media 2, a fairly popular , if stereotypic novel 3 and many a Shabbos table, is the effect of a year of study in an Israeli yeshiva for post high school students. Much of this discussion inevitably segues to how the Orthodox world has shifted to the proverbial right 4 . Too much has been written from the view of the external, as opposed to the internal thought processes of these young men. At long last, a welcome corrective has arrived that actually explores the effect of the year on Modern Orthodox post high school young men. Yashar Press deserves much praise for publishing “Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel”.

“Flipping Out” is prefaced by an introduction by Richard Joel, the President of Yeshiva University, who extols the benefits of the year in Israel programs, but who urges greater parental involvement and who argues against rushing through one’s college years. This introduction was written before Yeshiva University announced recently that it was engaging in an evaluation of the yeshivos and seminaries on its Year In Israel Program, which form one of the key elements for the near record enrollments in YU , RIETS and Stern College for Women 5. It remains to be seen whether the evaluation is primarily financial , academic, or ideological, especially since some of the institutions that recently left or were dropped from the program may have supplied too few students and engaged in decidedly anti YU sloganeering, etc .

“Flipping Out” consists of three different studies. Dr. Shalom Z. Berger profiles the rise in the “year in Israel” programs. Dr. Berger, an educator, graduate and musmach of YU , RIETS, and the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, depicts the rise of Modern Orthodoxy and the growth of the “year in Israel” programs. Dr. Berger’s study profiles the various yeshivos that these young men attend , why students spend a year in Israel, their spiritual growth and how they maintain their growth upon their return to their families and college environments. Dr. Berger also notes that many Modern Orthodox schools have “Israel nights” with visits from educators from many yeshivos and also run a religious guidance track to enable their students to make a proper choice.

Contrary to much of the prevalent urban mythology that is prevalent in some Modern Orthodox circles, the overwhelming majority of these young men are not deserting college for a life in kollel. Based upon studies and interviews with many of these young men, Dr. Berger finds that they return with a far more intense commitment to the core elements of Jewish continuity and belief, namely Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. Of course, time is the greatest method of quantifying this commitment, but Dr. Berger concluded that these programs have provided great service to the Modern Orthodox world.

Much has been written either in publications such as Jewish Action or elsewhere about intergenerational strife that emerges from a parent who wonders what happened to his son who used to be far more passionate about baseball and contemporary culture than in working his way through a page of Talmud. Dr. Berger points out very cogently that parents can navigate this potential area of conflict by parents if they appreciate enhanced religious growth commitment, as opposed to viewing the same being a threat to an often lukewarm commitment to Orthodoxy. 6

Dr. Jacobson, a RIETS musmach and psychologist now residing in Israel, explores the more precise nature of the adherence to halacha by students, the realization of the depth of the study of Torah and Talmud , increased sense of ethics and connection with the Land of Israel among many students.7 Dr. Jacobson also provides much well needed understanding into the spiritual atmosphere and

personalties that many students encounter in their yeshiva and among their Roshei Yeshiva and mentors in their yeshivos. In addition, Dr. Jacobson describes how change begins during the course of the yeshiva calendar or “Zmanim” , impediments to change and the role of Roshei Yeshiva as instruments of religious change. Dr. Jacobson also analyzes how students interact with their parents. In this regard, in the “Parents’ Guide To Their Child’s Year in Israel:Issues and Questions” that was published by the Orthodox Caucus, , Dr. Jacobson suggests that parents stay in touch with their children in a yeshiva not just via cellphone , visiting Israel and treating their son and his friends for dinner, but in learning Torah together, attending a shiur, and realizing that a son who has a positive commitment that is different than his home’s is far better than a son who has walked away from observance. In the wake of Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox” article8, one can ask the following rhetorical question quite seriously-would one prefer a son who is more committed to Torah or a son who is gradually or rapidly losing all connections to Torah observance?

Dr. Chaim Waxman, a sociologist who has written many articles on American Orthodoxy, views the year in Israel programs in the context of a history of Relogious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy in the United States , as enhancing a positive view of Israel and allowing for many Minhagim of Eretz Yisrael to become part of American Orthodoxy. Dr.Waxman also notes that what many consider as “chumra” is really a more stringent practice than what one had been previously practicing publicly or privately and that the same has antecedents as far back as 14th Century Spain.. Dr. Wazman points out that even though Charedim are perceived to be ideologically anti Zionist, they are far more conservative with a small “c” on issues of land and peace. Dr. Waxman also analyzes the impact of the “year in Israel” progams, the Orthodox community and aliyah and the political viewpoint of the American Orthodox community with respect to Israel and whether it has evolved from a perspective of avoiding involvement in “domestic” Israeli political issues such as the withdrawal from Gush Katif.

All in all, the above three elements demonstrate that the Year in Israel Programs succeed in helping Modern Orthodox young men realize the profundity and spirituality of a Torah based and centered life. One of the undercurrents that emerged from reading this book is that the study of Torah in many yeshiva high schools in the Modern Orthodox community competes with Advanced Placement tests, college admissions and extracurricular activities. None less than Rav Aharon
Lichtenstein has bemoaned the fact that in such a setting “the Rambam frequently does not so much compete with Michaelangelo as with Michael Jordan, or even lamentably, Michael Jackson. Small wonder that he often loses. Clearly, there is a need to exert an effort that the ambition to become a talmid chacham becomes a primary aspect of youthful dreams, and that provision be made for for their optimal realization.” 9

Despite the above portrait of American Modern Orthodox education, the Year in Israel programs have enabled many to reevaluate their spiritual and material goals. It is only a Year in Israel program that can enable someone who might have been thinking either of the Ivy League or as a professional career to realize that he just might have a more profound life as a Talmid Chacham serving the Jewish People. We need to applaud these young men and their spouses who have chosen such an avenue in life, as opposed to belittling them with variants of “those that can’t do, teach.”Although “Flipping Out” focused on the effect of the “Year In Israel” programs for young men, one would hope that a future edition would focus on the effect of the programs for young women at a wide range of seminaries and ulpanot.

Obviously, Israel is not a religious insurance policy that will work wonders for all students and there are some fine Bnei and Bnos Torah who did not spend their initial year after high school in Israel. Yet, Drs. Berger, Jacobson and Waxman stress that the many positives of what should be considered as mandatory for any Modern Orthodox student considering a college education anywhere in the Diaspora far outweigh the overemphasized and little understood reasons why there is strife between some parents and some of their returning sons. As a parent of adult daughters who have gone through the year in Israel and its many positives, I have seen its positive effects not just on its participants. Many a young man and woman, whose commitment to Torah observance was tenuous, ritualized and shallow, have returned with a far deeper commitment to Torah observance . Drs. Berger, Jacobson and Waxman have written an excellent book that should be read by anyone concerned about Torah education in the Modern Orthodox world.

1 Tradition, Vol.32 Summer 99

2 Commentator, Kol Hamvesar, Volume 1, Issue 1, 9/5/07kolhamevaser .com

3 The Outside World

4 Haim Soloveitchik “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy ( Tradition, 28:4) ( 1994) pp. 64-129. Sliding to the Right Samuel C. Heilman University of California Press (2006).

5 Yucommentator.com./media/storage/paper652/news/2007/11/05

6 Dr. Berger’s doctoral thesis, of which this section is largely taken, can be found at lookstein.org/articles/sberger-dissertation.pdf

7 Dr. Jacobson’s doctoral thesis, of which this section is largely taken, can be found at lookstein.org/articles/dj-dissertation.pdf.

8 Noah Feldman “Orthjodox Paradox NY Times. com/2007/07/22magazine/22/yeshiva-t.html

9 R. Aharon Lichenstein “The Future of Centrist Orthodoxy” ( Leaves of Faith, Vol. 2 , Chapter 15, P.324)

Originally posted on Cross-Currents

34 comments on “Flipping Out? Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel” – A Review

  1. “I think that Ken Burns docs are excellent”

    Steve, wow. I thought you had put them down before; thought you had denied they were anything impressive. Thanks for validating.

    “but are they really products of his own research?”

    Doubt it. Strikes me as a team of crack historians and storyteller. No way one man can do that, even over the course of years. Not a chance.

  2. David Linn asked,

    “How often, though, are they on and how many are there? Does one man’s or one team’s work on a handful of stellar documentaries redeem an entire medium?”

    For whom? What do I care what trash the major networks are producing? I don’t watch them. If that is what helps allow for a masterpieces, and I don’t have to be a part of it, great!

    Let me explain. Do you think every composer during Beethoven’s time was as important as Beethoven? Please…there was a lot of stuff that was inconsequential…it isn’t even a one out of ten shot. It takes bucket loads of mediocrity and just trash to allow a medium one master.

    Of course I concede that the Burns brother films are few and far between. It takes years to create what they create.

    But there is other good stuff on PBS for adults, and though I don’t often get to see it, I am glad it is there, and do watch it sometimes, and learn something when I do, including not only Frontline, but Bill Moyers Journal (hey, I’m a little Left-wing, what do you want?), and some stellar nature programs. National Geographic also produces some quality shows, which I heartily approve of, and since I don’t have cable, occasionally rent.

    “BTW, DK, one of Burns’ masterpieces is “Baseball”, does that redeem sports?”

    Was the Burns documentary about watching sports on television? No, it was about the sport itself, which preceded TV by decades. But anyway, I see nothing wrong with a family or friends going to, say, one live baseball game a year, or CASUALLY (not seriously) noting how their home team is doing this season. Not my thing, but whatever. That is different. I do concede that baseball is part of America’s history, and found the documentary’s insights as to why it is the quintessential American sport both convincing and interesting.

    But I still don’t watch sports, and would strongly suggest to those capable of higher intellectual engagement to avoid couch potato behavior.

    By the way, not that you asked, but I don’t think “Baseball” was nearly as interesting or informative as either the War II documentary nor the New York series. The chapter on Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs, a modern David and Goliath story, was edited out of the Robert Caro masterpiece, along with a third of the book.

    This section of the documentary is still understood best ideally AFTER reading Caro’s “The Power Broker,” which is admittedly over a thousand pages, but moves quickly after the first couple of hundred, and is a critical book not only about New York City, but about power itself. I mention this because Steve Brizel can’t even say better to read the book, because the book cut those chapters, along with a third of the original book. I know this because I have been harassing Dr. Caro to publish the full edition, and surprisingly, he did not say, “Sure, DK, whatever you want,” but rather, had his assistant inform me there are no plans to do so at this time.

    I am disappointed with that answer, and demand, on behalf of NYC denizens that Dr. Caro reconsider.

    Anyway, even if one doesn’t have time for reading “The Power Broker,” it is still well worth watching that chapter on DVD or on a PBS screening, and the whole of “New York: A Documentary Film.”

  3. Baseball, Burns aside, is not devoid of the higher things, such as poetry.

    Meet the Mets, meet the Mets,
    Step right up and greet the Mets.
    Bring your kiddies, bring your wife,
    Guaranteed to have the time of your life.
    Because the Mets are really sockin’ the ball,
    Knockin’ those home runs over the wall.
    East side, West side, everybody’s coming down,
    To meet the M-E-T-S Mets, of New York town.

  4. I already have a contract ready.

    Seriously though, I again cast doubt that a significant number of Jews or gentiles (if they have a TV) are limiting themselves to Burns or Frontline. While there may be some pretty costume jewelry in the pile of garbage, the garbage itself is too intoxicating to make it worth the bother. (And they pale in comparison to the jewels of Judaism)- Oh uh I’m starting to sound like JT.

  5. As this thread has seriously veered off topic, I might as well pitch in.

    DK,

    I see you repeatedly using Burns’ documentaries as your proof of quality television. I have seen some of his stuff and enjoy it immensely. How often, though, are they on and how many are there? Does one man’s or one team’s work on a handful of stellar documentaries redeem an entire medium?

    Also, how many people would pay to see Bob and DK don helmets and bang into each other?

  6. Wow, how did I miss this?

    Bob Miller, you wrote,

    “You, DK, equated “the tube” specifically with sitcoms, and I did not—I meant the totality of TV and, by extension, both the high and low culture that goes with it.”

    If you seriously don’t recognize the QUALITATIVE and even the MORAL difference between a Burns’ documentary and the worst sitcoms on TV, you have either

    1) Not seen a Burns documentary
    2) Not seen a stupid sitcom
    3) Simply cannot (nebach) differentiate between serious history and the worst innantiy.

    In either of these cases, you know not what you speak of.

    Cheers,

    DK, cable-free, but with dvd

    And Steve Brizel, don’t give me your usual line about how you can get everything from a book that you can from a documentary. In many cases, for information, I agree, books and articles are better. But sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Watch a Burns documentary first. Then come back to me with that line.

    Ken and Ric Burns are better than stupid network sitcoms. Too bad if I have offended you, Bob Miller.

  7. Bob! Deek! Two of my best online friends and blog commenters! Please! Don’t you think we can get along…

    Tonight, of all nights?! I mean, please — tonight, when men come together in good will, and watch Monday Night Football!

  8. More Advanced Discussion for Nittel Nacht…

    Here I’ll quote DK (15:47) directly:

    “Want to see the American culture being pitched to the Jews? Pick up a copy of the New Yorker.”

    Is DK saying that American Jewish students (they were our topic, right?) are distracted from their Torah studies by the New Yorker? Not unless there is some video game by that name.

    Again, I’ll quote DK (15:47):

    “And people like Bob Miller who pretend that some dumb sitcom is the competition are only kidding themselves.”

    I detect some conflation and it’s not by me.

    But, maybe I really was unclear, so, to re-elucidate (yes, ArtScroll has nothing on me!) my 16:33 comment:

    “I was not speaking specifically of the lowbrow TV content, although obviously not excluding it either.”
    —That is, at 14:48, I meant all TV content, not only lowbrow fare such as sitcoms.

    “The arts (cinematic, theatrical…) these days are often bad influences, too.”
    —This was an aside, not implying that these, too, were the actual “tube” itself, but that they had some related effects.

  9. You, DK, equated “the tube” specifically with sitcoms, and I did not—I meant the totality of TV and, by extension, both the high and low culture that goes with it.

    I can edit your stuff if you need help.

  10. DK

    As Michael Corleone once said “(D)K, who is being naive now?” (see, I am also a slave to the American media) I can’t tell you how many PhD’s and lawyers sit around and discuss “Dancing with the Stars” at the proverbial watercooler. Believe me it is mesmerizing for even the “upper echelon” educated in our society.

  11. Bob Miller,

    Why don’t you try harder write what you mean the first time, and avoid inaccurate symbolic conflation? You said “the tube.” The “tube” has meant TV for decades.

  12. We also have dumb blog comments.

    I was not speaking specifically of the lowbrow TV content, although obviously not excluding it either. The arts (cinematic, theatrical…) these days are often bad influences, too.

    But even that was not my point. It was that American cultural preoccupations, even among full-time students at some Jewish institutions, are diminishing the time available for Torah-related pursuits and filling their minds with a largely Torah-free outlook.

  13. “It’s hard to learn much of anything spiritual while literally or figuratively glued to the tube (that is, today’s American society).”

    “The tube,” specifically that which is on basic cable, is indicative of the lower elements of American society, but hardly American society in its totality. And a cursory glance at the sitcoms will reveal these programs are not targeting the smarter folks in American society. And it is also a FACT, that the ethnic group with the highest IQs in the U.S. are Ashkenazi Jews.

    Hence, the junk that is on basic tv, (not all is junk, of course, I stand by PBS’s Frontline and the Burns’ documentaries, which I would invite all to watch) is not what traditional Judaism is really competing against. Those sitcoms are not targeting smart people, period. Want to see the American culture being pitched to the Jews? Pick up a copy of the New Yorker.

    And people like Bob Miller who pretend that some dumb sitcom is the competition are only kidding themselves.

    The sure way to lose a war than to underestimate your opponent.

    I do concede,, however, that the phenomenon of some Modern Orthodox Jews following organized sports in a serious fashion is problematic. They should be doing something constructive, or at least, engaged, instead. I make no excuses for such nonsense.

  14. It’s hard to learn much of anything spiritual while literally or figuratively glued to the tube (that is, today’s American society).

  15. I would venture to say that some of the young students with MO backgrounds who spend time in Eretz Yisrael after HS, come back to the US with a deeper commitment to Yiddishkite because they are given the opportunity (some for the first time in their lives) to spend some time in non-MO yeshivas and get exposure to other Torah derachim from “the inside”.

  16. There are other Chabad BT yeshivos: Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights, Mayanot in Yerushalayim and Ohr Tmimim in Kfar Chabad.

  17. Like David Linn, I, too, would appreciate it if DK would specify the chasidic BT yeshivas that he makes reference to. The only one I am aware of is in Morristown, NJ, which is a Lubavitch yeshiva dedicated to BT’s. Though this is a bit off topic, it is relevant to this web site’s target audience.

  18. Mark Frankel’s above comment: “When a person lives in a primarily Torah only environment for a year, their outlook will inevitably change.” is extremely insightful. We should be careful to separate what is truly “flipping out” from the normal/expected effects of an impressionable young adult spending a year in a different country, living an undoubtedly new lifestyle, and immersing him/herself in an intensive study program, surrouded by like-minded people. Of course, issues of readjustment and returning to one’s previous life in the US must be addressed but consideration for what the actual “problem” or issue is should be cautious. I’ve always found that returning to the US after being in Israel for as short as 10 days is a major shock to the system. Perhaps better preparation of the students and parents before the year in Israel could ready everyone involved for the changes that might take place.

  19. The title of this book was very intriguing, so I was browsing it recently, and realized it wasn’t really relevant to my own family.

    However, the point Steve mentions about MO HS’s pulling the boys in so many directions (just yesterday we received a letter about the clubs that DRS has), explains why the Menahel of a local Mesivta recently told me they don’t offer AP exams for the boys. Because it takes away their focus from learning.

    It’s a unique opportunity to be able to put one’s focus on one thing for an entire year. For example, an art student spending a year in Florence studying Renaissance art would come back to college with a much greater appreciation of this painting style then they could obtain sitting in a classroom. Not the greatest analogy, but hope you get the point.

    As a parent with a daughter in Shana Bet, it appears to me that insofar as seminaries go, I’ve seen some girls come home seemingly very different then when they left, and others who are the same, just with more growth, appreciation and depth in Torah. Finding a place that fit the latter description was a priority of my daughter’s. I’d say the same was true of Steve’s very lovely daughters.

  20. Perhaps it’s not a weakness but rather different focuses. In America there is much more of a joint focus on Torah and the secular. In the Israel Yeshivos there is a strong focus on Torah only.

    When a person lives in a primarily Torah only environment for a year, their outlook will inevitably change.

  21. Back to the topic—

    Is the strong impact of study in Israel on MO students mainly due to the uniqueness of Israel (scholarly, community, environment…), or mainly due to the unseriousness or other weaknesses of the American institutions and communities the students come from? If the latter, are these problematic conditions in America remediable?

  22. DK,

    This is a book review. Steve has limited his review to the topic of the book being reviewed.

    Even though this was off topic, I’d be interested in knowing the names of some of the chassidic BT yeshivas you have referenced.

  23. DK asked, “So may I take that as a concession that this is indeed a problem?”

    I take that as an omission to be expected—because the topic of the article is something else.

  24. The issue of “Flipping Out” is much more frequently severe for young baalei teshuvah than for already Orthodox Jews. I see no defense of that here. So may I take that as a concession that this is indeed a problem? Because it is one thing for an MO young man to go to an MO yeshiva with other MO bochrim, and it is quite another for a secular Jew to attend Ohr Somayach or some of the chassidic BT yeshivas with Jews being taught that Orthodoxy means being haredi, and discarding everything they have from the West.

    Can we agree that these are two different things, Steve?

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