Turning Down the Noise

One of the most important revolutions in the American Torah world over the past three decades has been the explosion of post-high school learning programs in Israel. Thirty years ago there were two or three post-high school seminaries for girls and a handful of yeshivos, other than Mir, Ponevezh, and Brisk for American bochurim. Today there are dozens of each.

Young men and women for whom Orthodoxy was, at best, a series of rules to be followed, but whose values and aspirations were formed by the larger secular world – “Ortho-pracs,” in the terminology of one astute critic — returned home transformed by a year or two in Israel. Their observance was no longer a matter of “that’s the way we do things in our family” but part of an earnest effort to connect with the Ribbono shel Olam. Those returning from Eretz Yisrael began to exercise a profound effect on the communities in which they grew up and the institutions in which they studied.

Such a positive development could not proceed without the Satan fighting back. Not everyone was thrilled with the change of tone in the American Orthodox community. Already 15 years ago, articles started to appear warning parents of the danger of their children returning home “too frum.”

The rosh yeshiva of one post-high school yeshiva told me how a father threatened to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times labeling the yeshiva a “cult” if his son insisted on returning to Israel rather than taking his place in the freshman class of the father’s Ivy League alma mater. Never mind that the boy’s older brother, who had gone to the same college, was no longer observant.

The Satan had other tricks as well. The methodology of the post-high school yeshivos and seminaries is simple. They simply turn down all the background noise – the music, the movies, the co-ed activities – in order that the Torah can be heard for the first time. Some inspire more, some less, but all succeed. The power of the Torah to touch a Jewish soul, especially when conveyed by teachers filled with passion for their subject, is felt whenever it is not blocked by countless distractions.

In recent years, however, it has become harder to shut out the outside noise. Laptops can turn a dorm room into a movie theater. The ubiquitous cellphone makes it harder for the student to distance herself from home and experience the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael. If a girl’s mother calls her when she enters the mall and again on coming out, the girl may be physically present in Eretz Yisrael, but her head is back in the mall.

The latest stage in the Satan’s battle against the post-high school programs is the news that the year in Eretz Yisrael poses spiritual dangers as well as opportunities for growth. These post-high school institutions are no longer just dealing with young men and women whose “ortho-practice” runs skin deep, but with youth who are deeply alienated from Jewish practice and many of whom arrive with serious substance-abuse problems.

The dangers, however, are not confined just to students in the latter type of institutions. Even for young men from the finest homes and learning in the best yeshivos, the freedom of living in their own apartment can prove overwhelming. Parents who give their children a credit card, without checking on how their money is being spent, are the modern day version of the king described by the Gemara who places a sackful of gold coins around the neck of the drunken prince. Fathers of young men in the biggest yeshivos need the name of a rebbe with whom they can regularly discuss their son’s progress in learning and attendance in the beis medrash.

The principal of an American girls high school, which sent well over a thousand girls to Israel over 28 years, told me that he can count on two hands the girls who experienced a serious decline in Israel. But here too parents are well-advised that their daughters should not feel that out of sight is out of mind. An occasional call to their daughters’ Shabbos hosts to thank them for their hospitality would be one way to supplement conversations with the heads of the seminaries, and for parents to keep tabs on how their daughter is doing.

THIS PAST MOTZAEI SHABBOS, Rabbi Shaya Cohen of Priority-1 arranged a Melave Malkah for boys learning in Eretz Yisrael, many of them graduates of Priority-1 programs for young men who did not find their place in any regular yeshiva high school program. The boys pulled no punches about the dangers in Eretz Yisrael. Many admitted that they had looked forward to the year in Israel as an opportunity to party for a year, without having to evade their parents’ watchful eyes.

One young man described breaking into his shul’s liquor cabinet the week before coming to Israel, and going on a seven-day binge that continued on the plane trip to Israel. Some told how they had not shown up in the beis medrash for months after arriving in Israel. None, however, said that their self-destructive behavior began in Israel, though clearly it had grown worse for some.

Yet each felt that the experience of Eretz Yisrael had helped them find themselves. A number emphasized that without the freedom to make their own mistakes, they could not have changed themselves. Had Torah learning been forced on them or halachic observance imposed, they would have continued to rebel. Sometimes, one young man said, you have to hit bottom before you start to work your way back, and many heads nodded in agreement.

Yet here was a group of young men, almost all with tzitzis out, speaking passionately and unabashedly about their connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu in a way that one rarely hears, even from the finest yeshiva bochurim. What happened to them?

At some point in the year, each of them asked, “Why am I here in Eretz Yisrael, and not in Amsterdam?” At that point, they began to see that they had been provided with a second chance, far removed from all the turmoil of home, to get beyond the emptiness that a stupor can hide but not make disappear. Their rabbis had “made their case” and allowed them the chance to decide.

And when they were ready, they found rebbes who were available “24/7.” The passion of their rabbis, their ability to convey Torah as something lived, not preached, won them over. One young man spoke of a rebbe, beset by poverty and poor health, who is “the happiest man I’ve ever met.” Another described the discovery that the “coolest” person in the world is a frum Jew. Almost all mentioned the purity of the Torah life they observed in Eretz Yisrael – the lack of superficiality and hypocrisy.

The Satan will not rest. But the power of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael remains.

Originally appeared in Mishpacha.

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28 Responses

  1. mordechai says:

    the story of the priority-1 alumni is interesting, but anecdotal. This is obviously a self-selected group of “successes”. Are there any
    “hard” numbers out there?

    besides which should we not be comparing the Israeli scene versus the american one altogther?

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    This is a very important article, especially for MO readers of this blog who send their kids to yeshivos and seminaries. IMO, the year is a mandatory year in Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim that goes way and well beyond the numbers of blatt Gemara, perakim in Nach and other subjects learned and the numbers of Mussar shmuessen attended in the course of a year. It is the appreciation of being in an atmosphere where Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim do not compete with baseball, malls, movies, a debased popular culture, APs, etc and where many realize for the first time the profundity of learning Torah and a life of Torah. Too many MO parents still can’t answer this question–what is worse-a kid who may display some Charedi mannerisms or a kid who drops observance either quicky or rapidly? One sees little, if any, willingness, of MO leaders to grapple with this issue except in Jewish Action or the Commentator, the YU student newspaper. Tradition had a symposium on this issue years ago, but IMO, the answers, except for some such as R Adlerstein, either were tepid or avoided the issue. One still can hear parents hoping that their kids will ‘come down to earth” upon their return or wondering how many credits their kids will have to take if they Chas Ve Shalom want to attend YC or SCW. Untill parents realize that the year in EY is a necessity, as opposed to a one year paid vacation, we will still see parents threatening to post ads, making their kids sign written contracts to come back to college and absolutely banning their kid from going to EY or even thinking of marrying either someone who is Kovea Itim LaTorah or might be kollel material.

  3. Moshe P. Mann says:

    Pardon me, but applying perjoratives such as “Satan” to those less observant than ourselves is completely uncalled for, especially not on CrossCurrents. You should know better, Jonathan.

    In fact, a well known kiruv rabbi once referred to me as Satan, and it played a major role in my going off the derech.

  4. Joshua says:

    Dear Reb Jonathan,
    I am insulted that my alma mater was not mentioned Yeshivat Shaalvim.Kerem B’ Yavneh should have been metioned as well and along with Itri these are the yeshivahs where most Americans attended and many of the students are considered to be fine Bnai Torah. I hope you will note this next time. I have to assume that other people will have the same complaint.

    Kol tov


  5. Barry Lifschitz says:

    I am not sure I understand what the point of the end of the article is? Stories about a few boys who have turned it around enough to want to come to a melave malka? What about the hundreds more (boys and girls – accross the orthodox spectrum) who didn’t? The article attempts to put a “warm and fuzzy” feeling on a serious issue that is spinning out of control. A trip the same night to some of the clubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv might have provided a more sobering view.

  6. Jewish Observer says:

    I was just in Israel for 6 days, and based on what observed up close, I would recommend proceeding with trepidation before sending an 18 year old there for a year. It would have to be rationalized as to what the purpose of the trip is, why / how it would help the student, etc. from the hefkerus that I saw, long gone are the days where you can ship your kid off to Israel, and count on them coming back more ruchani, via things taking care of themselves. it appeared that the problems are most pronounced in the pseudo-charedi boys schools (e.g. Bais Yisroel, Merkaz HaTorah, and their ilk, in town.) which appear to suffer from metamei es hatehorim syndrome. My sense is that e.g. Shaalvim and KBY are still learning- (versus hanging out-) centric, as are, I would think charedi out of town yeshivit such as Be’er Yakov, Hanegev, Tifrach, etc.) My impression also is that there is, sadly, also a bummy side of Mir that was almost non existent in my time (22 years ago). There is clearly a critical mass at Mir who have no bushah in hanging out on Ben Yehudah (in my day, you would operate stealthily if you went there. I get why people are davka looking to Brisk versus Mir; they are in search of “real” yeshiva bochurim, and you can’t be “guaranteed” as you once were (maybe) to get such from Mir. Obviously, since I hung out on BY, I had no visibility in to the batei midrash, but my strong sense is that the opportunity for spiritual aliyah is drastically reduced from 25 years ago. Good news is there are many more high quality Badatz eateries than there ever were, one of which, Rimon, is open 24 hours for the masmid chevrah’man.

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    ” … a serious issue that is spinning out of control. A trip the same night to some of the clubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv might have provided a more sobering view.”

    – Out of control is exactly how I termed it to my nephews there as well. Working off of memories of my youth, I was completely stunned by what I saw (and I was told that there is much worse than what I saw). The current situation is out of control, and it is a shame that what was such a beautiful (super)natural resource is now so compromised.

  8. Toby Katz says:

    To Moshe Mann:

    The word “Satan” is a synonym for “yetzer hara” — not for a particular person or people!

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Jewish Observer-I ate in Cafe Rimon. It is an excellent restaurant. Yet, for the two weeks that I was in Yerushalayim during Channukah, I saw precious little evidence of yeshiva or seminary students hanging out en masse in Ben Yehudah. Yes, there are kids who are undesirable and should not be learning. Yet, IMO, it is wrong to sit back and blame the yeshivos and seminaries for acceptig students whose parents have or should have knowledge that their kids are not exactly tzadikim in the first place, especially as RJR points out, the yeshivos and seminaries have Mashgichim, RY and mental health professionals for those who need help. OTOH, it is wrong to blame the yeshivos and seminaries for the problems of those who deny that they have a problem in the first instance and look at a year away in Israel either as one long party or a stay in a rehab center that is somehow supposed to produce results.

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Their observance was no longer a matter of “that’s the way we do things in our family” but part of an earnest effort to connect with the Ribbono shel Olam.”

    Taking out an ad in the New York Times labeling a Yeshiva a cult would be an example of aligning one’s self with anti-Torah forces. Nevertheless, negative feelings amongst parents, while thankfully not always the case, is perfectly understandable. One only needs to place him or herself in the parents’ place to realize how a change in level of observance might be perceived as a threat, or a rejection of one’s values. A similar reaction might occur amongst parents of Balei Teshuvah, or on the other extreme, when the son of yeshiva-educated parents chooses a kollel lifestyle, instead of their parent’s way of life.

    I remember seeing a schmooz from R. Pam zt’l that the kollel issue is in effect a “healthy problem”; as far as the issue of “flip-flops”, there is a shiur on Torah Web by R. Yudin which discusses that issue in a very sensitive manner, and similarly starts off by saying that such a “problem” is a healthy one. Nevertheless, one needs to see the issue from the parent’s perspective as well.

    As far as the causes, it is true that a child of the “Ortho-pracs” observance would naturally be attracted to observance which is passionate, rather than one which includes compromise(the “Otho-pracs” category avoids the less polar “centrist” category). Those who analyze the phenomenon such as Dr. Samuel Heilman, have focused on, amongst other factors, the reluctance of Modern Orthodox graduates to be educators in their own schools. Nevertheless, the fact that another way of life is perceived as more passionate or more authentic, is understandably a reason why a child might feel happier and more fulfilled living such a lifestyle. If a parent unecessarily makes an issue out of every small thing, they lessen the chance of their child eventually finding the right balance.

  11. Mordechai says:

    As I read these articles we seem to be mixing up a large amount of different yeshivot. In an earlier article Jonathan Rosenblum commented on this fact. The yeshivot for problem children obviously will have problems. After all thats why those students were sent there.

    The real issue is the problem with schools for “normal” children. Obviously a wide variety of students go there. Some are seriously observant and will grow from a year in Israel. Some are not but will be inspired and grow. This is the group Jonathan Rosenblum is commenting on in this article. The third group is the problem, those students who have “freedom” for the first time in their life and abuse it getting into alchohol, drugs and sex.

    First many of these normal students really were problem students who didn’t get caught (or whose problem was ignored) before they went to Israel. Very few students become problems for the first time in Israel when they were tzadikim in the US. The problem is also not limited to Israel. My wife tells me of a friend of hers from Bais Yaakov, who was the child of an intermarriage. She had multiple times when setup on dates with students from Lakewood who would try and sleep with her because she had a non Jewish last name. But they wouldn’t marry her because they were too religious.

    Another friend of mine learned at Talmudic University in Miami Beach. He would tell me of the massive drunkedness on Purim, and the yeshva students who appeared to know the South Beach gay lifestyle a little too well when they mocked it.

    This is not a new issue, nor is it a year in Israel issue. It’s about our communities need to better deal with those of our youth who have problems and how we should deal with them.

  12. Barzilai says:

    Barry Lifschitz and Jewish Observer are missing the point of the essay. Among the points were that that Israel is a magnifier of both faults and strengths; that constant parental involvement, even vigilance, is paramount; and that not sending to Israel in favor of immediate enrollment in a secular college invites trouble and cheats the young person out of a possible life changing experience.

  13. Ploney says:

    I wouldn’t normally start discussing specific Yeshivos, but since Jewish Observer mentioned Bais Yisroel, I believe it’s only fair to correct a few points that he made.

    First: Bais Yisroel can in no way be described as “pseudo-chareidi.” The hashkafa of virtually all the Rebbeim, and especially that conveyed during Vaadim and Shmuessen from the Mashgiach, is straight Chareidi, no pseudo about it. While the behavior of some of the younger bachurim may be far from ideal, this is no way takes away from the fact that Bais is a Chareidi Place, if you’ll pardon the expression. College of any sort is strongly discouraged, and staying in learning for the long term is heavily promoted. Of course, when giving individual eitzas various compromises may be suggested, but the Yeshiva as a whole has clear Chareidi Hashkafos.

    Second: I strongly question how JO feels competent to make the assesment after a mere 6 days in Israel that Bais Yisroel and similiar Yeshivos have the most pronounced problems. Granted, there is a certain percentage of the bachurim, particularly first year boys, who are not serious at all. This percentage varies from year to year. Many of these go on to become more serious and stay for several more years, or make other life-changing decisions, eg. going to Landers or other American Yeshiva/college programs (not YU – the number of Bais guys who have continued to YU is negligible) instead of a secular college. Some don’t get (take?) anything out of the Yeshiva, and return home unchanged. I think that barely any, and in some years none, return home at a “lower” level than they left.

    Next time JO is in Yerushalayim he should make the trip up to Neve Yaakov and actually see Bais Yisroel before dismissing it as a problematic Yeshiva.

    Third: JO does not mention what he means by “problems”, but to be clear, I am referring to the standard kind of hanging out on Ben Yehuda (officially forbidden by the Yeshiva, btw), similiar to the sort of things these guys were no doubt doing back at home, and not the kind of criminal/drug stories which are associated with the “Yeshivos” for teens on the fringe.

    Fourth: I do not believe that a “metamei es hatehorim syndrome,” as JO calls it, exists at Bais Yisroel. Any bachur who comes with the intention of learning can easily find a peer group, both among the older bachurim and those in the first year, who are there to learn and have no interest in hanging around in town. They quickly see the difference between those who are serious and those who are not, and gravitate towards the former group.

    Fifth: Acharon Acharon Chaviv, Rimon is not Badatz. Last time I was there, it was Rabbanut Yerushalayim Mehadrin, and although it may have changed its hechsher due to the politics surrounding the Rabbanut’s hechsher, I highly doubt that it has a Badatz (Eida Chareidis) hechsher.

    Again, I am not saying that Bais Yisroel has no problems. However, I do think it is a far better Yeshiva than JO implied.

  14. Jewish Observer says:

    “for the two weeks that I was in Yerushalayim during Channukah, I saw precious little evidence of yeshiva or seminary students hanging out en masse in Ben Yehudah”

    – not sure how to explain the vast discrepancy

    “not sending to Israel in favor of immediate enrollment in a secular college invites trouble”

    – consider the follwing oxymoron: it is always wrong to make generalizations. obviously a year of hanging out on Ben Yehudah is better than a year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. all I am saying is that these days, the good yeshiva bochur is in danger of being cheated out of his eretz yisrole’dikeh ruchnius.

    “This is not a new issue”

    yes it is. learning in Israel 25 years ago was NOT like this.

  15. The Other Side says:

    It’s really nice that all the students who attended the melave malka were there with their tzit tzit out. However, you don’t mention how many students didn’t come to the melave malka because they were no longer a part of the community or felt comfortable being in the presence of someone whose goal was to make them “frummer.” I have a feeling you only presented one side of the story. I know of many students who unfortunately only managed to find trouble during their year in Israel.

  16. Jewish Observer says:

    “I am not saying that Bais Yisroel has no problems. However, I do think it is a far better Yeshiva than JO implied”

    – I didn’t davka mean to pick on Bais. It is representative of a category of yeshivos officially lodged in the charedi camp (as opposed to Shaalvim or KBY) with a critical mass of “good” (not problem) bochurim occupied with interests outside of learning. I think you have to admit that Bais is not Charedi in the same way that Ponovezh, Lakewood, and Mir are Charedi. What I mean by pseudo is that they while they officially dress with hats and jackets, do not say the tefilah for the medinah, etc, the student body is known for engaging in activities that are less than wholesome, more than are students from Mir, Kol Torah, and Toras Moshe. As far as the staff, I don’t doubt that they are fully charedi.

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Is the problem the lack of supervision of 18 year old adults (OK, young adults – but old enough to marry according to the Mishna), or the fact that modern culture produces 18 year olds who still require supervision?

    Maybe if we let teenagers make more mistakes when they’re still at home, and give them tasks that are harder and more relevant, they will be ready for independant life earlier.

  18. Jewish Observer says:

    “Again, I am not saying that Bais Yisroel has no problems. However, I do think it is a far better Yeshiva than JO implied.”

    – Just to be clear. My point was not to detract from virtues of Bais (or other yeshivos) as yeshivos. Rather it was an observation that the overall experience of learning in Israel at these middle of the road (and even right side of the road) charedi places is NOT what it used to be.

    I doubt very much that the yeshivos are at fault. There are many factors involved, including: students’ increased capacity to spend, the fact that coming to learn in Israel is less a factor of student decision and more a matter of default, an increased expectation that bochurim be enrolled in yeshiva even if learning is not their bent, the general trend among our kids of our generation toward alcohol, drugs, etc. (and who knows why that is).

    I have no reason to think that the yeshivos are not doing their utmost to deal with the hand they are dealt. But that doesn’t mean we should fool ourselves and think that for every bochur, even one who could shteig in e.g. Philly, Long Beach or Passaic, it is davka beter for him to go to Bais, ToMo, or Merkas Hatorah where there is much social pressure to hang out.

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, I recently attended a meeting with other prospective YU parents. One parent, whom I am sure spoke for more than himself even without being so designated, wondered how their son would be able to come down to reality after a year of learning. The YU officials assured the parents that part of their goal was to maintain the enthusiasm developed for learning while helping the students back to a dual curriculum. I tend to doubt that a parent of a prospective student with a substance abuse or other mental health issue would have made such a comment. Obviously, such a student had a positive experience in EY.

  20. Menachem Petrushka says:

    What I get from all the above is that the Yetser Hara ia alive and well in the yeshiva/charedi/MO world.

    It is the height of religious arrogance for a group to claim that it can build walls high enough to keep ou the yetser hara. He is an agile and crafty fellow who can leap over the highest and broadest obstacles.

    In fact,I mispsoke. The Yetser Hara is within us all. Bechira (free wiil)demands that he as equal access to man as the forces of good do.

  21. Bob Miller says:

    It’s not arrogance to do what one can to reduce the level of temptation. It’s only arrogance to claim that the measures taken will be totally effective.

    As regards study in Israel, I wonder if student life can be better integrated with local Orthodox community life there, so that the more at-risk students do not live in their own dysfunctional, separate youth society.

  22. Jewish Observer says:

    “As regards study in Israel, I wonder if student life can be better integrated with local Orthodox community life there, so that the more at-risk students do not live in their own dysfunctional, separate youth society.”

    I think we are are searching for a “solution” to something not within our power to fix. For the vast majority, nothing terrible is happening; it is symptom of naturala yeridas hadoros caused by a variety of reasons. It may actually be arrogance for us to think we can put today’s middle class of bochrim on the same level as yesterday’s upper class.

  23. Gary Shulman says:

    ” Yes, there are kids who are undesirable and should not be learning.”
    Which kids are undesirable? Comment by Steve Brizel
    Those who don’t know should then learn in my opinion . G-d didn’t make any junk. Is there a thing called junky Yiddishe neshomos or undesirable neshamos according to Steve ?

  24. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Maybe if we let teenagers make more mistakes when they’re still at home, and give them tasks that are harder and more relevant, they will be ready for independant life earlier.

    I need to clarify. I did not mean just the frum community. I think the problem is endemic in western culture.

  25. Steve Brizel says:

    Gary Shulman-Let me clarify my last post. First, take a look at R Y Horowitz’s website and a checklist that is provided for parents as to whether or not to send a chuld to learn in EY for a year. Then, ask yourself the following question-if you either knew or had reason to know that your child had an eating disorder, substance abuse disorder, had been the victim of abuse or had a generaly less than positive view towards Shimiras Hamitzvos and learning, would it be responsible parenting to send a child to a yeshiva or seminary where the degree of supervison might be present, but less than optimal? While no kid is per se undesirable or bummy, one can certainly classify certain types of behavior as inappropriate for a Ben or Bas Torah.

  26. L Oberstein says:

    Pardon me for making a general comment about blogs, including this one. I am not ashamed to sign my name to my opinion. I don’t understand why people hide behind rediculous names. I could also sign my name “coyboy” or “Mentsch”, but I stand behind my opinions. I just don’t get it.
    Now to the topic at hand, b”h, there are many yeshivos. In my youth there were only a very few yeshivos and seminaries that had an American element. With numbers come problems. But, overall these yeshivos give kids from the USA a new depth of learning and hashkafa that has benefited them and the American yeshivos they return to.

  27. Steve Brizel says:

    For interested readers, R Y Horowitz has set forth at his website a series of factors for parents re sending their children to yeshivos and seminaries. I highly recommend the same for anyone either involved in the process or interested in the issues under discussion.

  28. Plonius Almonius says:

    “overall these yeshivos give kids from the USA a new depth of learning and hashkafa that has benefited them and the American yeshivos they return to.”

    – i would also have like to believe this. have you inspected the situatoin first hand in the past couple of years?

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