Flipping Out – A Review
[Editor’s note: Steve Brizel is a frequent commenter to Cross-Currents, besides being a regular presence on Beyond Teshuva and Hirhurim. (As a long-time NCSY stalwart, and a regular mispallel at the shul of an old chavrusa of mine, he also scores extra points.) We are pleased to offer his review of a hot new title. –RYA]
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”.
“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).
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)
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Steve, let me be the first to congratulate you on your excellent and informative (to me) post. I am amazed that a single year in Israel (actually ten months, even less if you factor in Pesach vacation in the States) can produce such a change. How would you explain it?
Your reference to Feldman reminds me of the (true) story of the Rosh Yeshiva’s son who, when he visited his father after his marriage, brought along his own food to eat. When the Rosh Yeshiva was asked if it bothered him that his own son refused to eat in his house, he repled, “Far better that he won’t eat in my house than that I can’t eat in his house”.
One question, though: As I understand the Modern Orthodox ideal, shouldn’t even Michaelangelo not be “competing with the Rambam”, but complementing him?
Chaim Wolfson: What RAL meant is compete for time. He made a similar point 10 days ago, with Shakespeare replacing Michaelangelo. Those present as he addressed this and other inter-generational (and time allocation) issues, could not have missed how his answers to hard Sheailot from the group were often enhanced by a colorful example from an array of different secular authors. It made the answer both memorable and clear. His ability to express his answers so articulatley was visibly complemented by his general erudition. OTOH, his review, in an article years ago, of many of the hespedim for RMF ztl and RAK ztl, gave his views of many whose education limits their ability to describe an individual accurately. Cleary RAL is unique; his talmidim’s limmudei kodesh are always enhanced by his clarity of expression and recognize its source. Alas, few can emulate, but half as good would be more than sufficient for most.
My understanding-“Complementing” in knowledge/appreciation of HKB”H’s creation, competing in time allocation.
Question-in CO understanding – would it make any difference if it were Michaelangelo or Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson?
“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 .”
Thanks for an informative review. This sentence makes me wonder however. Assuming that they’re dissatisfied with the ideology of some of the Yeshivos, is that reason enough to drop them from the program? Doesn’t the MO world predicate their acceptance of attending college where one will certainly hear and be exposed to far worse than anything they’ll hear in a right-wing yeshivah, on the assumption that students can separate the good from the bad? Is there some other dynamic at work here that I’m unaware of?
Though everyone hates labels, here is a place where one ought to distinguish modern orthodox teens from centrist or right wing orthodox. From what I have seen, children from MO schools like Ramaz, Frisch, etc., gain tremendously from a year or two in Israel. They enter in varying states, but from what I have seen, the majority come out changed men, and changed for the better. ( I don’t know enough to comment about the girls.)
Boys coming out of more right wing yeshivas, on the other hand – I’m thinking Torah Vidass, Chaim Berlin, NIRC, Philly, Long Beach, or others of that nature – may not gain as much by going to Israel so soon after High School. Many of these boys are already learning fairly well in 12th grade, and would probably do better by continuing in the same location for another few years. (Whether attending colege at the same time or not is another issue.) For many of these teens, going to Isreal at the age of 17 gives them more “freedom” than is healthy at that age, and they lose the rhythm they had already developed. For such boys, while a year in Israel is still beneficial, perhaps it should be pushed off for a couple of years of maturing.
I don’t intend to insult any group here, and of course I recognize there is always numeroous exceptions to any rule. But this is what I have observed, and I think it an important distinction to make.
You quote Rav Lichtenstein, shlita:
“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.”
But does that not pre-suppose that the parents already accept that ambition as an ideal and just seek a way to implement it?
And does not the inter-generational conflict start because the new generation has found this an ideal (through the Year in Israel programs) that their parents do not see as an ideal?
Mark: Doesn’t the MO world predicate their acceptance of attending college where one will certainly hear and be exposed to far worse than anything they’ll hear in a right-wing yeshivah, on the assumption that students can separate the good from the bad? Is there some other dynamic at work here that I’m unaware of?
Ori: For somebody with an Orthodox education, it would probably be easier to reject ideas that stand in sharp contrast to the Torah, such as espoused by modern colleges, than ideas that are a mistaken interpretation of it. If I understand what I read here correctly, the modern Orthodox and right-wing Orthodox both think the others’ ideas are mistaken interpretations of the Torah.
Dr. Gewirtz and Joel, thank you for the clarification. It makes sense.
Joel, in answer to your question: Yes, it would make a very big difference. Micheal Jackson is out of bounds (pardon the metaphor); Micheal Jordan is tolerated [Larry Bird, of course, would be embraced]; in theory, Michaelangelo is perfectly fine(though I imagine going into the Sistine chapel would be a problem), but in the type of yeshiva I attended, anything “competing” with Torah learning in terms of time allocation (with the exception of the standard “limudei chol” course of study in High School) would be frowned upon.
DF writes: Boys coming out of more right wing yeshivas…may not gain as much by going to Israel so soon after High School. Many of these boys are already learning fairly well in 12th grade, and would probably do better by continuing in the same location for another few years.
From what I’ve seen, going later is the standard in those circles – the boys often go to Israel for their third post-hs year. And they typically go to a different set of yeshivos, that accomodate a wider range of ages to learn in their institutions.
From my limited sample space that I’ve had contact with, I would say that about 30-40% of those who have “flipped out” already showed tendencies of doing so even before leaving for their year in Israel (and were predicted to end up doing so, and their parents sent them anyway). The hard part is predicting who the other 60-70% will be.
Are we dealing here with an inherent superiority of learning in Eretz Yisrael, or with correctible deficiencies in American Jewish communities and their educational systems, or both?
If the book is as you described, couldn’t they have come up with a less demeaning name than “flipping out”?
Good point – you might be right. I still find it somewhat difficult to see why they’re so afraid of the prospects.
“From my limited sample space that I’ve had contact with, I would say that about 30-40% of those who have “flipped out” already showed tendencies of doing so even before leaving for their year in Israel”
What’s even more interesting is that from my own limited experience, a large number of those who “flipped out” were from families where excessive pressure was placed on them not to “dare flip out”. Funny how that works sometimes.
That term is the one used by parents most likely to be affected by the book.
I flipped out in 1966 at Kerem B’Yavne. The experience of a full time yeshiva, learning Mesilas Yeshorim for the first time, being in Israel all combined to nudge me to go to another yeshiva than the one I was on “leave of absence” from. I didn’t get college credit for KBY but it was also 100% free, a fair exchange. That year was one of the best of my life.
The world is more complicated nowadays but all admit that there is a crisis in many orthodox schools in the US. If there is a way to motivate the students to prioritize yiddishkeit over shtus, I am all for it. Some narishkeit comes along with changes in hashkafa, hopefully it is only a temporary phenomenon. Let’s not confuse teenagers’ desire for autonomy with rebellion.
I can’t understand a parent who is less worried about a child going off the derech at a secular university to one learning for a few years without college in any yeshiva. How fragile is the parent’s ego that he is afraid of a child who is more stringent but not worried about a son who may or may not eat kosher or keep shabbos. That is often the choice.