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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

In my first article for The Jewish Link, “From the Desk of a 17-Year-Old Yeshiva Applicant” (http://jewishlinknj.com/features/11095-from-the-desk-of-a-17-year-old-yeshiva-applicant), 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 18 (or 15, 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, 12th 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 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.

By Ezra Epstein

 Ezra Epstein is a yeshiva student, studying in Israel. He can be reached at [email protected] For more of his articles, visit his blog, “Brick Wall,” or ezraepsteinbrickwall.blogspot.com.