Over the past 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 “Shana 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 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:
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Shana 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. Shana 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 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 Shana Bet. What works for everyone won’t necessarily work for you. Do what’s best for you.
By Ezra Epstein