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.