Emotional Problems of Yeshiva Students
EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS OF YESHIVA STUDENTS
By: Larry R. Berkower
This article originally appeared in Tradition Volume 14#4, 1974. Reprinted here with permission.
Any discussion of the subject of emotional problems of Yeshiva students, however constructive and sympathetic its tone, will bear an unavoidable one-sided quality since what is being presented touches upon psychopathology, psychological casualties, arising rarely among pupils of yeshivot. The vast majority of healthy yeshiva products, by definition, are not included in this type of study, causing it to appear unbalanced if this vital consideration is not kept in mind. It is therefore necessary to emphasize that what is being presented concerns only a small fraction of yeshiva students, and should not be considered applicable to the yeshiva movement or to pupils of yeshivot taken as a whole. The remarkable growth of American yeshivot would indicate, all the more, their success from a psychological as well as learning standpoint.
As a psychiatrist in private practice and on the teaching staff of the Wayne State University School of Medicine, I became involved in this area when I treated yeshiva students routinely referred to me. It should be added that the following remarks are not meant to apply to any particular yeshiva or to any specific ideological grouping within Orthodox Judaism. Rather, what is being described represents a composite of observations and experiences from a psychiatric viewpoint by one who committed to Traditional Judaism.
Psychiatric casualties occur within all settings, and no study, or survey has been made, to my knowledge, contrasting the morbidity psychiatrically of students in yeshivot with their counterparts in public schools, private schools, military academies, or elsewhere. It is my impression, however, that yeshiva students would compare most favorably with students taught in the permissive atmosphere of our present day public school system. From a Jewish point of view, it would be assumed that the incidence of emotional problems in our religious institutions would be minimal; the students would be strengthened psychologically by their commitment to Torah and enriched by their yeshiva experience. Unfortunately, serious emotional problems have occasionally arisen in our yeshivot leading to this writer’s concern.
It should be noted that the students adversely affected psychiatrically during their yeshiva years have been raised invariably in conflict-ridden families. Immaturity and irrationality are prominent in such homes, as well as a high incidence of emotional problems in the parent population. Often there are or have been serious religious differences between the parents as well. Thus, certain students would be particularly vulnerable to stressful aspects (psychologically) of yeshiva life, perhaps to the extent of appearing somewhat withdrawn or depressed even before entering the seminary. On the other hand, previously healthy children would have sufficient psychological resources to adapt to the yeshiva, regardless of its limitations from a psychiatric standpoint; or they would be scarred emotionally to a comparatively minor extent and be able to make a healthy adjustment upon leaving the seminary due to their inherent psychological strength and resiliency.
How do emotional problems develop in a yeshiva student? The early adolescent youngster, who may have displayed personality inadequacies before entering the yeshiva, is confronted with the task of forming relationships within his peer group as well as with his rabbis, who will be his parental substitutes during the seminary years. It is with his instructors that the student will model himself at this time, identifying with them consciously and unconsciously as he copes with the normal upsurge of instinctual drives during the adolescent years. Hopefully there has been a reasonable degree of agreement between the young man and his parents concerning the choice of yeshiva so that the pupil does not feel sent away against his will, which, of course, would complicate matters further.
Despite the youngster’s expectations and prior preparation, beginning life away from home in his early teens involves a radical re-adjustment. Unlike the Biblical Abraham, the young man may be too dependent on his parents and lack sufficient personality resources to make the transition at this time such that a delay in enrollment would be advisable. A lot depends upon the emotional tone of the yeshiva as set by the rabbis in authority. Does the yeshiva appear warm and inspiring or comparatively impersonal and exclusively concerned with the intellectual, learning attainments of the student? Is the young man able to acquire healthy parental substitutes or is he led to feel lost and adrift? Again, much hinges upon the emotional climate of the yeshiva as to whether personality stimulation or constriction takes place. In Medicine, the concept of disuse atrophy would be pertinent here psychologically to refer to the apparent cognitive over-emphasis at the expense of the less; used, emotional parts of the personality which may occur in rare psychopathological instances where there is a marked lack of attention paid to the emotional needs of the youngster.
The main clinical problem that I encountered among yeshiva students has been that of schizoid personality formation. Instead of personality enrichment, one notes a washed out, introverted character structure with the individual appearing drab, overly shy, wrapped up in himself or his fantasies, very inept on an interpersonal level. This type of personality pattern may stabilize, and the student possessing it may only feel comfortable in a yeshiva institutional setting (beyond his attachment due to his spiritual commitment to Torah). One unfortunate aspect of this problem is that individuals so afflicted relate to succeeding generations of students in this same schizoid manner, and thus the condition tends to be handed down through such processes as psychological identification and the deprivation of needed emotional support (which the teacher is unable to provide).
A more serious, but fortunately much less commonly seen condition, involves outright schizophrenic de-compensation. This may result from an extension of a schizoid characterological disorder with severe personality disruption and disorganization taking place under psychological stress. Youngsters who develop this illness appear to withdraw into a world of their own, having hallucinations and delusions, often of a paranoid nature. These individuals may seem uninterested or oblivious of the world, around them, being preoccupied delusionally to the exclusion of everything else. Or the students so afflicted may become terrified by their persecutory delusions (e.g., of people plotting to kill them) and appear markedly restless, unable to sleep at night. It is difficult for one unaffected by this illness to comprehend the fragmentation and distortion of reality which may take place in acute phases of schizophrenia. In their desperation such individuals often pose a serious suicidal threat and require psychiatric hospitalization for their protection and to be worked with effectively.
Less prominent, but more widespread, are various manifestations of depression, especially during the period of adjustment from home to the out-of-town yeshiva. Here the youngster experiences a sense of loss and confusion. Not being able to maintain the learning proficiency or class standing attained at the home day school in the out-of-town yeshiva may also lead to serious depressive conflicts, reflecting the gap between the youngster’s ego ideal and reality. He feels as if he falls short of what is expected of him by his family and home town teachers, and this can result in feelings of failure which may have a crushing effect. Often physical symptoms, as headaches or chest pains, will be present without an apparent organic basis, but indicative of the internalized frustrations at this time. On the other hand, we note increasingly in the yeshiva population outward expressions of character and behavior problems more common in other segments of society. This includes drug experimentation, stealing and rowdyism in various forms.
There are a number of areas involving the yeshiva student which merit concern with regard to psychological problems. For example, serious adverse psychological consequences in vulnerable students can develop in the chevrusah partnership if the system is not carefully supervised and monitored. Thus, to work properly, a suitable match between the two students involved must be achieved both in terms of learning capacity and personality. The lack of a satisfactory partner may be a source of great discontent and resentment. If given an inappropriate learning companion, a student, especially with schizoid personality tendencies, will experience a sense of deep humiliation in the eyes of his peers, accentuating any previous psychological problems he may have had.
In addition, the chevrusah partnership naturally has a pervasive emotional impact upon the individuals involved. Feelings of suspicion, a sensitivity to any indication of rejection in the relationship can have profound effects on the vulnerable, introverted student. Homosexual fears may arise as well, leading to considerable anxiety which may reach the level of panic. In rare instances, homosexual strivings, perhaps more prominent than ordinarily expected elsewhere due to the absence of heterosexual stimulation, may be acted out, such as in the form of mutual masturbation. Marked feelings of guilt develop from this, of course, and often the entire problem will (or should) require psychiatric attention.
Another area of concern is institutional chauvinism. Although this phenomenon exists in many, if not all, educational institutions, I have noted an accentuated tendency of this kind among certain of our yeshivot beyond realistic and tolerable limits of school pride. That is, the representative of one seminary will tend to over-emphasize the comparative merit of his institution at the expense of other yeshivot which are equally devout and Torah-oriented. Thus, the vulnerable student, while attending one yeshiva, may be led to feel that he is a “traitor to the cause” or “letting someone important down” should he consider transferring to another yeshiva, even though doing so would be advantageous for him in terms of his career or other needs. This can generate very serious emotional conflicts which can reach overwhelming proportions in certain instances with the student feeling that he is caught between warring factions; either way he turns, unbearable antagonisms will occur and he will be hurt.
Needless to say, such pressures upon the student are unfortunate and breed unnecessary emotional conflict. In part, they do reflect competition between the yeshivot for the best available young men. In other instances, economic factors affecting struggling (financially) yeshivot have appeared of undue importance, adversely affecting the students, contributing to this problem as well.
Deciding whether to attend college or not can result in psychological problems. The importance of the college experience and training in a variety of careers including that of rabbi in a synagogue with professional people, is quite obvious. On the other hand, there are serious conflicts of value which inevitably arise upon exposure to the materialistic, ideological and immoral influences which pervade many of our college campuses. These can be minimized if the yeshiva student is prepared beforehand for the university, and he can increase his feeling and appreciation for his Torah heritage by his advanced secular studies and knowledge.
Yet the issue of college attendance for some yeshiva students transcends the realistic considerations involved. In certain yeshivot, college has become a symbolic matter to a large extent, and if the student pursues higher secular education, however vital this may be for his career and encouraged by his family, he will have to contend with many external pressures, both within his peer group and from his rabbinical instructors. Naturally all this can have marked intra-psychic consequences, leading the student to feel ashamed and guilty for leaving the yeshiva world for a college education. Of course, the psychologically healthy individuals will be able to withstand these pressures and resolve for himself the wisest course to pursue. But here again, the psychologically vulnerable yeshiva student can be overwhelmed by these conflicts and withdraw even further into a schizoid shell to protect himself from the various “factions” involved in the college dilemma. On the other hand, as a needless reaction to some of the extreme and unfortunate pressures regarding college, the student may break away entirely from the yeshiva and even from Orthodox Judaism while being enticed by the lure of secular studies, misguidedly believing that his is an either/or situation between religion and professional achievement. In this way brilliant individuals were lost from traditional Judaism as they ventured into various professional careers, with “science” later used as a rationalization to justify their decisions
One additional area of particular psychological concern is related to the choice of career. This may be more so for the yeshiva student who has had little contact with a variety of career alternatives in the outside world. As a result, the only career that he may be familiar with is the life of study and teaching within the seminary. This has caused some students to cling to the yeshiva for reasons extending beyond the spiritual, reflective of an institutional dependency syndrome akin to that sometimes found in psychiatric hospitals when patients feel uncomfortable and frightened in leaving the hospital security they have become accustomed to. Others consider themselves unsuited, perhaps rightfully so, because of their intellectual and emotional make-up, for such a yeshiva career choice. And there are those students who are unable to leave the yeshiva due to a lack of career opportunities and personality resources, yet cannot continue to stay within yeshiva confines. Needless to say, such conflicts can have devastating consequences in the susceptible student, leading him to wonder, “What will become of me?” Often a course of psychotherapy will enable such an individual to resolve these conflicts and pursue the career choice most appropriate to his needs and talents.
While the psychological problems of a yeshiva student cannot be eliminated, there are steps, which, if taken by the parents and yeshivot, will reduce or minimize the difficulties encountered.
In the first place, in selecting a yeshiva, parents should take into consideration emotional factors. That is, the parents and the young man should seek a yeshiva with a staff of mature, warm, inspiring as well as learned rabbis with whom the student can relate and who will take a personal interest in the youngster. The rabbis should be viewed as substitute parents and judged accordingly as to whether they merit such a trust or not. On the other hand, the parents and the youngster must feel reasonably certain that he is ready to leave home at this particular time to enter the yeshiva.
Secondly, within the seminary a very helpful addition would be the presence of a counseling system which would be relatively independent of the yeshiva and mainly concerned with the needs of the pupil. Thus, the student would have someone to turn to for help with his serious personal problems. Of course, this often does take place on an informal level, but in other instances, problems may reach overwhelming proportions before any attention is given to them. Such counselors would be rabbis or undergraduates of the yeshiva who have an interest and ability in serving in such a capacity, but they should be backed up on the outside by psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers regarding matters beyond their competency. It is important that this specialized assistance be available as soon as some of the serious problems are detected. Obviously the earlier such help is provided, the quicker and more completely the youngster can be rehabilitated. As certain emotional conditions are neglected or avoided, they become more fixed and ingrained and less responsive to psychiatric help.
Often conflicts and tension can be reduced by providing social as well as physical interaction in the form of sports and recreational activities. These are vital for the youngster’s emotional development. In some instances there has been an unhealthy neglect of such activities for reasons of a lack of time or space (as due to the location of the yeshiva within the city) which has been detrimental to the student.
In addition the methodology of the yeshiva should be geared as much as possible to the particular talents of the individual student. Certain pupils have displayed remarkable abilities to develop hypotheses (chidushim), for example, but have only average capacities concerning memorization. Too often I have observed instances in which great stress was placed upon rote memorization, leading to much internalized frustration and anxiety. Obviously, allowances have to be made for the specific capabilities and limitations of the individual student within the teaching framework of the yeshiva.
Also, spending time with families in the community diminishes the institutional dependency effect of yeshiva life upon the individual, such that he is less likely to feel he is a “fish out of water” when he leaves the yeshiva.
In closing, it should be emphasized that the adverse emotional effects described in this article are rare, and that by and large our yeshivot are successfully accomplishing their missions in training healthy Torah students. Perhaps as American yeshivot become more well established and endowed, they will be able to provide additional attention to the emotional as well as Torah needs of the pupils. I hope that these observations will contribute to an increased awareness and understanding of the emotional problems encountered among some yeshiva students, leading to a prevention or minimization of such phenomena.