The Post-High School Yeshiva Experience in Israel: Goals and Benefits
This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at. Republished with permission of the author.
The following was presented at a meeting of the Educational Liaison Committee of the Ramaz School, New York City.
The purpose of this presentation is to articulate, for students, some of the goals and objectives of attending a post-high school yeshiva program, to communicate with parents who are hesitant about such a program, to explain the uniqueness of this kind of religious experience, and to outline some of the long term benefits for students whose ultimate goal is to attend college. It is hoped that it will encourage further discussion regarding concrete and creative ways in which we can educate students and parents about the importance of a post high school yeshiva program.
I. TO REINFORCE THAT WHICH HAS ALREADY BEEN LEARNED
As a college guidance counselor, whenever I interview students I ask them if they want to go to college. I find perhaps one person every year or two who has the courage to say no or who can at least admit that (s)he is not sure. The rest consider it a foolish question. I then ask them why they want to go to college. At first they look at me askance, again as if the question is an absurd one. Most answer that they want to learn more, they want to be educated. But regardless of what any individual student means by those terms, almost all agree that high school has not prepared them for the world, that it has not fully rounded out their education, that it has not taught them everything they need to know – even about subjects like math or English or history. In short, high school is not enough. High schools can do only so much.
If this is true for general studies, then it is all the more so for Jewish studies, which has fewer hours of instruction, is taught and operates in a different language, and receives little reinforcement from the general culture.
Combine the above with the fact that students, at the end of high school, are frequently insecure about their future and are still wrestling with what they do and do not believe in. Many would benefit from time to explore and reflect. Indeed, the university system of higher education, as it is conceived in this country, is in large part constructed in such a way as to encourage students to take their time in reflecting upon the world around them and their place in it. Yet, it is one of the unfortunate trends lamented in higher education that students seem less concerned with existential, philosophical, and purely academic issues than they are with the bottom line of vocational training and opportunity.
What we do manage to convey in Jewish education is a sense of the basics that are a prelude to higher education. Ideally, then, students need to have the opportunity to build upon the basics that they have learned, to begin to pull it all together. They need an intensive learning environment of higher education where they can dedicate their minds and hearts to reinforcing the Jewish learning skills and values that high school, with all of its handicaps, has but given them a taste of. They therefore need to round out their education and, ideally, to do so while those skills and values are yet fresh and in an environment which is solely dedicated to that goal.1
II. TO FOSTER SKILLS FOR INDEPENDENT LEARNING
When old skills are reinforced and new ones are learned, students can acquire an arsenal of learning tools that lasts them a lifetime. One of these tools is a proficiency in basic texts so that they can achieve a certain amount of self-sufficiency both in the ability to learn and in areas of halakha. Students should eventually be able to quickly locate the sources for halakhot, such as which candles are lit first on Saturday night – havdalah or Chanukah, what changes take place in the tefillot on a special day; or why two loaves of bread are used on Friday night and what to do if there are none. Students who return from Israel have the skills to learn on their own and apply that learning and those skills in a way that someone with only a high school education cannot.
III. TO FOSTER AN APPRECIATION OF LEARNING – AHAVAT TORAH
Torah lishmah is a difficult notion to convey during a school day of conflicting interests and time constraints. The yeshivot in Israel, however, manage to convey this idea to students in a most powerful way so that they return with an understanding not only of the intellectual rigor of talmud Torah, but of the experiential component and with a sense of kedushah, the notion that learning can be a form of Divine service. When students come back from Israel they love Torah or, at the very least, they appreciate the central role that it plays in everyday Jewish life.
The successful realization of the above goals have additional significant benefits, depending upon the particular student involved:
- Very often, too many students graduate from a liberal arts education without ever having really taken advantage of it. They are directionless as they dabble with some of this and some of that – not because they have some notion of commitment to a broad education, but because they do not know what they want or what interests them. Some are simply burned out after high school. A year in which to reflect upon goals and interests can provide greater direction in college itself; it gives many a better idea of what to look for, and how to approach their education. It works, not because they had a hiatus from learning – quite the opposite. Because they were involved in a rigorous academic life for a year, they arrive at college determined to work and maximize the experience.
- University, by definition, is a marketplace of ideas. (For this reason Jewish studies courses and professors in secular colleges will never take the place of the talmud Torah experience. The very definition of university prevents teachers from assuming a talmud Torah posture.2)
Bombarded by ideas, students are, at best, frequently confused and, at worst, they adopt the lifestyle or value system of their collegiate peer group, charismatic professors, or people whom they are dating. Students who go through the Israel yeshiva experience, however, have a compass with which to direct them through this bombardment; they have a more clearly defined sense of self and a value system that can filter new ideas and concepts. Most important, it is a value system that is based on a recently strengthened commitment, one that is rooted in both the experiential and the intellectual – the ideal hallmarks of university life itself.
- The very fact that some students live near their teachers on yeshiva grounds affords them the opportunity of establishing the classic relationship of rebbe and talmud-one that is almost impossible to achieve in a high school setting. Teachers, both men and women, become role models in the finest and most ennobling sense of the term.
At the same time, the learning and wrestling with ideas flourishes under the guidance not of graduate students or RA’s and TA’s but of adults with experience and maturity. One of the hallmarks of the yeshiva system, indeed of all Jewish education, is that rebbeim and their female counterparts are mandated by Jewish law to view themselves as surrogate parents.
- Unlike high school, the yeshiva has the advantage of being able to create an environment that is completely dedicated: to Torah. This has effects not only in the intellectual realm, but in the ethical and moral ones as well. The social contract of the yeshiva is one in which interrelationships and obligations to others are defined and guided by a Torah ethic, an ethic which is too often seen as idealistic or unworkable by those who otherwise have not been immersed in it or who cannot overcome the contrary influences of the majority culture in which they live. I want to go to yeshiva in Israel, one student said, because I saw the way some people from last year came back. The way they act towards others is so different now. I know it’s really the right way. I want to be like that. More often than not, these are in essence the same ethical and moral values that parents and teachers have been preaching to students throughout their schooling. The only difference is that these young men and women have finally been afforded the time, concentration, and environment that allow them to internalize those values.
- Some students are simply not ready for college. By their own admission, they are not mature enough. Living away from home, in another country, yet in a structured environment that more often than not mirrors the values of their home and school, is for them the perfect stepping stone to college.
- Some students are not ready for college from an academic point of view. One student who took his senior year rather casually wrote about how he was spending his days sitting in the beit midrash learning for hours at a time: “This leads to my new philosophy. I hated what I was doing to myself last year in high school], wasting my time, not getting anything done, but I couldn’t break out of it…. When I got here, I saw myself spending free time and nights after seder just shmoozing and wasting time. I decided that if I’m going to get something out of this year I have to make a schedule and actually get on paper what I am doing every minute of the day. Now, all of my time is being used…. With my father 6000 miles away and no one to rebel against I’ve been forced to actually wake up. It’s about time. I hope it lasts.”
- Maturity, for some students, translates into the enhancement of their own selfworth: “In (high school) I always thought I was dumb. Teachers used to tell me that in a nice way. Because I couldn’t repeat what they said as everyone else, I was not smart. Although my parents always told me otherwise, deep inside I kept thinking that maybe they were just saying that because they are my parents. (In high school) I never thought I would be able to learn with a havruta on the same level as me and figure things out. To my surprise I was wrong. I certainly thought I would always need the English for everything. I have good havrutas for everything and I have not opened an English translation of anything since I got here!”
Not only has independence in learning been acquired, but a stronger more self-confident personality who, more than ever before, believes in herself.
IV. TO FOSTER A CONNECTION TO ERETZ YISRAEL
One of the biggest frustrations for American Torah and Navi teachers is the inability to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, to hear the words of the shoftim and neviim echoing on a barren hillside in Judea. These are precisely the kinds of field trips that Torah institutions in Israel take their students on. They thus bring life and vibrancy not only to text, history, and legend, but to Torah mandates and ritual observances. Students who return from the yeshiva experience know that Zion and Torah are inseparable. And that Eretz Yisrael is a pathway for approaching God for it is the one place where the national religious destiny can be fulfilled.
V. TO FOSTER A CONNECTION TO MEDINAT YISRAEL
One of the most vexing problems in Jewish education, and for the organized American Jewish community, is how to foster a commitment to the State among a post wars) generation. One solution is to visit Israel. As such, students who return from educational programs in Israel have a national and political commitment to the State. A fact that takes on greater significance when these students become leaders on college campuses and, hopefully, in communal activities.
In addition, most students who return from the yeshiva experience have a commitment to the religious destiny of the State as well. They also begin to understand and experience the challenges of implementing and safeguarding a Torah existence in our own country. The notion of a halakhic society becomes more than a theoretical or textual curiosity. It becomes a stimulating and, at times, painful intellectual, theological, and existential challenge.
Another benefit is a heightened sense of religious pluralism. Whether through volunteer projects, tutoring opportunities, work in development towns and immigrant absorption centers, planned weekends away, or through exposure to an array of faculty, students confront the broad range of people and opinions represented in Israel. Students are able to interact with diverse members of the community whose American counterparts they might seldom have the chance to meet. At the very least, they become sensitive to the differences among these groups and the nuances that connect and separate them.
In conclusion, the yeshiva experience in Israel is a way for students to continue to develop and build upon that which we, their educators, stand for and advocate. It represents the beginning of the fulfillment of the many years spent laying the foundation for a deeper commitment and a more profound higher education.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, certainly no cultural philistine, once remarked that an education has got to be narrow if it is to penetrate; breadth alone, uniformly applied, may leave one educated and cultured but hardly competent (cited in Torah Umadda. Norman Lamm. Northvale: Jason Aronson Press, p. 231)
2 As Professor Marvin Fox has said: There is a deep and important difference between the traditional study ofHumash and Rashi and the study of the history of biblical exegesis in the university. Universities do not teach Torah, nor do they produce traditional Torah scholars. It is not part of their program to advance religious faith or to foster a sense of identity with the Jewish community. This is simply not the function of the university, and it is a mistake to look to the university for the realization of those purposes. (In What Do We Expect of Jewish Studies? Marvin Fox, Sh’ma 20/383, December 8, 1989.)
Rabbi Goldmintz is the Assistant Dean of the Ramaz Upper School.