Sunday, March 23, 2008

Flipping Out? in Canada

Research yeshivas before sending your kids, author says
The Canadian Jewish News
March 20, 2008 pages B10-B11
(available online here - PDF)

Staff Reporter

Rabbi Shalom Berger, co-author of Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the “Year in Israel,” was not partial to the proposed title of the book when his publisher, Rabbi Gil Student, first suggested it. “I wasn’t so excited about it,” Rabbi Berger told The CJN in a phone interview from his home in Alon Shvut, near Jerusalem. “I thought it would imply something I didn’t think was fully accurate.” The question mark was inserted at his request, and the subtitle was one of several considered.

Indeed, the title and cover photo are somewhat provocative, alluding to fears among some parents of children becoming so religiously radicalized that they lose touch with the values they were raised with.

Click here to read moreThe 218-page volume, published in December by Yashar Books, has a handsomely photographed cover featuring a black fedora and suit jacket neatly placed on a suitcase in front of the Western Wall, considered Judaism’s holiest site. The garments are symbolic of stricter Jewish ritual observance and are not typical attire for modern Orthodox students entering Israeli yeshivot.

The book’s title, taken from Jewish rock band Blue Fringe’s song “Flippin’ Out,” is a flip take (pun notwithstanding) on the yeshiva year in Israel.

Its lyrics address some of the same changes referred to in the book – restrictions on relationships with the opposite sex, more visibly Orthodox attire, stricter observance of religious ritual, and avoidance of secular culture including movies – and the tension such changes can cause between parents and children.

The book’s approach, with three academics as respective writers of its three sections, is considerably more serious, but makes for an interesting read both for its lack of pedantry and its subject matter. There is little if any other current material exclusively devoted to the yeshiva year in Israel.

Rabbi Berger, an educator, and Rabbi Daniel Jacobson, a psychologist, base their sections on their respective doctoral studies, the former looking at changes in students’ attitudes and practices, and the latter examining the underlying psychology. Sociologist Chaim Waxman, who studied at an Israeli yeshiva himself in the late 1950s, wraps things up by examining American Orthodoxy, Zionism and Israel. All three authors are Americans who have made aliyah.

For his doctorate in education, Rabbi Berger, who works for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar-Ilan University, interviewed some 400 students at the beginning and end of their year in Israel. He sought them out a year later as well and was able to locate most of them, he said.

His subjects, virtually all of whom are graduates of American Jewish day schools, were drawn from four yeshivot hesder that combine study with army service for Israeli students and three American programs.

The term “flipping out” isn’t used in the book, and the authors do not put an explicit value judgment on the phenomenon. “It’s something that’s out there that parents express,” said Waxman. “Some modern Orthodox parents do see it as negative.”

In a comment that could be construed as reassuring – or not, if one wonders why the issue is raised in the first place – Rabbi Berger writes in the book that yeshiva students “do not appear to be swept up by a cult-like phenomenon.”

However, noted co-author Waxman in a phone interview, there is a process of “socialization” at yeshivot. Also, he noted, the yeshiva is a “total” environment.

“Its aim is to mould a certain type of person, and in some cases if the students internalize things to an extreme, it might have effects similar to those of people who join cults. I don’t think it’s the intention, or what the yeshiva does, but it’s how the student absorbs it.”

Rabbi Berger said that it’s not just the yeshiva experience that causes changes, but the age and developmental stage of the students, most of whom are just out of high school. They’re beginning to distinguish themselves from their parents. They’re developing their own identity and rebelling at some level.

“The question is: What setting are they going to be in when they have these experiences? We all think about the ’60s when kids went off to college and came back different from their parents – an experience in which students are exposed to ideas that they find compelling and very often they [are inculcated]. This is what you expect from 18- and 19-year-olds.

“In most cases that I’m familiar with, assuming the kids grew up in settings that are healthy and supportive, and where there is open communication, at some point they... come to appreciate their parents’ values and move back on some level in that direction.”

Rabbi Berger expected to find changes not only in religious attitudes and practice but also in attitudes toward Israel, and “for the most part” he did.

One finding that surprised him, however, was that students did not change in the area of ethical behaviour over the course of the year. Although his first reaction was to think that “this is something of an indictment of a program that put such an emphasis on ritual matters that interpersonal matters fell by the wayside,” he soon changed his mind.

“It turned out there really wasn’t a lot of room for change... The students scored themselves so high at the beginning of the year on interpersonal things that there was no room to change.”

He believes the finding is explained by the consistent support in the general community for ethical behaviour and a concomitant minimum of support for religious practice. The “overwhelming majority” of yeshiva students do not flip out, said Waxman. “Most come back and go to university, but they are affected – from my point of view very positively,” he said.

Some do stay for a second year instead of returning home, he noted. Of those, he added, some have their parents’ blessings, and others stay on against their parents’ wishes.

The book cited a Jewish studies principal at one student’s high school who disapproved of his former student’s decision not to attend the Ivy League university at which he had deferred acceptance.

The principal was concerned that future students would not be allowed to defer acceptance if others did not “uphold their commitments.”

But Paul Shaviv, director of education at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, which currently has about 20 alumni in Israeli yeshivot, disagrees with that premise. “A school’s principal’s duty is to do what is best for the student, not [worry] about their school image,” he told The CJN.

Rabbi Berger noted that, among his research subjects who stayed for a second year, “not that many” originally planned to do so. “Clearly they were influenced, or they themselves said, ‘This is what I want to be doing.’ ”

For parents considering Israeli yeshiva education for their children, Waxman recommends putting “at least as much time into researching the institution as you would into finding out about a new car.”

He said parents need to know the perspective of the yeshiva – haredi, “transplanted American” or religious Zionist, for example.

Also, he added, they need to know their own child. “There are certain youngsters who should not be sent away from home, who need their parents there. Parents have children who are struggling and they think that sending them to Israel will resolve their struggles, but frequently it exacerbates them.”

Reflecting on the findings in the book, Waxman said he thinks “it just scratches the surface.

“It’s such a rich area that needs to be mined. There are so many things we don’t know.”

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