Firstly, I really must say how impressive it is to see a high school senior who feels so passionately about an idea that he goes ahead and writes about it in a public forum (“From the Desk of a 17-Year-Old Yeshiva Applicant,” by Ezra Epstein, December 31, 2015), regardless of the fact that many may come to balk at it for its raw points, or criticize it—because it brings up things they don’t want to talk or read about.
It requires serious courage to write on or speak up about things that many people will disagree with. Kol HaKavod. Unfortunately, Ezra, I am one of those people. While I certainly hear your concerns and understand your points, I fear you may have gravely missed the point.
Ezra, I’m originally from Woodmere, or for the sake of generalization, the greater Five Towns area. I, too, was lucky enough to be enrolled in an amazing Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school—one very, very similar to the one you are finishing up, God willing, this coming spring (I seriously urge you to take this all in—trust me). So, I’m no stranger to the Modern Orthodox upbringing. And yes, in my community as well, it is considered the “norm” for students to head to seminary or yeshiva for the year following high school.
I find it difficult to commiserate with your concerns that this golden, opportune, special year is a “pleading hope.” You’ve made it clear in your words that you believe the year, and the experience that comes along with it, is an addition to the Modern Orthodox experience. You’ve said it’s a separate idea from the “system”; in fact, you called it “supplementary.” The theme that we have two separate “systems” is prominent in your article, as is the idea that M.O. parents “bank” on yeshiva as a “last resort.” While some—or perhaps many—will agree with your critiques on the M.O. child-upbringing, it seems as though you may have merged that issue with spending the year in Israel.
Ezra, spending the year here—a gift that I, along with so many others have been so fortunate to have received—is not a separate system at all. Every year that your parents have provided you with a Jewish education, every lesson you’ve been taught, at home or in the classroom, every heart-warming Jewish experience you’ve had growing up—standing under your father’s talit during birkat kohanim, hearing the shofar in shul, yelling at the top of your lungs when you hear the name “Haman,” stashing away the afikoman, hunting around the house for that last tiny piece of chametz that got away—all of them, were merely steps. They were crucial points of progress, important memories and experiences and lessons to instill in you the virtues and values that we as a people hold so dear and high. The “Modern Orthodox Experience,” or “system,” as you have called it, is about progress.
Our whole lives are progress. As my rebbe told us early in the year (here, in yeshiva!): what sets us apart from a professional athlete, for example, is that an athlete peaks at around 28. His skill set is strong, he is old enough to be experienced, and still young enough to be agile and quick. And then, for the most part, it’s pretty much downhill from there. But Jews, on the other hand, reach their “prime” on the very last day of their lives. That is the day that we have amassed the most Torah knowledge, have influenced the highest number of people, created a family, and served God to the best of our abilities (iy”H). The point is, we never stop progressing.
And that is true in our “system” as well. It’s all progress, leading to a goal. No, Ezra, yeshiva or seminary in Israel is not a last hope or a last-ditch effort. It is the sum of parts. It is the culmination of 17 or 18 years of hard work and progress. It is the launching pad, the refueling point before the next leg of your journey.
It is our necessary next step, not a desperate different step.
As someone told me recently, one’s time in Israel does not end with shana aleph, or shana bet, etc. Rather, the count never ends. Time here isn’t “supplementary” to the system, as you said; rather, it’s complimentary. The first year after yeshiva, college for example, would be the next step, and after that graduate school, then career, and so on and so forth. But the point is that you won’t abandon what you gained in yeshiva or seminary—it will stay with us forever. What you gain here for the year, you take with you for life.
I know what you’re thinking, Ezra. But if our Modern Orthodox upbringing system is so good, why would I need to go to Israel?
Ezra, would you build a house without a foundation? Would you lay a foundation without first digging a hole?
I’ll say better, would you go to high school before first going to middle school?
You see, everything you experience in the “system” is progress, and all of that progress is necessary for the next stage—yeshiva or seminary.
Yes, as you’ve mentioned, some kids and some parents push things off until the yeshiva year, hoping it will fix everything. They dig “deeper holes for their foundations,” if you will. To say that’s the generalization, to even say that this is the case for many, is frankly unfair to those of us for whom it is not applicable. And, for those kids you are referring to, there are places exactly for them. And they usually work out great—they take that deeper, bigger foundation and build a stronger, bigger house.
You haven’t yet had the chance to be here for the year; let me tell you what it’s like a little bit. You don’t just sit down and force yourself to be brainwashed and be told all these new ideas that you’ve never heard before; mainly it’s a reinforcement and clarification of what you’ve been told your entire life.
But Ezra, you didn’t even think of the best parts of being here, the experiences of being in Israel: where am I going to experience a warm Shabbos with devout Chassidim, in an atmosphere so intense it’s hard to fathom that there are people who don’t even have Shabbos, if not for Meah Shearim? Where will I experience the blend of spirituality, Torah and mitzvot without Tzfat? Where can I sanctify the land and learn Torah, while the cities on the neighboring hilltops are filled with beings that starve for my demise, if not for Beit El? Where can I literally turn a desert into a farm if not in the Negev? Where is there a love affair between the bluest oceans and the highest cliffs of rock, longing for each other, if not for the breathtaking Rosh HaNikra? Where can I walk into every single office building in one of the start-up capitals of the world, and see a mezuzah on every doorpost, if not for Tel Aviv? Where can I touch the bricks of the holiest site in the world if not for our holy Kotel?!
You said that the “decision is often overlooked as a given.” And I agree with you. It is—as it should be. Every “Modern Orthodox teenager” should spend the year here. It’s a vital part of continuing the “system.”
You said Modern Orthodoxy is failing to its successors because we rely on a “desperate ‘Plan-B’ ideology.’” Ezra, it’s not “Plan-B.” It’s “Plan-A.” It always has been; our plan at the end of the day is to be Jewish, to build a Jewish life.
To paraphrase R’ Hutner (quoted in a beautiful letter someone I look up to very much recently sent me), our goal is not to live a double life; it’s to live a broad life. You’re not supposed to go to yeshiva and then come back the same, keeping what you gained on the back burner. You are supposed to infuse it with whatever you choose to do, even if that means going back to America to go to college (keep that yarmulke on!).
I know so many of my words will unfortunately ring hollow to you. But the sheer reality is that you just won’t fully understand unless you come—until you come—to Israel and experience this beautifully holy and special year.
I hope you don’t rely on your “system,” I hope you don’t stay home. The year could use people like you, and people like you could use the year.
I hope to see you here with me, with all of us, next year.
The author is a student at Yeshivat Shaalvim and a graduate of Davis Renov Stahler High School. This article was originally published on Ner LeElef’s NLEResources.com, available at http://nleresources.com/2016/02/from-the-desk-er-shtender-of-a-shana-aleph-talmid/.
By Maury Rosenfeld