Jewish Year Abroad
By BEN HARRIS
February 29, 2008; Page W11
By the middle of my post-high-school year of yeshiva study in Israel, it was obvious which of my classmates would return home much as they had left and which would return transformed. In the latter group were the boys who had begun to trade evenings at the bars on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street for the study hall, where they spent hours imbibing rabbinic wisdom. Their hair grew shorter and their sidelocks longer. Baseball caps declaring allegiance to the Yankees and Mets were replaced with velvet yarmulkes. Now they declared allegiance to a higher authority.
Religious transformations like these have become such a phenomenon in the Orthodox Jewish world that they have birthed their own derisive catchphrase. "Flipping Out," a term first popularized by an Orthodox rock band, is now the title of a book published by Yashar Books in cooperation with New York's Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. Jews who identify themselves as Modern Orthodox keep kosher, observe the sabbath and practice other rituals but are otherwise well integrated into society, living and working among people of other faiths.
A year of yeshiva study in Israel is now a rite of passage, with some Modern Orthodox high schools sending 90% of their graduating seniors to programs designed to fortify them with religious values before they go off to a secular American college. But some of these teenagers, once in Israel, choose to remain in yeshivas for a second or third year to continue their study of Torah and Talmud (biblical commentary). Others turn down admission to the Ivy League in favor of Yeshiva University, which offers a dual curriculum of liberal arts and religious instruction. In one case described in the book, a student's parents were so horrified at their son's intention to forgo admission to Harvard that they forged his signature on a commitment letter to the university. In the most extreme cases, returnees no longer respect the authority of rabbis they have known their entire lives, or refuse to eat in the home of their parents, whose adherence to Jewish dietary laws is deemed insufficiently rigorous.
"I suspect on some level moves the community to a more separatist position," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, the director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University, who supports Israel study but considers it a double-edged sword. "In Israel, the line between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox is quite sharp, and that gets reflected back."
Exact figures are hard to come by, but YU estimates that some 2,000 Modern Orthodox high-school graduates depart for single-sex Israeli yeshivas each year. Most attend programs for foreigners, where instruction is typically in English, room and board are included, and 12-hour days of study -- generally a mixture of Bible, Talmud and Jewish law and philosophy, though the diet is more Talmud-centered for men -- are supplemented by trips to sites of religious significance.
"They're basically given the message that they are doing what they were created to do, which is to study Torah, that they are princes and princesses of Judaism, that that is all that they have to do," says Samuel Heilman, a sociologist of American Jewry and the author of "Sliding to the Right." He fingers the Israel year as a chief reason for Modern Orthodoxy's supposed shift toward traditionalism. Critics of the shift point to everything from the style of yarmulke worn by Modern Orthodox men to the reluctance of some returning yeshiva graduates to kiss their female relatives. In 2006, 10 alumni of a right-wing yeshiva in Israel left YU after a year, citing ideological differences.
Survey data in "Flipping Out," the first effort to quantify the effects of the year in Israel, will provide ammunition to the critics. Rabbi Shalom Berger, one of the book's three authors, found that prior to landing in Israel, less than 20% of students rank high on a scale of ritual practice. After the year of study, the number surges to nearly 70%. Rabbi Berger also found that students are more committed to lifelong Torah study and show stronger ties to Israel after they return. But only a tiny minority, he says, eschew higher education entirely and dedicate their lives to studying Torah. Most will eventually attend college and go on to productive careers.
For many Orthodox educators, particularly at Yeshiva University, which recruits heavily from the programs in Israel, these findings are cause for celebration, not concern. With its motto of "Torah Umadda," literally "Torah and secular knowledge," YU has long been the standard-bearer of the ideal of marrying Orthodox practice to secular education. "I believe our tradition is such that we should be confident that we can contribute to the world based on our values," said YU President Richard Joel, five of whose children have studied in Israeli yeshivas. "We're not supposed to view the modern world as the enemy."
What remains unclear is the extent to which the educators in Israel, a country without a tradition of liberal-arts education, share Mr. Joel's commitment to the Modern Orthodox ethos. I have earned two academic degrees from top universities since I left the yeshiva in Israel, all while continuing to observe many of the rituals urged upon me a decade ago by my rabbis there, though I take certain liberties with the law that they would almost certainly frown upon.
Still, I consider that year to have been one of the most enriching of my life. The headmaster, I'm sure, wouldn't agree. Some weeks before my departure, he called me to his office to tell me that I had wasted my time. "Maybe," he said, "if you had learned a little more Torah."
Mr. Harris writes about religion for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.