After every demonstration that turns violent in Jerusalem, there are inevitably a spate of frantic calls from American parents whose sons have been arrested at the demonstrations, sometimes after having been beaten badly by the Israeli police. And in almost every case, the story is the same: “My son just went to see what was happening out of curiosity, when the police jumped him.”
In most cases that is exactly what happened. Yet it is unfortunately not the case that every American bochur learning in Eretz Yisrael was innocently minding his own business when jumped by the police. Credible reports reaching those askanim who deal with these matters in recent weeks point to a leading role of at least some American bochurim in the recent demonstrations. Those demonstrations turned into riots, with stone throwing at police and burning garbage cans, which caused Meah Shearim to resemble a battle zone or downtown Newark circa 1964.
Even if the American bochurim present just wanted to see the “action,” rather than trigger it, their presence at the demonstrations would raise questions about their judgment, especially since every yeshiva in the vicinity posted signs warning talmidim against participation in the demonstrations. In addition, their arrests emphasize how little control or knowledge their parents have of what they are doing while learning in Eretz Yisrael.
The damage to the bochurim themselves from participation in demonstrations likely to turn violent can last long after the bruises and broken bones inflicted by out-of-control Israeli police officers have healed. Criminal records and being expelled from the country with orders not to return are just two of those consequences. During the latter years of his life, Rabbi Gershon Stemmer, the long-time leader of the Eidah Hachareidis, would no longer sign on any poster for a demonstration because he could not take responsibility for those arrested and what might happen to them in even one night in an Israeli jail.
The scars from participation in demonstrations are but a subset of the untoward consequences of the unsupervised freedom that many bochurim enjoy, but cannot handle, when they are supposed to be learning in Eretz Yisrael. One of the most knowledgeable observers of the American chareidi community told me recently that cases of bochurim returning from Eretz Yisrael having been exposed to excessive drinking, drugs, and gambling are growing all the time. Nor can anyone take consolation that this phenomena is limited to boys who came to Israel with “problems” in these areas. We are talking about bochurim from the finest families and most respected yeshivos, who had never experienced trouble of any kind prior to coming to Eretz Yisrael.
LEARNING IN ERETZ YISRAEL at some point after high school has long been a sacrosanct rite-of-passage among almost every segment of American Orthodoxy. Unquestionably the impact of a year or more in Eretz Yisrael has been uplifting, even life-changing, for most of those who come here to learn. The experience of a year or more in yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael has brought about something akin to a transformation of American Modern Orthodoxy, with many more young men than ever before returning to the United States with a deep commitment to Torah learning.
And in the yeshiva world, it is easy to understand why bochurim are so eager to come to Eretz Yisrael to learn. Most of them learned in yeshivos where the roshei yeshiva themselves learned for many years in Eretz Yisrael and view one or another of the legendary figures of the Israeli Torah world as their main teachers. The bochurim have been raised on stories of their rosh yeshiva’s years of unsurpassed joy in learning in Eretz Yisrael, and they can hardly wait to experience something of the same themselves.
But as is often the case, we make a mistake when we extrapolate from a small group of highly idealistic individuals to a large tzibbur encompassing the whole gamut of individuals of varying talents and spiritual levels. The yeshivaleit in the pre-War Eastern European yeshivos were of necessity very different from today’s yeshivaleit by virtue of the fact that each of the former had to make a conscious decision to defy the zeitgeist, which had turned the “bench-warmers” in yeshivos into figures of derision to many. At best, each of them was one of a select few from his town who pursued advanced studies in yeshiva. Today virtually every yeshiva bochur has grown up in a society in which everyone his age is learning in yeshiva.
Similarly, it impossible to compare the experience of American yeshiva bochurim in Eretz Yisrael 35 years ago to the experience today. Then the decision to learn in Eretz Yisrael was a brave individual decision, not simply a matter of following the trends. The bochurim of yesteryear made a decision to submerge themselves in the Torah world of Eretz Yisrael. They were generally a small minority in much larger Israeli institutions. Often times, they were in rural environments, like Beer Yaakov, completely cut-off from the creature comforts of America.
A friend of mine, who serves as a prominent neighborhood rabbi today in Jerusalem, recalls going three months at a time without speaking to his parents. In those days, the only way to make a phone call to the United States was to go to the main Jerusalem post office, and those calls were considered prohibitively expensive for most. (Bochurim actually wrote letters to their parents.) Plane flights were beyond his family’s budget, and he did not go home for almost three years. Yet, he says with a smile, most of what he knows today is a result of those three years of uninterrupted learning.
The fifty or so American bochurim in the blatt shiur of the legendary Rabbi Nachum Partzovitz, zt”l, in those days could speak to Reb Nachum in learning virtually all day, either in the beis medrash where he sat learning two sedarim or in his house.
Today, it is much easier for a bochur to take America with him to Eretz Yisrael. Rather than submerging themselves in an Israeli Torah environment, many live in their own apartments, with other English-speaking apartment mates. They are in frequent and easy contact with their parents, when it suits them, and they often fly home one or two times a year.
Once one of the great advantages of learning in Eretz Yisrael was the ability to cut oneself off to a very large extent from all the distractions of America. Today, modern communications technology makes it possible to take almost all those distractions with one. The head of seminary for girls from more modern homes already told me a decade ago that the power of the seminary to effect dramatic transformations in girls had greatly diminished. The secret in the old days, he said, was that for the first time in their lives the girls were able to really hear Torah without all kinds of backround noise. Today they bring the backround noise with them. A girl’s mother calls her before class, as she is entering the mall, and after class, when she’s coming out. And if the girl manages to hide a DVD player or the like, then there is little opportunity for Torah to penetrate..
The expense accounts of today’s bochurim allow them to regularly eat outside of the yeshiva. In contrast, my friend remembers that his monthly spending money was $20 dollars of which half was spent on seforim. He proudly points to his overflowing bookshelves as the product of those years. He ate and slept in the yeshiva, and spent almost nothing.
Nor do most bochurim today experience anything like the close contact with towering Torah figures like Reb Nachum, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapira, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik, or the great Ponevezh Roshei Yeshivas –Rabbi Shmuel Rozowsky, Rabbi Dovid Povarsky, and Rabbi Elazar Schach — that their predecessors of one or two generations ago experienced.
SO FAR WE HAVE BEEN DEALING primarily with the reasons that the profound, life-changing experience of learning in Eretz Yisrael is less easily achieved by today’s bochurim than by those of a few decades back. But beyond the greater effort that a bochur must make to gain the maximum from the atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael, which makes one wise, we return to where we began: the danger of dramatic spiritual decline among bochurim who have too little accountability and are under too little supervision.
That is why the serious problems that we hear about are more common among bochurim than among seminary girls. The latter live in dormitories, not private apartments, have strict curfews, and spend most of their days filled with classes, where their absence is likely to be noted.
Too many parents send their sons of to Eretz Yisrael thinking that their task as parents is complete for the year, now that they have paid their tuition and air fare and placed their pride and joy on a guaranteed path of spiritual ascent. That is a terrible mistake. Parents must remain involved in their sons’ lives, and not just assume that the yeshiva is acting in loco parentis. That means first and foremost making sure that their son has a rebbe or other figure who feels a sense of responsibility for his growth during the time he is in Eretz Yisrael and being in regular contact with that rebbe. It is perfectly natural for a parent to inquire where his son ate on Shabbos, and equally natural for a parent to contact the hosts to thank them afterwards. Such conversations afford parents at least one source of information about their sons, without appearing to be spying upon them inordinately.
It would also be helpful ifֲ rebbeim and roshei yeshiva in America made efforts to maintainֲ their relationship ֲ with talmidim when they are learning in Eretz Yisrael. The Novominsker Rebbe, for instance, visits Eretz Yisrael at least once a year to maintain contact with Novominsk talmidim who are learning in Eretz Yisrael. Those contacts reduce a bochur’s feeling that he is all on his own, and has been dropped into a hefkervelt.
Parents should also attempt to cut down on the distractions to which their sons are subject. Whatever is gained in ease of communication by bochurim having a computer or cellphone with internet connectivity is greatly outweighed by the dangers involved. Cutting down on distractions also means making sure that they do not have too much spending money at their disposal and keeping close track of their expenditures. If a bochur, for instance, explains that the Chivas Regal on the credit card was for his Shabbos host, the parents should know that no host in Eretz Yisrael expects such presents or will even appreciate them. Kabdeihu ve,chashdeihu is also a good rule for a father going over his son’s credit card bill. True, it is possible to circumvent most parental supervision at a distance of thousands of miles, but it helps for bochurim not to think that their parents are asleep at the wheel.
The last and most important rule is at the same time the hardest one for parents to fulfill: Know your child. Do not assume that simply because your son has always been a “good boy,” who learns well, and does not get into trouble, that you have nothing to worry about. Rabbi David Sapirman, a mechanech in Toronto with forty years experience, writes in a Torah U’mesorah publication, “Why and How to Teach Emunah,” of many top notch yeshiva products who “when it comes to emunah . . . neither believe nor disbelieve. He is simply moving along the conveyor belt, which takes him from cradle to kollel. He goes through the motions, and may even be very happy doing so. But his lack of conviction permeates all that he does. These youngsters are as much at risk as the disenchanted, although they may not be aware of it yet. . . . Woe to him, if ever faced with a serious nisayon, like the temptation for something immoral or dishonest. Only real conviction can enable one to withstand temptation, not a robotic life style.”
And that is just the point. The time spent learning in Eretz Yisrael, without in many cases adequate supervision or accountability, is filled with many temptations. Before sending one’s sons to learn there, parents have to know whether their sons have a real connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, whether the image of Yaakov Avinu will confront them in moments of temptation, and whether they are truly filled with aspirations for growth in Torah. Or are they just “good boys,” who have never gotten off the conveyor belt. If the latter, caution is advised.