“Do You Know Where Your Boychik Is?” — Revisited

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My op-ed “Under the Guise of Learning in Eretz Yisrael ” in the July 23 Hamodia has occasioned more than the usual amount of comment, both in the form of an unusually large outpouring of published letters to the editor and in phone calls and private comments conveyed to me. Some of those comments have been favorable, even effusively so, and some no less critical – at least one anonymous caller took the time to call from the States to convey his opinion that I had lost my Olam Haba, chas ve’shalom.

Most of the comments to date have focused on what I am assumed to have meant rather than on what I actually said. About the latter there has been relatively little dispute. So perhaps it would be well to first review the areas of broad agreement. My first major point was that the year or more of learning in Eretz Yisrael has changed in important ways in recent decades. Whereas once only individual bochurim, who were self-selected and tended to have high aspirations in Torah learning, came to Eretz Yisrael to study, today it is pretty much assumed that all yeshiva bochurim will spend one or two years in Eretz Yisrael. The latter run the gamut of commitment to learning and spiritual levels.

One or two readers did write that I should not overly idealize the situation of 35-40 years ago when they studied in seminary or yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. But, in general, there was agreement that the situation is radically different today. Whether that reflects a change in the quality of bochurim or has some other explanation can be debated. At least one maggid shiur in a major yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, who learned in Eretz Yisrael as a bochur, told me that in his opinion the major difference between then and now is not the quality of the bochurim but the multitude of lures to which today’s bochurim are exposed, which simply did not exist then. He mentioned Internet and DVD’s at the top of the list.

My second major point was that parents should not feel that they have fulfilled their parental obligations with the provision of a plane ticket, tuition, and spending money. They do not cease to be parents just because their son is thousands of miles away, and that means that they still have a responsibility — perhaps even a greater responsibility given the temptations — to monitor his behavior and spiritual development. I included an illustrative, but by no means exhaustive, list of ways that parents can remain involved across the ocean.

On this point, there was absolutely no disagreement. As far as I’m concerned, if the piece did nothing more than encourage parents to remain actively involved and provided them some tools for doing so, such as ongoing contact with their sons’ rebbeim, Dayeinu.

My final point was that parents must know their sons well before sending them to Eretz Yisrael to learn. Convincing themselves that their sons are perfect and their emunah rock-hard, when that may or not be the case, does not serve their sons well. When the freedom afforded by learning far from home in Eretz Yisrael proves too much for a particular bochur, it is often comforting for his parents to assure themselves that they sent him from home without blemish and whatever occurred happened only once he left the United States.

There are no doubt such cases. But, according to those knowledgeable in the field, it is more common that what may have only been small imperfection in the foundation was exacerbated in the conditions of freedom far from home. In some cases, bochurim took more efforts to conceal certain negative behaviors – watching movies, Internet use – when they were in yeshiva in the States than they do once they are further away from home. But the behaviors were present, even if to a lesser degree, prior to arriving in Eretz Yisrael. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that several problematic and potentially addictive behaviors – e.g., drinking and gambling – are more often encountered in the American chareidi community than in the Israeli. Excessive drinking was once considered not to be a “Jewish” problem. But those days are long gone.

SO MUCH FOR WHAT I DID WRITE. But authors are responsible not only for what they write explicitly, but also for the way that their words will be understood – chachamim hizaharu b’drveichem. So I’d like to clarify some of those matters which were read into my words.

Some, I am told, assumed that I was writing with one or two specific yeshivos in mind. That is not true. The dangers are far more widespread than any particular yeshiva or yeshivos. At the same time, that does not mean that I was writing about all yeshivos or that there are no differences between them. Investigating those differences is one crucial aspect of parental responsibility. The size of the yeshiva, the percentage of bochurim living in dorms, the existence of clear rules and expectations and the strictness with which they are enforced vary greatly from one yeshiva to another. All these factors can make a great difference, and it is incumbent on both parents and bochurim to sit down and discuss these matters. At the same time, there are no fixed rules that apply to every bochur. A large yeshiva, with many maggidei shiurim to choose from, for instance, might make it easier for a particular bochur to find a shiur suited to him and develop a close relationship with a rebbe than would a smaller yeshiva.

At least one letter writer understood me to argue that because times have changed since Rabbi Nachum Partzowitz, zt”l, sat in a relatively small beis medrash in Mirrer Yeshiva and was readily accessible that bochurim should no longer come to Eretz Yisrael to learn. That was not my point. The writer was quite right in saying that just because some things have changed does not mean that everything must change. One of the reasons that we do not learn judicial punishments from a kal ve’chomer is the limits of human logic to determine the consequences of different circumstances. On the other hand, when circumstances change, we should at least note the changes and ask whether they have implications for other decisions.

Frankly, I’m amused that anyone thinks I have an opinion about what percentage of bochurim should come to Eretz Yisrael or where they should study. As President Obama might say, such issues are both above my pay grade and way beyond my areas of competence. At the very most, I am pointing to certain considerations that parents and bochurim might keep in mind, and which they can discuss with whomever they consult on such issues.

It is clear that at least for the foreseeable future the overwhelming percentage of yeshiva bochurim will spend one or more years learning in Eretz Yisrael. There are, at present, few yeshivos for bochurim of a certain age in America. Whether more such yeshivos come into being will depend on parents and bochurim and upon the various American roshei yeshiva and representatives of daas Torah. (Extraneous considerations, like concern about shidduch prospects, will also no doubt continue to play a role.)

Perhaps the most outraged callers were yeshiva bochurim who charged that I had implied that most or even a significant number of bochurim, increased their exposure to negative influences during their time in Israel, and had thereby lessened the honor of yeshiva bochurim. Let me be clear: I am not a sociologist and I did not conduct surveys of the various yeshivos with large numbers of bochurim from chutz l’aretz. Even if I had done so, the results would not really give a full picture because we could never know how many of the same bochurim who experienced difficulties in Eretz Yisrael would also have experienced problems had they remained in the States. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that remaining in the States is a fool-proof vaccine against all social ills, and for some bochurim remaining the States, where they may have already fallen into bad company or ways, might present similar or greater dangers.

Over the last several weeks, I have received lengthy calls from bochurim who assure me that in their yeshiva no more than 5% of the bochurim are not shteiging in learning. And I have also received calls from respected avreichim, who learned in Eretz Yisrael as bochurim and who retain contact with the yeshivos in which American bochurim learn, who tell me that the scope of the problem is greater than suggested in my piece.

I suspect both are right – each one according to the slice of the reality with which he is most familiar. While it might be useful to have accurate figures on the percentages of bochurim engaging in problematic behavior, for our purposes it is sufficient that parents and bochurim alike recognize that problems can develop or become more severe and take precautions accordingly.

One last point: I did not mean to imply that Eretz Yisrael, the very air of which, Chazal tell us, makes one wise, somehow corrupts those who come here to learn. Eretz Yisrael is the world center of Torah learning, and contains the largest number of exemplars of the ideal of Torah l’shma. There is an intensity of Torah life, removed from excessive gashmus, that is not found anywhere else in the world. For those seeking aliyah b’ruchnios, the chances of reaching their full potential are greater than in Eretz Yisrael than anywhere else.

Against this ideal is the reality that some unspecified percentage of yeshiva bochurim far from reaching their greatest potential while learning in Eretz Yisrael experience various forms of spiritual decline.

The only purpose of these articles has been to stimulate discussion so that parents, bochurim and roshei yeshiva can properly balance ideal versus reality for each individual bochur, and begin to develop the tools to make it more likely that each bochur reaches his maximum potential wherever he is learning.

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14 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    What you’re saying is that at eighteen you cannot trust your young adults to recognize a harmful environment and avoid it on their own. Even if you send them to Jerusalem, a city full of good Yeshivot, you still can’t trust them.

    At what age can you trust young adults to act as adults?

  2. Dr. E says:

    13.I find it totally ironic (and reprehensible) that some parents spend weeks researching and deliberating over, and test driving a car or kitchen appliance (with a limited lifespan). Yet when it comes to proving input and direction of what yeshiva or seminary their child will attend, they are clueless and out-to-lunch. The questions that they should be asking and have answered to their satisfaction are fleeting thoughts at best. Questions such as: Is there a Hashkafic fit between the family/boychik/girlchick and that of the yeshiva? What is the level of supervision? What is the daily schedule, structure of the program, Bein Hazemanim? Who are the administrators and how they can be contacted? Sadly, these questions are never asked. Rather the choices are often based on hearsay. While high school teachers or administrators may make a suggestion as to fit, it is the parents who need to do due diligence as to their comfort level with the institution. Ultimately, it’s the parents who are on the hook for their kids’ behavior, not the yeshivos or Rabbeim. Unfortunately, many yeshivos and seminaries open and close each year and there is not always much quality control. There is turnover and many who open them do so with little administrative and/or educational experience. The sad reality is that some are more businesses ventures than educational institutions. (But, that is for a whole other discussion.)

    As “un-yeshivish” as it sounds, for most 18-20 year olds a Yeshiva needs to be more than just a Beis Medrish, Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach, Dorm, and Dining Room. IMHO, for 99% of post-HS young men and women, it should be a well-rounded program and experience. Regardless of the brim size of ones hat, there is a plethora of free time that guys have, which is obviously borne out in this post. Yes, Yeshivos CAN have structured activities that will help make that free time productive, or it can bury its collective head in the sand, create a list of rules, and hope for the best. And it would also be nice (as pointed out by Yehoshua Friedman) that bachurim could connect with EY and ALL of its people beyond just patronizing eateries and sefarim stores. And most CC readers know that mandated rules without viable outlets of expression are worthless whether your boychik (or girlchik) is in Flatbush or Yerushalayim.

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    I want to add two thoughts to this vital issue. I asked someone today associated with a yeshiva in Israel that is not re-opening this year why. He explained that the police had so closesly monitored (harassed) the yeshiva all this past year that it drove away its student body. I guess even if one sends his child to a “drug rehad” yeshiva, he doesn’t want to admit that he realizes that is what it is. Sending a child to learn in Israel is no longer just for diligent students seeking spiritual heights, it is for almost every high school graduate including slow learners, those with disabilities and those with substance abuse issues. Of course it isn’t like it was in former times.
    Secondly, I was told today by someone who works on a college campus with students from observant homes that 10% of the kids in his orbit are dating non Jewish girls.Their parents sent them to this college because it has a good environment for observant students and it does, but they don’t realize their son is also meeting a nice girl who happens to be of a different faith. So,for American parents, do you know where your boychhik is?

  4. Aaron says:

    How do we quantify “shteiging”? When I meet kollel-educated men who can’t write a coherent paragraph in their mother tongue, it convinces me that there is likely at least as much imprecision in thinking to extrapolate to their “learning”. The inability to write clearly is symptomatic of unclear thinking.

    For many seculars, 4 years of college is merely an extension of their high school senior year. Maybe 20% really benefit from an expensive college education. We can quantify some level of achievement with statistics from GMAT, LSAT and MCAT exams. There is no parallel method to quantify the claims of growth for a kollel student or the success of one kollel to create real scholars.

  5. cvmay says:

    #7 Nathan
    Over 40 years ago the choices for women seminaries were three. Bais Yaakov of Yerushalayim, with a minute percentage of Americans, Machon Gold, where I attended which was connected to the TI program of Stern College and Michlala. Young ladies who attended any of these three were a small percentage of Yeshiva high school graduates. The majority attended Brooklyn College, New York teaching seminaries or started in the employment field.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Part of the problem of hareidi bachurim who go to learn in yeshivos in EY is that they are not connecting with life here. They are going to EY as a place to learn where there are yeshivos. They are doing it the same way, lehavdil, boys from America once went to learn in Europe. The boys who come to learn in EY with a sensitivity to Kedushat Eretz Yisrael are doing better. They are learning not only gemara and lomdus, but also emuna. They are in an atmosphere where someone is working on their personal development, mussar, middos and hashkafa. There are plenty of places today which do this, both of the hareidi and “Zionist” type. You have to know where the boys (or girls) are going, who the teachers are, what the conditions are and what they are getting. Your eyes have to be open. But hands-on hinuch and idealism about being specifically in Eretz Yisrael are very important. Otherwise it might be worse than staying home, because you end up bumming around, eating junk food and imbibing little other than the collective prejudices of the idiots you hang out with. But if you choose wisely, you can do well.

  7. Rachel W says:

    The bottom line is: You must know your son, and you must always be in touch with him and on top of the situation. If you feel that you can’t do that long distance, don’t send your son far away. My son is in Israel now, living in an apartment, and I am absolutely confident that he’s doing okay. I trust him, I speak to him all the time and I believe what he tells me. Again, this is because I know my son and he is not the adventurous type (His vacation consists of sitting on the couch and reading kid books.)

    OTOH, when he went to his Rosh Yeshiva in America to discuss going to Israel to learn, the R.Y. gave him permission to go, but said that in his opinion, there are not many bochurim who have an aliyah there. But the good bochurim at least catch up when they return….

  8. another Nathan says:

    I stopped reading Hamodia a long time ago, so I cannot comment on this article in context. Nonetheless it deals with an issue that’s important to me, as my daughter just went to Israel yesterday to study in a midreshet for a year. That can’t be compared to the situation of 40 years ago, because such institutions for women were rare (if there were any at all) in the past. Quality of women’s institutions is an issue to be considered. I think it’s a lot scarier to have your daughter away for a year than to have your son away, unless you have absolute confidence in the institution they’re attending.
    When my son did his year in Israel, he was mugged by students from a yeshiva known for its drug users, and was rescued by some Palestinians. He told me of going into internet cafes and seeing people in Haredi clothes openly watching porn.
    It’s clear that standard markers of piety, such as dressing in black and white and being enrolled in a yeshiva, are insufficient. Many people sit over their seforim with open eyes but a closed heart. It’s no wonder that many less-observant Jews react to the word ‘frum’ as if it was a four-letter “f” word.

  9. Harry Maryles says:

    Im confused – whats the difference between
    a fringe fanatic and an extreme element??

    I should have been more careful with my terminology. Here’s whatI meant.

    A fringe fanatic might be condemned by the extremist elements in the Charedi world. By fringe I mean those who might be called gang members in other societies. The look like Charedim; they dress like Charedim. But they are nothing more than a tiny ‘gang’ type element looking to bang some heads and make trouble.

    By extremist Charedi I meant someone who will always take the most extreme view of Halacha and Hashkafa. He may not participate in the kind of head banging the fringe fanatics do, but they will sympathize with their motives and offer apologetics for their actions.

  10. Simcha Younger says:

    “This response was not from some fringe fanatic. I have no way of knowing this for sure – but this sounds like it came from the extremist element in the Charedi world.”

    Im confused – whats the difference between
    a fringe fanatic and an extreme element??

    I like the alliteration, though.

  11. mycroft says:

    “Whereas once only individual bochurim, who were self-selected and tended to have high aspirations in Torah learning, came to Eretz Yisrael to study, today it is pretty much assumed that all yeshiva bochurim will spend one or two years in Eretz Yisrael. The latter run the gamut of commitment to learning and spiritual levels.”

    I remeber more than 40 years ago going to an interview at the Jewish Agency in NY for an Israeli Yeshiva program. There was 1 person who interviewed for Keren Byavneh, andI believe Shalavim for about a day. It was not a program for the masses. For better or worse I did not go-but very few went back in those days. They were a very self selecting few-people did not go there to punch a ticket.

  12. Big Maybe says:

    In my opinion, Rosenblum is right on the money. I went to the Mir and experienced a steep spiritual decline. It was a combination of several things, chief among which was “getting lost” in the sea of Mirrers, and sharing a Dirah with a few less-than-stellar bochurim and their freedoms.

    Fortunately I saw what was happening to myself. I escaped after a few months and went back to the states. PS this was 20 years ago! I can imagine what would have happened to me today.

    I love E”Y but I will not allow my sons to go to a Mir-type Yeshiva. There must be a close relationship between Rebbi and talmid. There must be a dorm. There must be strict rules. Otherwise, I will say no.

  13. Harry Maryles says:

    one anonymous caller took the time to call from the States to convey his opinion that I had lost my Olam Haba, chas ve’shalom.

    Jonathan loses his Olam Haba. This is how some in that world see it. They will not accept any criticism at all. The slightest suggestion by anyone that something is wrong rewards them with this kind of retort – even when the benevolent intent is clear.

    This response was not from some fringe fanatic. I have no way of knowing this for sure – but this sounds like it came from the extremist element in the Charedi world.

    There are some Charedim who believe that what Jonathan said was absolutely wrong in the extreme. Were this comment made by some hot-headed fanatic Jonathan probably would have ignored it. But it probably came from someone who hasa been indoctrinated to thinkthat any change from the status quo of Torah learning in the Charedi world is a near blasphemous staement. The only difference is that this fellow went so far as to ‘inform’ Jonathan that he actually lost his Chelek in Olam Haba – his portion in the world to come.

    Based on my own experience there are indeed many Charedim who think along the following lines: One may not criticize the status quo. One should leave any criticism in the hands of ‘the Gedolim’. If they haven’t said anything there must be nothing wrong. So any criticsm is – not only not warranted but – but it assures that one will lose his place in the world to come.

    I have asked this question before. But I raise it again. Where do these poeple get these ideas from? And what percentage of Charedim are they?

  14. joel rich says:

    Perhaps the most outraged callers were yeshiva bochurim who charged that I had implied that most or even a significant number of bochurim, increased their exposure to negative influences during their time in Israel, and had thereby lessened the honor of yeshiva bochurim. Let me be clear: I am not a sociologist and I did not conduct surveys of the various yeshivos with large numbers of bochurim from chutz l’aretz. Even if I had done so, the results would not really give a full picture because we could never know how many of the same bochurim who experienced difficulties in Eretz Yisrael would also have experienced problems had they remained in the States.
    ================================

    As I’ve said before, we actually could design studies of this type which would be statistically significant. It would however require at least 2 conditions not yet in evidence –

    1. individuals and organizations willing to take part
    2. individuals and organizations willing to accept the results

    I leave it to your readers to determine why this hasn’t happened yet.

    KT