After Israel: Potential and Pitfalls on Campus

I come to the discussion about the year in Israel experience from the particular vantage point of someone who has been involved in shanah ba-arets programs as well as the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) in the United States.[1]  My husband and I were the dorm parents and Ra”mim (teachers) at Midreshet Lindenbaum before we pioneered JLIC at Brandeis.  We have subsequently returned to Midreshset Lindenbaum and Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, respectively.  Based on these experiences, I will specifically address the relationship between the shanah ba-arets and the university experience.  Does the year in Israel prepare a student for being a Torah Jew in university?  Should that be one of the goals of the shanah ba-arets?

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life considers its mission to “provide opportunities for Jewish students to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity.”[2] For many Orthodox university students, Jewish identity has been an absolute given but suddenly requires radical redefinition.  Questions that arise include: In the absence of school structure and parental pressure, will I still learn Torah and attend minyan (daily? weekly?)?  Hopefully, this is where the year in Israel plays a role.  The decision to attend a shanah ba-arets program is fundamentally identity-forming.  It is a declaration that talmud Torah is part of one’s Jewish self-definition.

Beyond the inherent value of talmud Torah itself, the additional (and perhaps even more critical) role that learning plays is of a more social nature.  A vibrant beit midrash creates a community within a community.  No matter what else is happening, a minyan and a beit midrash will anchor the student to the Jewish orbit.

Detractors will point to the all-too-frequent instances of students who, despite twelve years of yeshivah day school and a year of yeshivah in Israel, seem to disappear from the Jewish radar screen on campus.  They will argue that the year in Israel clearly has no impact.  I would agree that indeed the year in Israel is no guarantee.  Perhaps the most startling case I ever encountered was a student who, at the end of his year in a prestigious yeshivah in Israel, shipped his books to our home in Boston so that they would be waiting for him upon his arrival on campus.   We dutifully packed the boxes into the trunk of our car, anticipating meeting this clearly enthusiastic new member of our community.  Weeks later, needing to reclaim the trunk of our car, we hunted him down.  He picked up his books and that was the last we saw of him.  This was not a case of the influence of secular campus wearing away at his belief or his motivation.  This was a case of a student “crashing” within two months of leaving yeshivah.  No, the year in Israel is no guarantee; however, I do believe that there is evidence that the year in Israel does have significant impact on many, if certainly not all, participants.

In the fall of 2000, after my husband and I completed our first semester at JLIC at Brandeis, we conducted a survey of the Orthodox community.  At the time, we were interested in learning more about the background and needs of the community in order to become more effective leaders.  Looking back now, that survey also sheds some light on the impact of the year in Israel.  We distributed the surveys to students voting in the Brandeis Orthodox Organization elections.  The yeshivah and midrashah graduates were significantly more likely to participate in the elections (i.e. to affiliate with the Orthodox community in an official manner).  Of this population, forty-six out of fifty-six  considered themselves to be active in Jewish learning, whether through classes offered by JLIC or havrutot (peer learning), while only eight of the seventeen who did not attend yeshivah in Israel after completing yeshivah high school claimed to be involved in learning, and, astoundingly, only one participated regularly in any class.  While I do not have the exact data regarding the correlation between the year in Israel and minyan attendance, my anecdotal impressions suggest that the statistics would be similar.

While this survey reflects the situation on one campus over a decade ago, a quick online search corroborates my impression that these general trends continue.  Student leadership positions, whether at YC and Stern or in the Hillel communities on other campuses, tend to be dominated by shanah ba-arets graduates, and this is not limited to the realm of the minyan and beit midrash. To cite one random example, the University of Pennyslvania Orthodox community’s Chessed Committee last year was chaired by two Midreshet Lindenbaum alumnae. Does the year in Israel cultivate a greater commitment to hesed, or merely greater confidence to be involved?

To a degree, then, I would respond that the year in Israel does help prepare students for Jewish life in a university setting even without programs making this an explicit aspect of their agenda.  But I also believe that the shanah ba-arets programs can and should take certain active steps. The two programs with which I am most familiar, Midreshet Lindenbaum and Eretz HaTzvi, both offer college preparatory programs.  The goal of these programs is not to provide an answer key: we cannot anticipate every argument students will encounter in their university Bible classes, and we certainly cannot script the conversations they might have with a roommate who invites a member of the opposite sex to share his or her room for the night.  We can raise awareness of the issues with the goal of taking some of the edge off of the culture shock that students experience (hopefully!) when entering the campus environment.

Preparation, however, only goes so far.  The most essential role that the shanah ba-arets can and should play in the students’ university experience is in providing ongoing support during the university years.  Perhaps the reality has changed in the intervening decade, but during our tenure at Brandeis we were extremely disappointed to discover that yeshivah high schools did not seem to feel any responsibility towards their graduates in university.  Ironically, the same high schools which were investing significant resources in sending their representatives for annual visits to check up on their students in Israel were failing to send representatives to visit their students on the much closer-to-home university campuses, where support of Jewish educators seemed to us to be all the more critical.  With the help of Yeshiva University, we contacted every Orthodox high school in the United States in the hopes of learning about and contacting incoming students before they arrived on campus.  The response was underwhelming.  In contrast, many (but not all) of the yeshivot and midrashot were eager to put their students in touch with us and sent a continuous stream of representatives to give shi’urim and visit alumni on campus.

The yeshivot and midrashot encourage continued involvement in Jewish learning, foster a Torah-observant social network, and offer ongoing support while students are in university.  Each of these strengths comes with drawbacks.  It behooves educators in yeshivot and midrashot to be keenly aware of and sensitive to these issues.

While I believe that ongoing support can play a decisive role in maintaining the students’ Jewish connection while on campus, it should not come at the expense of building new connections.  I am familiar with the issue from both perspectives.  The shanah ba-arets educator is sincerely committed to providing support and being available for the myriad halakhic and hashkafic questions which inevitably surface during the university years.  However, as a JLIC educator, I know that sometimes the best answer is, “I’m happy to discuss the issue with you, but I strongly recommend that you also consult with your local rabbi/JLIC educator.”

By the same token, the ongoing encouragement of learning is crucial.  However, there is a danger of setting the bar too high.  I recently received a letter from a former student struggling with what she described as a common post-midrashah feeling that

“If they [midrashah graduates] are not learning, they are failing… You (as a collective faculty) reiterated to us over and over again how important Talmud Torah was and how essential it was for us to incorporate learning into our lives once we returned to our respective homes.  I can understand the importance of that message.  We needed to go home fired up and determined to continue our learning so that our year was just the start of a long process and not simply an exception.  However, much of the last two years has been [spent] dealing with the realities of life which are demanding and can mean that other things take priority.”

The message that talmud Torah is of paramount importance should not be abandoned, but should include an honest discussion about realistic expectations.  To whatever degree possible, these discussions should also be tailored to individual students’ needs; not every student shares the same abilities, nor are all students entering the same environment.

Finally, we must address the vital issue of social network.  Before my tenure at Brandeis, I shared the party line that pushed minyan attendance and beit midrash participation as the keys to “survival” on campus.  After my JLIC experience, I started to modify my message.  Obviously, minyan attendance and beit midrash participation are critical, but I also warn students of the danger of creating communal ties which are too strong and consequently breed what President Joel refers to as “Orthodox triumphalism.”  This triumphalism is to the detriment of other Orthodox students, of the Jewish community at large, and ultimately of the shanah ba-arets graduates themselves.

The data quoted above demonstrate the problem.  Yeshivah high school graduates who do not spend a year in Israel seem less likely to get involved in their university’s Jewish community.  Perhaps this is an outcome of self-selection.  The same people who choose not to spend a year in Israel choose to be less involved in the Jewish community on campus.  However, I learned that the picture is often more complex and, frankly, depressing.  Students who did not spend a year in Israel might want to be more involved but are intimidated by those who did.  I know of some cases where students either left the Orthodox community because they were treated like outsiders by students who had spent a year in Israel or remained peripherally involved but were deeply disturbed by their predicament.

At the same time, students who develop immediate and strong connections in the world of the minyan or the beit midrash often forgo involvement in the broader Jewish community.  In the Hillel environment, where all Jewish students need to share space and resources, this insularism sometimes breeds tension and, in extreme cases, even hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).

I once mentioned to some colleagues in shanah ba-arets programs that I encourage my students to be involved in Jewish life outside of the Orthodox community.  The response: “If they are still going to minyan and keeping kosher after two years on campus, then they can think about extending themselves further.”  I adamantly disagree.  It seems to me that rather than shaking their religious commitment, broadening their horizons only intensified students’ commitment to the Jewish community in general and a sense of pride in their own traditions.

In light of these considerations, my modified message to year-in-Israel graduates, including those attending YC and Stern, is this:  become a part of the beit midrash community, but keep your expectations of yourself realistic; embrace the talents and contributions of those who come from different backgrounds; and join forces to build the broader Jewish community.  You have a lot to give and everything to gain.

Naomi Berman is a Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, Israel, and served along with her husband as the first Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple at Brandeis University from 2000-2003.


[1] JLIC (according to its website) is a program run by the Orthodox Union, in partnership with Hillel, that “helps Orthodox students navigate the college environment, and balance their Jewish commitments with their desire to engage the secular world. In addition, JLIC provides avenues for spiritual development and exploration for Jewish students from varied backgrounds; JLIC presents a positive, sophisticated and welcoming face for Orthodox Judaism on campus.” See: http://www.jliconline.org/index.php/about/.

[2] “Telling the Hillel Story,” available at: http://www.hillel.org/about/facts/hillel_story/default.