An Interview with R. Dr. Shalom Berger

Please provide a brief history of shanah ba-arets programs and their development from their inception until now.

Students have been traveling from the Diaspora to learn in Israel from time immemorial. I think that a good example is the story where Rabbi Ze’ira avoided Rav Yehudah, who wanted to discourage him from going to Israel to learn, because he felt that Bavel was where the Jewish community had become established and that leaving was forbidden.[1] In the modern age, we know, there were students who came to learn in Palestine from the United States. A number of students from Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS) were killed in the 1929 riots in Hebron, where they were studying in the Hebron Yeshivah.

The individual who should be credited with the current version of one-year Israel study programs is R. Zevi Tabory, who developed the idea in the late 1950s in his capacity as Director of the Torah Education Department of the Jewish Agency in New York. (I will note that his son, R. Binyamin Tabory, and his grandson, R. Aviad Tabory, have carried on this tradition as Ra”mim in Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, respectively.) Although the Jewish Agency no longer plays an active role in programs such as these, it must be credited with the development of Machon Gold and Beit Midrash L’Torah (BMT), which were the pioneering study programs in Israel for Diaspora youth.

While these programs began as learning opportunities for the most dedicated students, over the years they have become part and parcel of the standard Modern Orthodox day school education. Most day schools encourage their seniors to go to a learning program in Israel, and most of the yeshivot and women’s programs have developed facilities and curricula aimed specifically at this audience. The change that has taken place – the move from a self-selecting, elite program to one that is standard for many North American high school graduates – has certainly impacted on the experience itself.

What do you think are the main positive effects that the shanah ba-arets has presented to the individual student spending the year in Israel? Are there any downsides or dangers to the phenomenon?

As someone committed to Jewish knowledge and Jewish continuity, I believe that these programs offer an opportunity for students to spend an essential year (or two) delving deeply into traditional Jewish study and practice and choosing to make those a core part of their identity. Parents have asked me why twelve years of day school education do not succeed in accomplishing that, and I think that there are many reasons why that is so. The fact of the matter is that, for most kids, the first time that they leave their homes is after graduating high school. This is a moment in their lives when they begin to separate from their parents and make decisions about their own personality and identity. Given that many of these students will be attending secular universities, the question is whether we prefer that the environment in which the student will be making these decisions is a supportive, Jewish environment or a challenging, secular one.

Of course, this assumes that one views commitment to Jewish knowledge and Jewish continuity as core ideals. If one views acculturation into American life as the core ideal, then encouraging students to view parochial Jewish values as overriding would be worthless.

A danger that is most often raised regarding the one-year Israel programs is that students become too committed to Jewish ideals – the popular “flipping out” phenomenon. My message to parents who raise this issue is that they should work with their children to find programs whose core values match their own. If you do not want your child to remain in Israel and join the army, or if you do not want him to sit in kollel his whole life, then choose an appropriate program whose values are in sync with your own. If you believe that this is a year that your child will take seriously, make sure that you invest time in learning about the different programs and choosing appropriately.

How have shanah ba-arets programs impacted the American Centrist Orthodox community? What do you think their long-term impacts will be?

One obvious impact can be seen in the YU beit midrash. The crowds that fill night seder simply did not exist twenty years ago.

Expectations are different today. Not so long ago, parents sent their children to day schools and relied on the expertise of the teachers to educate them. Today, many parents want to know why a school is using one method or another. The proliferation of Zionist kollels in schools and communities is a clear outgrowth of this experience, as are YU programs like Kollel Yom Rishon and other outreach efforts in communities. When I was a student in YU, the shabbatonim that I was involved with were largely experiential visits to communities. Today, there are expectations regarding the content that such a shabbaton would have. And I do not mean to limit this to YU. Secular college campuses across the U.S. now have active battei midrash; the JLIC initiative is another example of new, higher expectations of what Jewish life on campus can be.

As far as the long term is concerned, it is worth pointing out that current sociological studies find a “disconnect” between young American Jews and the State of Israel.[2] When I discussed the research findings with Dr. Steven Cohen, he told me that Orthodox respondents were pulled from the study because they skewed the results. They were still closely connected to Israel. I credit the year in Israel for at least some of that connection. As challenges to the legitimacy of the State continue, this continued connection will be important, both for Israel and for American Jewry.

In your book, Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact?: The Impact of the “Year in Israel,”[3] you deal with questions of what changes and does not change in students in their year in Israel. Can you please succinctly summarize your findings?

Succinctly summarize my life’s work?! Buy the book! As a teaser, I will say that most of what educators expected and believed would happen in Israel does, in fact, take place.

Regarding religious ritual behaviors like davening, regarding personal modesty issues like negi’ah, regarding commitment to continued Torah study – all of these “shot up” in the course of the year. Similarly, commitment to Zionist ideals, like expecting to make aliyyah, doubled in the course of the year.

What was interesting were areas where there was no change. For all that plans for aliyyah increased, adoption of what I called “religious Zionist dogmas” did not. So, when asked whether they viewed the modern State of Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people,” about half of the students strongly agreed with that statement at the beginning of their year in Israel. That sentiment remained the same at the end of the year. Only eleven percent of the surveyed students strongly agreed that “the modern State of Israel is a fulfillment of the nevu’ot of our prophets” at the beginning of the year. Thirteen percent strongly agreed at the end of the year. (As an aside, I will mention that a Pew Report Survey done about five years ago found that sixty percent of white Evangelical Protestants believe that “Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.”)

Potentially more disturbing was my finding that moral and ethical behaviors, e.g. honesty when taking a test or standing up for an elderly person, did not change. Upon review of the data, I was relieved to discover that the most likely explanation for this was the fact that the students scored themselves so highly that it would have been difficult for them to improve on their original scores.

This leads to a number of interesting questions about day school graduates who are willing to admit that, by and large, they do not say asher yatsar (the blessing after using the restroom) or bentsh (grace after meals), but do give tsedakah (charity) appropriately. While there are many possible explanations for this, my suggestion is that there is no larger social reinforcement for mitsvot bein adam la-Makom (mitsvot between man and God), while there is for mitsvot bein adam la-havero (mitsvot between fellow men). The messages of their day schools therefore resonate for them with regard to some mitsvot, but for others, that social support will not be forthcoming until they are in yeshivah in Israel.

How have the financial problems of the past few years affected yeshivot and seminaries?

There was serious concern that the economic woes in the U.S. would impact the numbers of students coming to Israel. While there may have been an immediate dip in enrollment, from what I understand it has not been significant. Apparently, spending this year is not considered to be “discretionary.” Keep in mind that for many students – especially those studying in YU – the year in Israel is relatively inexpensive.

What ethical problems have you seen or heard about concerning the different Israel programs? Do you feel there is a need for a centralized authority to regulate these issues? Do you feel YU has a role it could, or should, play in this process?

In my “day job,” I work at the Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University, where I moderate the Lookjed listserv, an online discussion group for Jewish educators. A recent discussion revolved around a post in which the principal of a large North American high school wrote that he had been offered a significant amount of money for every student that he would direct to a particular yeshivah. This revelation has encouraged educators to begin to develop a code of ethics that would address such issues as admissions policies, acceptable rhetoric when discussing competing institutions, etc.

Students who join the joint YU-Israel program are effectively YU students and will be receiving YU credit for their study. YU has already begun a process of visiting individual programs and evaluating their course offerings, physical facilities, support services, and so on. This is a welcome development, and developing ethical guidelines fits into the overall role that YU can play.

Some have claimed that many yeshivot and seminaries, due to the need to attract students, lower their educational standards and provide “edutainment” in place of education. Do you think this claim is true? Is it a positive or negative phenomenon? If negative, how can it be combated?

People always like to reminisce about how wonderful things were in the “olden days” and how they have deteriorated as time has passed. It is difficult for me to say whether schools have weakened their curricula in order to attract students. There is certainly more catering to the needs of the students now than there was when I was a student here in Israel thirty years ago. But that is true across the spectrum in education – not only in the Jewish world, but in churches[4] and in secular schools,[5] as well.

Furthermore, there is a recognition that students will be engaged by many other experiences beyond those that take place in the classroom. If this is a recognition and application of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, that is great. If it is simply pandering to lazy students, then we should find another business to go into.

Rabbi Dr. Shalom Berger received his BA, MA, EdD, and semikhah from YU. His doctoral dissertation focused on the impact of one-year Israel programs on American day school graduates and was published as part of the recent book, Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact? The Impact of the “Year in Israel.” He is currently Director of E*Communities at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University.


[1] Ketubbot 110b.

[2] See Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation From Israel,” available at: http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Beyond%20Distancing.pdf.

[3] Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman, Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact?: The Impact of the “Year in Israel” (New York: Yashar Books, 2007).

[4] See Jeffrey MacDonald, “Congregations Gone Wild,” The New York Times, August 7, 2010, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/opinion/08macdonald.html.

[5] See Stanley Fish, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” The New York Times, June 21, 2010, available at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/deep-in-the-heart-of-texas/; idem, “Student Evaluations, Part Two,” The New York Times, June 28, 2010, available at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/student-evaluations-part-two/.