Now in the Five Towns: Chronicling the Year in Israel

“The year in Israel is a relatively secretive phenomenon, a closely guarded mystery whose inner workings are known only to the students who have already experienced it.”[1]

The year in Israel experience has become a centerpiece of the Torah education process in many of our communities, though it means very different things to different people. Generally speaking, the prevalence of the practice of spending a gap year in a yeshivah or seminary and the effect that it seems to have on so many students have cultivated a culture of mystery and drama concerning the year’s perceived powers. The quotation above, published by a yeshivah high school graduate from the Five Towns, Long Island, as he prepared to depart to Israel to spend his year in a yeshivah, provides a striking example of this mystique. His terms are colorful, captivating, and absolutely reverent. If one were to replace the phrase “the year in Israel” with “the Bermuda Triangle” or “extra-terrestrial activity,” and “students” with “victims” or “researchers,” his sentence would be just as coherent.

A consequence of this culture has been a rising demand to characterize the significance and purpose of the year in Israel. Perhaps the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon, Flipping Out?, by Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman,[2] was published just three years ago and was the subject of a wide array of reviews and criticisms. The work incorporates statistical analysis and expert opinions of educators, rabbis, and social scientists. However, despite the empirical importance of such a representative investigation, it obviously lacks the power of a comprehensive case study. Never before have our communities seen the published chronicles of a young man or woman studying in Israel, until this year…

A young man who identifies himself only as “Talmid X” (a title he borrowed from “Player X,” a column in ESPN The Magazine)[3] has taken upon himself to chronicle his experiences as a student in his shanah alef, first year, in yeshivah. His intention is to provide answers to many questions that readers may have about the year in Israel, whether they are logistical, metaphysical, or something in between. His submissions are printed as a biweekly column in The 5 Towns Jewish Times, entitled “The Year in Israel.”

The idea of such a column has many detractors. I have heard people express concern for the sake of the young man himself. By expending great time and effort to convey his Israel experience to others, he risks diminishing the real meaning that it has for him in the present. (Talmid X informed me in a private e-mail exchange that he has thought seriously about this concern and feels that it is not a danger for him. He explains that his strong personal motivation for genuine growth and the minimal time requirement for writing his column give him and those that know him well confidence that he need not worry about objectifying his Israel experience.) On a different note, dissenters claim that any insights Talmid X hopes to provide can only ultimately be relevant for a very small fraction of students in Israel. The writer is studying in only one of dozens of institutions (described only as “a well-known hesder yeshiva”).[4] Each institution presents its own unique setting, set of beliefs, and method of learning. He is one person, with one personality, hailing from one community, and his words certainly cannot possibly reflect the emotions and experiences of others, let alone the majority of others. Nonetheless, I believe that the undertaking is intriguing and courageous, and worthy of presentation. I will address a few significant themes that Talmid X has raised in his column over the past six months.

The writer appears to be a motivated and religiously committed student, driven from the outset to utilize his year for maturation and accomplishment in Torah study. Already in the summer preceding his departure for yeshivah, Talmid X referred to his upcoming journey as a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend a year in the Holy Land, studying the most important thing on earth.”[5] His writing is lofty and sentimental. In his on-the-scene observations, Talmid X is quick to confirm his hopes and suspicions. After just one week of studying in yeshivah, he declared:

“Whatever they tell you – they’re wrong. It is impossible to understand what the year in Israel is like if you haven’t gone through it yourself. Trust me. I’m here, fresh after experiencing the first week, and I am truly […] shocked […] It’s honestly indescribable. But I’m going to try.”[6]

This sort of sentiment was likely uncommon among eighteen-year-olds attending post-high school programs in Israel at the time. It is the product of a uniquely excited mindset, ready for drama and transformation and driven to present sensationalist images of its journey to an audience. In such a frame of mind, certain aspects of the yeshivah experience are very prominent and pronounced. One of these aspects is the process of choosing a yeshivah:

“The anxiety of choosing which post-high-school yeshiva to attend for the year can be compared, in a sense, to the pressure inherent in the modern shidduch process. Or so I have been told.”[7]

Talmid X describes the process of applications, interviews, and decisions as fast-paced and pressured, filled with intensified scouting, advice seeking, and interrogation of yeshivah representatives. The choice of “the modern shidduch process” as a model of comparison highlights some of the emotions and concerns under constant scrutiny and controversy in the Five Towns and Yeshiva University communities (as well as many other similar communities). “Shidduch” is a buzz-word, meant to draw the attention of readers to the mystifying reality of the drama that accompanies the year in Israel phenomenon. The writer himself recognized this and conceded that he over-dramatized his situation later in the same column.

Despite the emphasis on the unique and exalted nature of the Israel experience that this column hopes to decode, much of the writing is basically and generically personal, as any travel log is expected to be. The writer expresses excitement and apprehension for his first encounter with independence, as well as fear and concern for the possibility of growing distant from the friends of his childhood.

Intermingled with these emotions and observations is a moving agenda. As part of the mission in composing his column, Talmid X sees fit to respond to the claims of religious superficiality directed at veterans of the Israel experience. More particularly, he is aware of the pejorative term “flipping out” that is often applied to those who transform their religious identities while studying in Israel, and he seeks to demonstrate that a student may genuinely and sincerely change his or her level of commitment if he or she so desires. He advised that new students in a yeshivah or seminary pay no attention to the stigma that lingers over them as they ponder their post-year-in-Israel future:

“Don’t be afraid to grow. If you hear that to change for the better is ‘conformist,’ laugh, because nothing could be further from the truth. In a rather ‘Roark-ian’ manner, it’s about you and no one else. Wouldn’t choosing based on the ignorant opinions of others be the act of a follower, while an intelligent individual will think for himself and change if he deems change to be necessary? I think so.”[8]

Talmid X’s term “Roark-ian” is ostensibly meant to refer to Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead, a 1943 novel by Ayn Rand. Like many of Rand’s literary heroes, Roark is a champion of individualism and personal vision. A person who subscribes to a “Roarkian” worldview most likely pays little attention to the common standards and the heckling of his surroundings. He follows his heart and does what he feels is true and necessary. Ironically, Talmid X’s Roark commits himself to a mission seen by many as conformist and not particularly unique. Nonetheless, he does not care about others’ cynical assessments of him, so long as he is satisfied with himself. This is Talmid X’s vision of success for himself and others in Israel and his response to the “flip-out”-crying detractors.

What this column lacks in statistical applicability to the greater population of students studying in Israel it makes up in emotion and resolve. Some may feel that it is easy to dismiss his accounts as over-dramatized, but they in fact provide an apt account of the sort of personal profundity that many students choose to experience in their year(s) in Israel, and not surprisingly so. An atmosphere of such great “mystery” and “secret” calls for nothing short of profundity.

Chesky Kopel is a sophomore at YC majoring in History and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[1] Talmid X, “The Year in Israel – Part 1,” The 5 Towns Jewish Times, May 27, 2010, available at: https://www.5tjt.com/featured-news/7223-the-year-in-israel-part-1.

[2] 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). Rabbi Dr. Berger and Rabbi Dr. Jacobson both wrote their doctoral dissertations on this subject as well.

[3] Talmid X, ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Talmid X, “Baby Steps for No Regrets – The Year in Israel, Part 4,” The 5 Towns Jewish Times, July 1, 2010, available at: http://www.5tjt.com/international-news/7581-baby-steps-for-no-regrets-the-year-in-israel-part-4.

[6] Idem, “The First Week in Israel – The Year in Israel, Part 7,” The 5 Towns Jewish Times, August 19, 2010, available at: http://www.5tjt.com/featured-news/7935-the-first-week-in-israel.

[7] Idem, “Decisions, Decisions: The Year in Israel, Part 2,” The 5 Towns Jewish Times, June 4, 2010, available at: https://www.5tjt.com/international-news/7346-decisions-decisions-the-year-in-israel-part-2.

[8] Idem, “Taking Leave,” The 5 Towns Jewish Times, August 5, 2010, available at: https://www.5tjt.com/featured-news/7841-taking-leave.