An Interview with R. Daniel Rapp
In your opinion, what is the most important impact that the year in Israel has had on the Jewish community in the Diaspora?
In my opinion, the biggest impact is that members of our community recognize the value of full-time learning. I think the key to the year in Israel is that we take students out of their standard daily lives and force them to focus on religion. Oftentimes, that has a very positive effect. There are many things that people do by rote – they were brought up to do things this way, told to do things that way, without getting a chance to concentrate on it. Upon reflection, however, they will appreciate or focus more on what they are doing, having had the opportunity to really concentrate on it.
What do you think the goal of the year in Israel should be from the perspective of the students and the institutions?
I think the major goal for everyone is spiritual growth. Spiritual growth comes in many flavors – for some, it is amassing more Torah knowledge and cultivating the desire for Torah knowledge; for others, it can be enhanced Zionistic feelings towards the Land of Israel. For some, it can be improvement in general religious observance, beyond limmud ha-Torah – it can be more focus on tefillah or shemiras ha-mitsvos in general.
While the main goal of the yeshivos is spiritual growth, there are other benefits as well. We at Yeshiva benefit greatly from the year in Israel. Studies have shown that the quality of our students coming back from a year in Israel is generally better than that of those coming straight out of high school. I think there was a study by John Fisher in 1998 that found that if you take two students with the same GPA and SAT score, and everything is kept the same except for the year in Israel, the student who went to Israel will end up with a GPA of 0.3 points higher. At a university, it is a plus to have better students who focus more and do better. Obviously, this is not a goal of the yeshivos or students when they spend the year in Israel, but it just shows that there are benefits other than those explicitly stated as the goals of the programs. This may be because taking a year off – the “gap year,” as it is called in other colleges: a year to make a havdalah (separation)between high school and college – allows for a maturation period. It does not make the students intellectually stronger, but it makes them more focused and better prepared to do what they have to be doing.
As Dean of Undergraduate Studies for the Stone Beit Midrash Program (BMP) and the Isaac Breuer College (IBC), you deal with students on a personal level. Do you see a difference between students who spend a year or two in Israel and those who do not?
Though it is hard to make broad claims, it is definitely true that the students who spent the year in Israel are older than those who are true freshmen. While this would be the case for students who spent a year playing ping-pong as well, it is probably a positive activity for students of college age to spend a year thinking about what is important; thus, the year does seem to make a difference.
Are there students whom you would advise not to spend the year in Israel?
Not every student’s experience in Israel is a rousing success, and there are definitely those students who should not have gone. For example, sometimes I will advise ba’alei teshuvah (people who are newly Orthodox) to go to the Mechinah Program for a year first, because if you go to Israel without any background, you will spend the year learning how to learn rather than actually learning content. On the other hand, if you go already equipped with the ability to learn, you can accomplish much more in your year.
There are other people for whom the year in Israel is just not a match. This could be because they are uncomfortable being away from home for extended periods of time, because of family reasons, or because they are just not mature enough to deal with the independence that comes with the year in Israel. If you tell seventeen-year-olds to go six thousand miles away and have a “good time,” some of them really will.
Do you think there are improvements that can be made to the year in Israel programs?
There are, but judging success and failure is difficult. You cannot just look at the results to gauge the success of a program. There are programs that get high-quality students and do a bad job and programs that get medium or weak students but are doing a phenomenal job. Still, the programs with high-quality students seem to have better results. To be fair to the programs, you cannot just look at what comes out; you have to look at what goes in as well.
It should be noted that different yeshivos have different goals. Some need to make their students interested in Judaism. The students have gone through twelve years of yeshivah education and have shown no interest in Judaism at all. For others, the goals may be to make the students shomerei Torah u-mitsvos (observant of the Torah and commandments), keep Shabbos, marry Jewish, get them off drugs, and other similar things. These are all obviously worthwhile goals. There are some programs that get students who come in with no problems, and those students should be learning Torah. If the yeshivah would spend time singing songs with them, rather than teaching them to be talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), it would not be doing its job.
How have the yeshivot changed since you were in Israel for the year in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh?
I think yeshivos now need to have the image of warmth, and some have developed initiatives such as “Bayit Cham” (Warm House) hospitality programs. This is not a bad thing, as long as this does not come at the expense of the quality of learning. Hopefully, it so far has not. Many yeshivos manage to be warmer places, including places where a lot of dancing goes on, without compromising the level of learning.
To what extent do you think students in YU continue to identify themselves by the yeshivos or seminaries that they attended in Israel after they leave? To what extent do you think that this is appropriate or advisable?
I think the students do continue to identify with their yeshivos, and the truth is that we at YU encourage it. The Sganei Mashgichim (spiritual advisors) have lunches with guys and divide them based on the different yeshivos they attended. On the one hand it is nice, but on the other hand we would like guys to identify with YU that way, too. The yeshivos in Israel have the advantage of size, being much smaller than YU is. They may have one hundred guys, as opposed to YU, which has eleven or twelve hundred students on campus at any one time. I do think that a parallel phenomenon happens within the shi’urim in YU. The same way people identify as “Gush guys,” they might identify as a “R. Rosensweig guy” or a “R. Schachter guy,” identifying with their shi’ur rather than with YU as a whole.
To summarize, in general I do not think that it is a bad thing for guys to identify with their yeshivos. It is fine if they walk around with sweatshirts from their high schools, too. There is no reason for them to disavow their past. Hopefully, they have warm feelings about their yeshivah in Israel, and one would hope the same would happen in the three or four years (or more, if they study for semichah [rabbinic ordination]) here – that at some point they would feel connected more with YU. Hopefully, YU is doing everything it can to make people like it.
Do you think there is a sense that people want to be back in yeshivah? Do you think that that is a good thing?
Yes, there is such a sense. I would love to be back in yeshivah as well – it beats working. It is not that the yeshivos are going around saying that their talmidim should be miserable in YU. If talmidim are identifying more with their yeshivos than with YU, we at YU have to ask what we can do to make them more comfortable. Obviously, if the reason they liked yeshivah more was that they did not have to go to college or see their parents, we cannot help that. However, if they felt that it was a warmer environment or they were accomplishing more there, we should do whatever we can to make them accomplish more here. We cannot blame the yeshivos for the fact that the students enjoyed their time there.
Is there a problem with the potential cliques that are created by students from the same yeshivot?
Not really – it is understandable. The students spend a year in Israel away from everything. They are away from their family and, for the most part, away from American culture. They spend that year (or those years) with fifty guys, 24/7, so it makes sense that they would become close to that group of friends. And it makes sense that they would feel close to the yeshivos as well. Especially if the students feel they accomplished a lot in yeshivah, they are going to feel connected to it. If they did not have those warm feelings towards the yeshivos, it would be a lack of hakkaras ha-tov (gratitude). Is there a problem with having hakkaras ha-tov for yeshivos in Israel? Absolutely not!
Parenthetically, I would ask if we wish that they had the same hakkaras ha-tov for YU, and of course the answer is, absolutely yes! I am not sure whose fault it is that they often do not. Perhaps it is inevitable because there is so much more pressure here, and it will take people years to realize what they got here, or perhaps it is the bureaucracy that frustrates people. At any rate, it is not the fault of the yeshivos and the relationship the students have with them.
Do you find that guys do not click with students from other yeshivot?
It is hard to tell. To take a personal example, when I got back from yeshivah, I did not have a lot of time to socialize. I was friendly with the guy I sat next to in shi’ur, in night seder, my roommate, and the person next to me in the dorm. In general, the people in your shi’ur, your roommates, and your chavrusos (study partners) are all people with whom you attended yeshivah. People choose whom they are comfortable with and that is whom they end up associating with, and often, those people are the people who were with them in yeshivah. It is not that people are opposed to talking to people from other yeshivos, but often it happens practically that they seldom do so. The people who surround them are just people from their yeshivos. The same thing happens in YU. Often, people from MYP and IBC do not hang out with each other simply because they do not see each other.
Do people generally break or follow the stereotypes of their yeshivot?
If a yeshivah is known for being warm and fuzzy and that is who I am, I will go there. If a yeshivah is known for being cold and intellectual, and that is what I want, I will go there. For the most part, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is very hard to change what the yeshivah is.
Rabbi Daniel Rapp is Associate Dean and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Talmud at the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP), as well as Associate Dean at the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC) at Yeshiva University.