I remember going through the motions of my Junior and Senior years in high school while constantly hearing exciting stories from friends about the mythologized post-high school year in Israel. I had given little thought to the matter before that time, as I had viewed my graduation as something distant and not worth considering. It was not until the 11th grade that the possibility of going abroad seemed relevant.
My friends began traveling to Israel, and I eagerly awaited hearing their countless stories. I remember sitting in a dimly lit room, listening as my friends told Israel story after Israel story. The thought of spending an entire year in the promised land initially struck me as exciting, but at the same time, there was something peculiar and odd about my returning friends. I noticed that many of them refused to dress in anything but white and black, and some of them appeared to have acquired a sense of general haughtiness. It was as if they had attained a new level of meaning, something that the rest of us, having not shared in their experience, could not understand. So after witnessing this strange metamorphosis in many of my friends, my initial enthusiasm began to wane and I became critical.
Eventually, despite my new hesitations, I capitulated. After long talks with friends and an even more profound influence from NCSY, I made the decision to spend an entire year in Israel. I was even open to the possibility of staying Shana Bet, a second year. Bearing in mind that I came from a traditional, though not Orthodox, Jewish home, I recognized that my decision required resolve. My parents were not overwhelmingly supportive of my decision but respected it anyway.
My year in Israel was assuredly not out of the ordinary. The aftermath, on the other hand, was. This supposed period of growth and change did not affect me like it had impacted my friends and those around me. I saw people lose themselves, as though they had been transformed into some sort of prototypical Orthodox automatons.
A few weeks after returning to the States, I remember asking one of my closest childhood friends if he would like to hang out, to reminisce over old times. He answered that he couldn’t possibly interrupt his nighttime Torah study without first consulting his rabbi. “It’s not so pashut (simple),” he said. Indeed, it wasn’t. This friend had spent two years in Israel, and I had nervously witnessed as his personality changed from loquaciously social to anxiously paranoid. After spending a year at a popular yeshiva in Israel, my friend had lost his ability to make decisions without the help of a spiritual guide.
I would soon find a common theme behind others. A female close friend of mine decided that since I am of the male gender, we could no longer be friends. Furthermore, I saw families suddenly torn at their children’s newfound strict adherence to halacha. A new pressure to marry young only made the situation worse. Past friends started settling no earlier than age 20, while many of them remained financially dependent on their parents.
Whether you read this article as a person who believes in the Israel gap year or not, the consequences of religious brainwashing are real. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that something isn’t right in the way that religion is forced down the throats of the younger Jewish community. While some gap year programs emphasize meaningful and important values in Jewish education, leadership, volunteerism, and cultural identity, I’ve found that most yeshivot do not.
Sending post-high school children to Israel for a year should not and cannot be considered absolutely necessary. The youthful challenge of figuring out who you are, beneath the surface, can’t be bypassed by a cookie-cutter model of Jewish education. I can proudly say that my children will certainly not be attending a yeshiva in Israel. Despite that, they will be raised in a Jewish home, authentically Orthodox.