When knitted kippot turn black and short sleeves get long
'Year in Israel' programs change their participants forever - sometimes in ways their parents might not have expected - says the author of a new book on the subject.
The practice of sending Orthodox high-school graduates for a year of study in Israel has drastically changed the face of the American Jewish community, increasing stringency and knowledge, but with it, also fueling insularity, says a leading sociologist who examined the phenomenon.
Prof. Chaim Waxman, co-author of "Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the 'Year in Israel,'" also says that the trend has remarkably increased immigration rates among American Orthodox Jewry, as well as contributed to the community's shift rightward in terms of its support of both American and Israeli politics.
"Flipping Out," which was published last month in the U.S. and expected to be in Israeli bookstores later this month, offers a comprehensive analysis of the trend. The book, which examines the phenomenon from educational, psychological and sociological perspectives, was also written by Shalom Berger, a rabbi and educator who has taught in the post-secondary programs, as well as Daniel Jacobson, a rabbi and clinical psychologist. Both Berger and Jacobson studied the phenomenon for their doctoral dissertations.
The 'original birthright'
The "year in Israel" is now de rigueur among American Orthodox high-school students and as much as 90 percent of graduates from the New York area, for example, come to Israel for a year of study before college.
But as the name of the book suggests, the trend - and with it, the change that many teenagers undergo during their year of study here - has also prompted some degree of worry among parents. Short sleeves may turn into long sleeves, a knitted kippah is perhaps replaced with a black hat, and plans to go to college are sometimes delayed or scrapped altogether in favor of staying in a yeshiva to study further.
"The year in Israel is significantly changing the Orthodox community in the U.S., but this is only the first study," Waxman said in a recent interview. "It just goes to show how much more this needs to be examined."
The "year in Israel" was first conceived in 1957 by Rabbi Zevi Tabory, the director of the Torah Education Department of the Jewish Agency in New York. Waxman, in fact, was one of the program's first participants, when he studied at the Israeli yeshiva Kerem BeYavne (KBY), between 1958 and 1959. He calls the experience the "original birthright" and the "pioneer program" of bringing young Jews to Israel.
"It really changed my life," he said this week. "I was smitten. There were just a handful of Americans, it was mostly Israelis. We slept on a thin hay mattress, the building was a shell, but I had such a hevre (group of friends). I didn't want to go back home, but my parents told me I needed to finish college."
His children, he says, have all passed through the program and his son even leads one: Rabbi Ari Waxman heads the overseas program at Yeshivat Sha'alvim.
In his section of the book, which examines the sociological implications of the trend, Waxman traces the so-called "shift to the right" in the American Orthodox community in part to the year of post-high school study in Israel.
"In terms of ritual behavior, people have become more meticulous," he said. "There is a cadre of modern-Orthodox people with a degree of knowledge and dedication that is, to a great extent, the product of this program."
Gone are the days, therefore, when Orthodox institutions sponsor mixed-gendered dances or when it was still commonplace for people to eat in restaurants without kosher supervision. Instead, adult learning within the community has surged.
"People at Yeshiva University in the 1950s and 1960s say that the beit midrash in the evening had relatively few people in it," he said. "Now, if you visit there, it is packed and people are attributing it to (the year spent in) Israel."
Taking Israel with you
Waxman, a professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem, also found that the programs have increased immigration rates, as well as forged greater connections between Diaspora Jews and Israel.
A significant percentage of American immigrants have attended programs, where they receive "experiential and religio-cultural legitimization for immigration."
"If you go to any of these Orthodox neighborhoods, Israel is with you," he said of those who do not immigrate. "You live in the U.S., but you eat falafel, keep up on Israeli news, buy Israeli products and maintain that connection." The year in Israel, he notes, has even affected the liturgy in Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., as some adopt traditionally Israeli customs.
Waxman also believes that the year in Israel has fostered ties between the American Orthodox community and the Israeli national-religious community - which is mostly right-wing, emphasizes national aspects and interprets them religiously.
"This has created an alliance with the political right in Israel, which has reinforced ties with the political right in America," he said. But with the surge in Torah study and increased ties to Israel has also come a degree of insularity, he noted.
As a result, he says, despite the fact that the Orthodox show greater concern, on average, for the notion of Jewish "peoplehood" than other Jews, the community has become more isolationist and interacts less with the larger Jewish community.
"There were organizational boards that were comprised of representatives from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities, but you see less of that today. The representatives of the various denominations or movements don't work together as much on a communal level, though they do, of course, on an individual level."
Meanwhile, Waxman says the phenomenon still needs greater study.
"The truth of the matter is, these kids are not flipping out," he said. "Are they different from when they left? Yes. But in many cases, it's the exception that makes the perception."