What Your Kids Really Get Up to During That Yeshiva Year in Israel

New film 'Unorthodox' explores the religious awakening, and heavy drug use, many U.S. high school graduates experience on Orthodox gap-year programs in Israel.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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'Unorthodox' film director Anna Wexler.
'Unorthodox' film director Anna Wexler.Credit: Simon Chetrit
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Among Modern Orthodox Jews in America, the phenomenon is known as flipping out. It’s what happens when high school graduates spend a year at yeshiva or seminary in Israel and get turned onto Judaism big time, before starting college. The girls stop wearing anything that might be considered immodest. The boys start davening. Some take vows not to talk to members of the opposite sex; others opt out of university studies and other pursuits that might test their religious devotion, preferring instead to insulate themselves from the outside secular world.

In “Unorthodox,” first-time filmmaker Anna Wexler tries to learn why flipping out is so common among young Orthodox Americans. To get to the bottom of the mystery, she spent the better part of nine years following three young adults, from their rebellious high school days through their year of study in Israel, catching up with them several years later to see how they’ve fared.

The film, released in the United States last year, is having its Israeli premiere this week at the second annual States of Mind Film Festival, which is devoted to independent American film.

The dreadlocked Wexler brings her own special perspective to the story, and is very much a part of it. Born and raised in an insulated Modern Orthodox community in New Jersey, as a child she dreamed of becoming a great Torah scholar. Growing up, her only contact with the outside Gentile world, as she attests in the film, was through television. At the rather young age of 12, though, she began questioning some of the basic tenets of Judaism and, by age 16, had become a devout atheist and teenage runaway, experimenting with free love and recreational drugs.

She wasn’t alone. Several other friends had also rebelled but, unlike her, they spent the year after high school at yeshiva and seminary in Israel, where they were brought back into the fold. Wexler spent her gap year in Kathmandu and felt betrayed when she learned that, in her absence, all her old pals had become believers again.

It was while studying for her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at MIT that Wexler came up with the idea of producing a film that explored the question perplexing her. “I wanted to find out why all my friends were becoming religious,” she says. “Were they coming to spiritual realizations of their own, or were the rabbis brainwashing them?”

Having no background whatsoever in filmmaking, she recruited a close friend and classmate, Nadja Oertelt, who, aside from codirecting the movie, took charge of the cinematography.

For decades now, the gap year at yeshiva or seminary in Israel has been a rite of passage for young U.S. Orthodox Jews. As several of Wexler’s subjects reflect in the film, it is often seen as a last chance of injecting high school graduates with a mega-dose of yiddishkeit before sending them off into the big bad world. And for parents concerned about children already showing signs of faltering, it is often part of a last-ditch effort to set them straight.

Spiritual transformation

The characters Wexler follows through this rite of passage are Tzipi, Chaim and Jake, all of whom are questioning, to varying degrees, their commitment to Orthodoxy. Observing them and their peers during their stay in Israel (often through cameras they were given, so they could document themselves in places difficult for the filmmakers to access), she concludes that most Americans participating in these programs go through three phases: First, taking advantage of their newfound freedom by indulging in lots of alcohol and drugs; then, spending more time in religious classes as they get bored with all the partying; and, finally, undergoing a major spiritual transformation.

By the end of the year, all three characters have overcome their doubts and returned to Orthodox Judaism with a vengeance. Tzipi ends up marrying, settling in Safed and teaching at a seminary for wayward girls; Chaim finds a way of channeling his artistic talents in a Jewish direction; and musically talented Jake decides to forgo studies at the prestigious Berklee College of Music out of fear that he might be influenced by the temptations of secular life there. Instead, he enrolls in the very Jewish Queens College, marries at age 20 and has a baby soon after.

Wexler, meanwhile, embarks on her own Jewish journey and moves to Israel. “I shocked my family and friends by fulfilling the dream of almost every Orthodox Jew in America,” she notes.

In Israel, she reconnects with her Orthodox grandparents, who had immigrated to the country many years earlier. She realizes all too soon, however, that many topics are off limits, considering their very different lifestyles and values. “We don’t talk about politics, religion or my personal life,” she says. That leaves room for little else aside from her grandparents’ weekly trips to the nutritionist – which, fortunately, provide for some amusing discourse.

At the end of the film, Wexler reconnects with an old high school friend who, like her, had rebelled as a teen, but later became religious, only to turn his back on Orthodoxy again several years later. Religious people, he observes, tend to be happier. “I feel that if I could just believe all this, I’d be happier,” he laments. “I just have trouble believing it.”

“Yeah,” agrees Wexler. “Me too.”

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