By Max Fruchter
I can’t identify one event or moment that encapsulates my feelings of being back in America after my year Israel. But you certainly know when you are back. Although many who return from spending a year in Israel can pinpoint the unfamiliar sight of taxis and glass skyscrapers as opposed to sheiruts and stone buildings as their “back home” moment, a year in Israel has made such a labeling process difficult, if not impossible, for me.
Ten and a half months immersed in a yeshiva in the Jewish homeland changes a person religiously, emotionally, and physically. The ability to fully focus your attention and effort on developing a deeper love for and connection to Judaism, not to mention having the independence to do so, is an opportunity not easily found back home. Leaving your family and familiar surroundings, as hard and uncomfortable as it may be, opens the mind and expands the possibility of seeing life in an entirely new light.
From experiencing the unbelievably joyous month of Adar to shedding tears on an emotional Yom HaZikaron, Israel creates an abundance of incomparable experiences which resonate with you eternally and accompany you on the flight back home. Due to this clear shift in perspective one inevitably undergoes as a result of living in yeshiva in Israel for a year, the shock that goes along with returning to America can understandably be challenging to convey, let alone identify with one moment.
First and foremost, there are the superficial and most noticeable differences of being back in “the States,” such as the myriad of yellow taxis, Starbucks shops, and uniformed policemen one would only recognize in the form of soldiers in Israel. Yet all the more emotional and serious upon returning is the sight of family. The powerful embrace between parent and child is an indescribable feeling full of immeasurable love and appreciation. A year away from parents, brothers, and sisters surely epitomizes the age-old maxim of not appreciating what you have until after it’s gone.
That independence mentioned earlier most definitely comes with the challenge of tending to personal needs that were taken care of by our parents for the past 18 or so years. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that acts previously deemed trivial and expected are now viewed with a newfound appreciation and understanding. No longer do we imagine that laundry simply folds itself or food finds its way into the fridge. Rather, we see that a real person (our own mother!) takes the time out of her day to do so for us and generally goes unrecognized.
Even more than the shift in attitude toward family is the distinct obstacle in maintaining the level of religious observance one practiced in Israel. In yeshiva, minyanim were tailored to perfectly fit your schedule, and the ability to walk up a mere flight of steps into the beit midrash for davening and learning was a tremendous convenience. On-demand minyanim, shiurim, and lectures are no longer, and the extra step one must take to go to minyan or sit down and learn is an adjustment, to say the least.
Discussing contemporary issues with rebbeim becomes common while in yeshiva for a year. The term “dual curriculum” finds no place in yeshiva, and hour after hour, day after day, is dedicated solely to Judaic studies and activities. Tanach, Gemara, Chumash, and machshavah comprise our “core curriculum,” rather than math, English, and biology.
Perhaps more noteworthy than the learning material in yeshiva is the dedicated group of rebbeim who embody and transmit this material to us. Every rabbi in yeshiva lives a Torah life and commits his complete attention to us, the students, catering to all of our needs. Although the hashkafic stance of each rebbi can vary slightly, collectively they share a true love and devotion for their students. Until this year I never would have thought that rebbeim with wives and children could be sincere in offering their absolute availability, be it at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning. Yet after a year with my rebbeim I can confidently say that their declaration of “You are like our children, not just students; if you are ever in need of anything, you come to us” is not an introductory welcome given in an unaffectionate, perfunctory manner; rather, it is a full-fledged invitation filled with absolute sincerity.
Contrary to what many might think, one strong contrast between living at home in America and spending a year in Israel is the exceptional sense of camaraderie found in the yeshiva. Every waking moment for one year you spend with kids your own age, creating lifelong friendships and unbreakable bonds. The inevitable highs and lows that are endured together allow friends to become family and make saying goodbye that much tougher. Unlike a dormitory where 100 close friends are just rooms away, America creates a challenge in preserving these bonds by dispersing the 100 chaveirim throughout New York, New Jersey, L.A., Chicago, and even Australia.
Despite the challenges inherent in “coming back home” to America, the year spent in yeshiva allows for the ability to adapt and adjust in a way which I’m not sure would have been feasible before. No one leaves Israel with the same mindset he arrived with, and we each certainly see life–religiously, socially, and emotionally–with a fresh set of eyes. The past year has changed my life and certainly has shaped who I hope to be in the future. “The year in Israel” is a gift, a privilege, and an opportunity–one that I’m thankful for each day. v
Max Fruchter, a graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, attended yeshiva in Jerusalem this year.