By Channi Packer, LCSW
One thing I remember from my seminary days was the numbing, mindless, seemingly magic resolution to many of our issues: “Wait until Chanukah and if it’s still a problem then…” Why should seminary girls wait until half of their precious year is gone before they gain spiritual and emotional footing? Learning how to tackle issues with a new roommate (without actually tackling the new roommate), how to cope with anxiety while far from home, and how to create and maintain healthy habits in a new country are all common struggles girls face when arriving for Shana Aleph.
Going to Israel for “sem” has become commonplace, but it is actually an enormous milestone in the life of a teen and the transition is not always seamless. All successful adventures begin with organized, proactive preparation, and going to Israel for seminary is certainly a great adventure.
For many girls, seminary is the cornerstone year of their lives, the year upon which all following years are built, and each girl embarking on this journey ought to prepare.
My SemPrep Course offers high-school graduates a unique opportunity to learn imperative skills that will help them successfully navigate the challenges present during Shanah Aleph of seminary. The course kickstarts important conversations around mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health before the girls touch down in Israel. I place a huge emphasis on overall well-being. In order to grow spiritually, one must feel healthy, confident, and balanced.
It is also imperative for girls to express their own aspirations for the coming year. Girls need to outline a realistic plan, an outline for achieving their goals for the year. In order to optimize the potential of this exciting experience, students need better preparation in understanding themselves and what they can possibly accomplish in one year of learning in the Holy Land.
They’ve spent so much time and energy applying for and choosing the perfect seminary. They’ve invested physically, mentally, and financially. The most critically important aspect of preparation — and the one that is usually neglected — is that of our students’ mindsets and their mental and emotional health.
Sure, everyone is excited, dreaming of the kedushah in the Holy Land, with ideals and images that have been built up over time and bolstered by the stories and experiences of older siblings and friends. But upon arrival, life can look different than what was imagined — when the apartment is crammed with six strangers who all need to use the showers. When roommates from all over the world have to learn to live together, divide responsibilities, and learn to coexist happily. When classes are difficult, when one has to plan for Shabbos meals, when learning to adjust to the pace of life in Israel sets in, all too often, panic and despair ensue. Once the brain switches to panic mode, problems escalate quickly. Even the little things feel overwhelming.
Planning and preparation strengthens our students and gives them the fortitude and maturity to deal calmly and thoughtfully with their new environment. The SemPrep Course focuses on skills that help shape mindsets and expectations about the coming year. I help girls address some of the common “pitfalls” they will encounter. Together, we build a toolbox of coping skills, priming them for sustained success throughout the year.
Current research shows that the practice of mindfulness is remarkable in its ability to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and rewire neural connections. Mindfulness helps develop the mental clarity to deal with stress triggers. Without mindfulness, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies “gear up” (which, in the face of real danger is a lifesaving systemic biological response) and our brains become flushed with cortisol and adrenaline, effectively limiting our ability to resolve issues in a productive way. Active mindfulness is a technique our girls can use throughout their entire lives once it’s added to their toolbox of coping skills.
Students commonly become caught up in the dynamism of the new lessons they are learning, and it is often difficult to grow at a healthy and adaptive pace. The year in Israel offers enormous opportunities for spiritual growth. The SemPrep Course helps students understand what true and meaningful change is, and how to notice and prevent a situation where radical and extreme transformations occur and cause what therapists refer to as “cognitive dissonance.” This is when someone experiences conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors which can cause emotional discomfort, anxiety, and sometimes resentment. The SemPrep Course addresses ways to learn and grow, which are some of the most important goals in going to Israel for many girls, while keeping in mind their own identity, and how they are feeling about any new changes in the spiritual lives they are developing.
Creating relationships during sem year in Israel causes anxiety in some, especially those who struggled socially in high school and are looking forward to forging new friendships with girls outside of their communities and with teachers and faculty as well. Some students do not have the skills and confidence to start fresh when it comes to relationships. The SemPrep Course teaches social skills useful in many situations, especially in dealing with roommates.
Helping students achieve more mastery over their own behaviors will bolster self-esteem and self-confidence. Mastery gives them the ability to navigate successfully through the stormy waters of new relationships.
Challenges will still occur, and I don’t practice or condone the “snow plow” technique for seminary girls. “Snow plow” describes a parenting tactic where parents try to eliminate all of life’s obstacles for their children. Teens desire the skills to negotiate the ups and downs of life so they can build resilience and emotional maturity. Giving our daughters the tools to face life’s obstacles with courage is the greatest gift of all.
Historically, we know that students can become “derailed” in the early months of their seminary year because they were simply not prepared for the radical change in lifestyle—from a teen living at home to a young adult in a foreign country, dealing with a new level of independence. Beginning the conversation about seminary before reaching Eretz Yisrael offers a unique opportunity to familiarize students with life in “sem” and life in Israel away from all their customary safety nets, so that when that plane lands, our students know they are prepared and in a healthy state of mind to optimize their experience and negotiate challenges.
Working in a local girls’ high school, I started thinking how different this year’s send-off to Israel is going to be for our seniors. Parents and students are feeling the same way because of all the uncertainties and fears that living with COVID-19 has brought upon us. Pandemic or not, preparation goes a long way. I often work with students facing personal challenges or fears, and I ask them to pick a scenario that seems worrisome or causes some anxiety, and then to identify an action plan to deal with it. There are many ways to do this. Role playing can reveal different scenarios and enables students to create their own responses, thereby verbalizing fears and also discovering their own capacity for responding in a healthy way. I also encourage my students to discuss their specific worries, fears, and goals with someone they trust.
As a clinical social worker who has worked in high-school settings as well as in private practice, I have helped many seniors talk through their emotional, physical, and spiritual concerns for their upcoming year in Israel. As a seminary madrichah, I dealt with students’ mental and emotional issues while they learned to navigate the challenges throughout their year in Israel.
There are so many exciting and wonderful things to gain from seminary in Israel, and the SemPrep Course is designed to give students the best possible start. We can prepare them for success by beginning the important discussions about seminary before they get there, imparting confidence and excitement for a wonderful, transformative, and special experience.
There is limited availability for the Seminary Prep Course for the month of August. Upcoming Seminary Prep course dates are August 2, 9, 16, and 17.
Channi Packer is a licensed clinical social worker and guidance counselor at Shulamith High School in Cedarhurst. Channi also has a private practice specializing in anxiety and depression. She has been working with teens and young adults in the Five Towns area and has run social-skills groups for middle-school students. To reserve a space for the SemPrep Course, make an appointment for a private session, or inquire regarding her services, please email ChanniPacker@gmail.com or call 631-896-0156.