By Elisheva Liss, LMFT
“It’s not that I mind Rachel becoming more religious; we expected that, to a degree, when we allowed her to go to Israel for the year. It’s the way she now relates to her family and her old friends, and how her personality seems to have changed. She just doesn’t seem like herself anymore, and it doesn’t seem so healthy.”
Does this sound familiar? With the “year in Israel” phenomenon over a generation old (in some cases, even two), there is considerable debate regarding its merits and ramifications.
Most parents who have sent a child will probably have opinions about the changes they observe, and there is a lot to be said about that. This article will attempt to distinguish the more wholesome effects from the problematic ones.
Is the “flip-out” phenomenon something to celebrate or something to worry about? The short answer, obvious as it sounds, is that it depends.
This question is critical, specifically because it is relevant to such large numbers of young adults, their families, and future families. It’s complex because of the wide variability in the different situations and the lack of real statistical evidence or research. As such, this is merely an opinion piece, based on anecdotally observed evidence.
When is religious transformation healthy? We can break it down into categories.
A more stringent interpretation and observance of halachah; where is it coming from? If your child was exposed to religious intimidation, sarcasm, and condemnation about those less observant, terrifying fear of eternal retribution, peer pressure, or indiscriminate idolization of new mentors, then the new convictions are probably not stemming from a healthy place. Sometimes, on the other hand, they develop gradually, after honest questioning, delving into multiple primary sources, and consultation with knowledgeable scholars. The commitments can be explained and substantiated in a calm, rational way (rather than an emotionally defensive way) and are paired with respect for others. In these cases, halachic growth can be a beautiful, inspired, and healthy way to express a desire toward connection and commitment to G-d, oneself, other people, Torah, and Judaism.
Attitude toward family and old friends. If the young adult seems to have suddenly replaced his or her loving parental relationships with new mentors, to the point of exclusion or disparagement, this could be a red flag. If there seems to be some fierce or secretive allegiance between the individual and these new mentors, where there is deliberate withholding or withdrawing from others, this could be cause for concern. If he or she seems to feel far superior to those who did not share in the “Israel experience,” this is also unhealthy development. On the other hand, if there is a healthy, open, honest respect and love for family and friends, along with a genuine desire to unimposingly share and discuss what he or she learned from new mentors, and integrate new friends, that could demonstrate wholesome expression of expanding social and ideological horizons.
Changes in Personality. This one is a little trickier, because they can be subtle and organic. Almost everyone will change somewhat over the course of a year, wherever they are. We don’t usually notice this when we’re there while it’s happening. Superficial changes in speech patterns, such as more refined language (for example, giving up foul language), less gossip, sarcasm, or frivolity, more attempts to give the benefit of the doubt or speak well of others, could be part of a person’s conscious attempt to be a kinder, more respectable individual, and could be encouraged, even if it feels a little extreme compared to the “old self.” The same holds true for teens who trade in their pop-culture interests for more intellectual, spiritual, charitable, or otherwise substantive pursuits.
The interpolation of “Hebrew-isms” (such as “lama lo?” for “why not?”), “Jewish-isms” (such as “Baruch Hashem”), or “Yiddish-isms” (such as “geshmak” for “fantastic”), may come out sounding supercilious or grate on the nerves, yet are sometimes also a natural outgrowth of being in a new social environment. If he or she had spent a year abroad, in France, for instance, no doubt certain popular French expressions and inflections would creep into the vocabulary as well.
On the other hand, if the content of the person’s speech or behavior is preachy, arrogant, condescending, sarcastic, judgmental, abrasive, pretentious, or overly intense, that may be cause for concern. If all humor is lost, if the person seems negatively obsessed with minutiae to the point of compulsion, if there is an overwhelming flagellation of self, constantly criticizing either themselves or others, or always second-guessing whether things are permissible or appropriate, there might be an unhealthy imbalance.
Relationship to New Mentors. This section is delicate. One phenomenon of the year in Israel is that due to its dramatic nature, the time of life, the intensity of thinking, and the closeness of the friendships, almost everything feels larger than life. A byproduct of this is that everything or anyone discovered that has some merit is worthy of consideration, or becomes—and you have to say this with your eyes closed—“AMAZING!” Some discernment is lost in the desire to embrace all perceived virtue enthusiastically and piously. So rabbis and teachers who are knowledgeable and charismatic, in varying and sometimes impressive degrees, are put on pedestals, often unrealistically. This isn’t necessarily inherently harmful, but it becomes problematic when students begin to crave their attention, approval, and advice in excess. This is often exacerbated when some mentors play into this ego trip by encouraging the superlative impressions and authority. It becomes more worrying when students begin to make important life choices impacting their future on the basis of dogmatic, even forceful, advice disguised as “psak.” Beware especially of mentors who seem to rejoice in how many he or she can “convert.”
Another point that is disturbing to have to address is that young women often become very attached to rebbeim who inspire them. The onus is on the rabbi to make clear, appropriate boundaries in terms of how close and how open this relationship becomes. While girls speaking flirtatiously to the rabbis should be discouraged, in the end the adult is at fault when he is too comfortable, jokes around too freely, makes comments that are too personal, and ultimately abuses his role, even if no overt harm was done.
Female mentors can also pose a problem in terms of cultivating dependency or crossing boundaries, and likewise rebbeim with male students.
On a cheerier note, mature, new mentors who maintain healthy boundaries, are not ego-driven, and have adequate life wisdom can often be excellent sources of thought-provoking insight, encouragement, and inspiration for students to incorporate as a supplement to their own thinking.
How drastically have his or her values and life plans changed? Sometimes, a student graduates 12th grade with a clear sense of identity. The student may have certain consistent and responsible educational goals, career interests, hobbies, values, opinions about future dating and family life, or taste in communities. If while in Israel there has been a stark and startling alteration in all of that, then it’s probably advisable for him or her to wait some time before beginning to date for marriage, or making any significant irrevocable life decisions.
This doesn’t mean that people are not entitled to change their views or develop differently in young adulthood than they did in adolescence. It just means that while some change is good, when it’s dramatic and has occurred in a radically different environment, it can be destabilizing, and then it needs to be reevaluated when the person is back on familiar ground. As it is, there is so much change after high school, so many critical choices to be made, that it can be overwhelming even without the Israel factor. Lifestyles that can appear idyllic, even romantic, viewed through 18-year-old rosy eyes in Israel might prove less practical if attempted immediately and without adequate forethought. Allowing for some time to digest what they’ve seen and learned, while integrating the philosophies back into their natural lives, will help the dust settle before any hasty decisions are made. After time, there is always room to implement whatever changes they still feel will work for them.
Feelings about recreation, materialism, and pleasure. One of the less healthy responses people will sometimes experience while in the process of “spiritualizing” is the misconception that “If I hate it, it’s good for me, and if I enjoy it, it’s probably sinful.” While reevaluating how we spend our time, money, and energy can be meaningful and lead to more purposeful living, this, too, must be done in moderation and taking the relative self into account. Some lifestyles in Israel are often culturally different from those in New York. That can sometimes seem refreshing and wholesome to a bright-eyed young adult. There is something to learn from those who embody “clean living.” But, like anything else, this can be taken too far, and one should remember that not everything that’s “extra” is overly indulgent, and that nurturing oneself and appreciating the joys and comforts of G-d’s world is a Torah value as well. Finding the right medium will depend on the individual’s background, means, personality, and preference. Either way, mocking lifestyles of those who make different choices in those areas should always be discouraged.
Re-identification of Self. When a young adult is formulating an outlook on life, there is a certain amount of rejection that is necessary. As he or she experiments with different philosophies, there is naturally a process of elimination. Ultimately, the goal should be to have a clearly defined sense of self, including positive objectives that uplift and express. Yet sometimes people get stuck in the phase of elimination, and they begin to identify themselves by what they aren’t or what they avoid. If a person says, “My hashkafah is that I don’t watch television” or “I don’t wear certain clothes” or “I don’t eat those foods” or “I don’t want to live in New York,” the important question to ask is: OK, but who are you? What do you embrace? What positive values and interests appeal to you personally and spiritually? It’s OK to try giving up activities or behaviors that you find unproductive, but that abstinence is not what defines you. What do you hope to do with that time and energy instead? The emphasis should ideally be on what does vivify and express you.
Of all these general descriptions, students will rarely fall on one extreme of the spectrum. Anyone, regardless of age or station in life, can occasionally be judgmental, picayune, or supercilious, and personal development always needs to be tempered with humility and tolerance. It’s perfectly normal for someone returning from Israel, even several months later, to have a touch of this “post-Israel syndrome,” the natural “culture shock” and intensity that could irritate or concern loved ones. We want our young-adult children to return with a sense of purpose, inspiration, and direction. The key to working through some of the zealotry is constructive communication, gentle honesty, acceptance on both ends, and the understanding that change can be good, as long as it occurs with integrity, is healthy for the individual, and is considerate of others.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a local mom, psychotherapist, writer, lecturer, and housework procrastinator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More of her writing can be found at ElishevaLiss.com and on her Jewish blog, Nefesh.org/blogs/ElishevaLiss.