By Elisheva Liss, LMFT
I saw something this week that warmed my heart. And that thing is a Google doc.
When I was a teen, I attended a Modern Orthodox girls’ high school. There was a kosher pizza shop down that block where we’d go for lunch that was frequented by students from a local Bais Yaakov school as well. We all practiced the same religion, spoke the same language, and enjoyed the same lunches, but there was this invisible wall between us. We didn’t know “them,” they didn’t’ know “us,” and no one ever seemed to really cross over that line. I remember trying to smile or say hello a couple of times (I was that kid who sometimes missed those social cues at first), but the reaction from both groups made it clear that “this is not done here.” I remember feeling like those girls in the plaid skirts, muted tones, and serious faces seemed aloof and superior. I wondered if they looked at us and found us obnoxiously rambunctious and messy. Now I know we were all just kids, trying to figure ourselves out, eating pizza.
One of the most visible ailments of the contemporary broader Orthodox community is the issue of divisiveness. With the ever-rising number of observant Jewish families and communities also comes the humanly cliquish tendency to branch off into defined groups. And not just geographic or social groups but “us” versus “them” groups, based on affiliation, politics, and divergent interpretation of Torah: “kosher” versus “un-kosher,” “insulated” versus “integrated,” the distinctions go on. The differences are so minor, relative to the rest of the world, but somehow they get magnified and inflated with faux import within our enclaves. It’s not the differences that are the issue—it’s the judgment, the tension, the fragmentation. We all know about it—we cry about it on Tishah B’Av—but it’s pervasive and persistent.
For many young men and women, the place where they begin to self-define religiously as adults is in their post-high-school educational experience. While not everyone spends a year abroad in Israel, it is a fairly widespread and profoundly transformative practice in many of our communities.
Last week, many of the “year in Israel” seminaries began sending out their acceptances (and wait lists and rejections.) My 18-year-old daughter showed me a Google doc that has made its way around the 12th-grade female Orthodox world. Someone started this document, just listing as many Israel programs she could think of, inviting anyone and everyone to participate, add program names, and invite others to share. The idea was that as these young women decide where they’re going next year, they add their names to the columns, and they can use this master list to connect, network, and find roommates. To date, this Google doc lists programs ranging in religious ideologies from the most right-wing Bais Yaakov schools to Bar Ilan and the IDF. U.S. colleges were added to the list as well. These students are using this information to help each other, root for each other, and make new friends. It keeps crashing because of traffic volumes. Instead of institutional association being a label that divides, they’ve repurposed it, and unified to generate a way to span the spectrum.
This feels like the opposite of my high-school pizza-shop days. (No disrespect intended; I have the fondest memories of their broccoli cheese knish.) I don’t know if a document like this would have happened ten years ago.
(And yes, I realize it’s not completely inclusive; not everyone is Orthodox, and not everyone is Jewish or 18 or female. But this is a nice show of unity for what it is.)
Technology and teens get a lot of flak, especially as a combo. But something about this simple project, totally initiated by this budding generation of fresh Jewish adults, made my heart swell and gives me hope for the future.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her blog, her book—“Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking”—digital courses, and a new virtual wellness program. All can be accessed at ElishevaLiss.com.