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Was My Kid Brainwashed in Seminary?

*This originally appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times

Dear Elisheva,

Our oldest daughter just returned home from her year in Israel. It’s not that I mind her becoming more religious. We expected that to a degree, when we allowed her to go to seminary. It’s the way she now relates to her family, her old friends, and how her personality seems to have changed. She just doesn’t seem like herself anymore, and we’re just not sure if it’s healthy. How can we know whether this is just a phase, a new reality that we have to get used to, or something to be worried about?


Parent of an Adult Child

Dear Parent,

Your question is important and insightful.

Most parents of Israel gap year students will probably have observations and opinions about the changes they see. With any developmental changes, they can be growth-oriented, troublesome, or harmless phases. Let’s attempt to distinguish the more wholesome effects from the more problematic ones.

1. A more stringent interpretation and observance of Halacha: where is it coming from?

Taking on a more serious approach to observance can be a sign of spiritual maturity and introspection. Sometimes. If a student was exposed to sarcasm and condemnation about those less observant, (or differently observant), to terrifying fear of eternal retribution, intense peer pressure, or indiscriminate idolization of new mentors, then the new convictions are probably not stemming from a healthy place. On the other hand, often they develop gradually, after honest questioning, delving into multiple primary sources, and consultation with knowledgeable scholarly teachers. The commitments can be explained and substantiated in a calm rational way (rather than emotionally defensive way), and are paired with respect for others. In these cases, Halachic growth can be an inspired, and healthy way to express a desire toward connection and commitment to G-d, oneself, other people, Torah and Judaism.

2. Attitudes towards family and old friends:

If the young adult seems to have suddenly and completely replaced 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/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 she learned, and integrate new friends, that could demonstrate wholesome expression of expanding social and ideological horizons. It is normal for friendships to shift and evolve particularly at this stage of life, with some growing apart, and some new ones becoming more central.

3. 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. Changes in speech patterns, such as more refined language, (for example, giving up profany) less gossip, sarcasm, or frivolity, more attempts to give the benefit of the doubt or speak well of others, could be a person’s conscious attempt to be kinder. This could be a sign of maturation, 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 “Hebrewisms,” (like “b'diyuk”), “Jewishisms” (like “Baruch Hashem”) or “Yiddishisms” (like “geshmak”) while may seem pretentious or annoying sometimes, are also a natural outgrowth of being in a new social environment. If she had spent a year in, France, for instance, some French expressions and inflections would probably creep into the vocabulary as well.

On the other hand, if the content and tone of the person’s speech and/or behavior is coming out preachy, arrogant, condescending, sarcastic, judgmental, abrasive, robotic, or overly intense, that may be cause for concern. If all humor is lost, if they seem obsessed with minutiae to the point of compulsion, if there is an overwhelming flagellation of self, constantly criticizing either self or others, always second-guessing whether things are permissible or appropriate, this would be cause for concern.

4. Relationship to New Mentors:

One phenomenon of the year in Israel, is that due to its dramatic nature, the stage of life, the intensity of thinking, the closeness of the friendships, almost everything feels larger than life. A by-product of this, is that everything or anyone discovered that has some merit, is worthy of consideration, or is any way admirable 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 teachers who are knowledgeable and charismatic, in varying, and sometimes impressive degrees, are put on, often unrealistic, pedestals. This isn’t necessarily inherently harmful, but becomes problematic when students begin to crave their attention, approval, and advice, in excess. It becomes worrying when students begin to make important life choices impacting their future on the basis of dogmatic, forceful, or extreme instruction, that runs counter to her own integrity or the discretion of those who know her all her life.

Another point that is sensitive but necessary to make: Young women often become very attached to Rabbeim they find uplifting. The onus is on the Rabbi to make very clear, appropriate boundaries in terms of how close and how open this relationship becomes. While girls speaking flirtatiously to the Rabbis needs to 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, or in any way abuses his role, even if no overt or physical harm was done.

Female mentors can also pose a risk in terms of cultivating dependency or crossing boundaries, and likewise Rebbeim with male students.

On a more positive note, caring new mentors who maintain healthy boundaries, can take the whole student into account, and have adequate life wisdom, are often great resources of thought provoking insight and encouragement for students to incorporate as a supplement to their own thinking.

5. How drastically have her values and life plans changed?

Sometimes, a student graduates high school with a clear sense of identity. She may have certain consistent and responsible educational goals, career interests, hobbies, values, opinions about future dating and family life, taste in communities. If in Israel, there has been a very stark and startling alteration in all of that, then it’s probably advisable for 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 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. There is always time to implement whatever changes they still feel will work for them with integrity, logistics, and more confidence.

6. Feelings about recreation, materialism, and pleasure.

One of the less healthy responses people will sometimes experience while in the process of introspecting, is the misconception that “if I hate it, it’s good for me, and if I enjoy it, it’s probably sinful”. Reevaluating how we spend our time, money, and energy can be meaningful and lead to more purposeful living. But this too, must be done in moderation and taking the relative self into account. Some lifestyles in Israel are often culturally very different from those in the US. That can seem refreshing and wholesome to a bright-eyed tourist, and in fact there is much to learn from those who live simply and idealistically. But, like anything else, this can be distorted or misunderstood. They should remember that not everything that’s enjoyable is overly indulgent, and that nurturing oneself and appreciating the joys of G-d’s world is a Torah value as well. Finding the right balance will depend on the individual’s background, means, personality, and communal norms. Either way, mocking lifestyles of those who make different choices in those areas, should always be discouraged.

7. Re-identification of Self:

When a young adult is formulating a worldview, there is a certain amount of discernment that is necessary. As she explores different philosophies, there is a process of elimination. But 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 begin to identify themselves by what they aren’t, or what they avoid. If a person says: “my hashkafa 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, endeavors, and interests appeal to you personally and spiritually? It’s okay to try cutting back on 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 define you.

With all these descriptions, students will rarely fall on one extreme of the spectrum. Anyone, regardless of age or station in life can occasionally be judgmental, picayune, pretentious, or supercilious. Personal development always needs to be tempered with and include humility and kindness. It’s very normal for someone immediately returning, or even several months back from Israel to have some of this “post-Israel syndrome.” The intensity can irritate, or concern loved ones. We want our grown children to return with a sense of identity, idealism, and purpose. The key to working through some of the initial zealotry is constructive communication, gentle honesty, and flexibility on both ends. Along with the understanding that change is inevitable and can be wonderful, when it occurs with integrity, is healthy for oneself, and considerate of others.

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