NEW YORK (JTA) – Thousands of Orthodox students will soon head off for their post-high school year of study at a yeshiva in Israel. For most of these adolescents, it will be their first year away from home and a time to begin their ascent to independence and adulthood.
Judging from recent years, many of them will contract what is derisively referred to as Flipping Out Syndrome, or FOS, a troubling malady that pits teenager against parent in a seemingly endless cycle of friction and misjudgment.
Take this case: A mother is encouraging her daughter, who just returned from seminary, to take her vitamins. The young lady balks as they don’t have a hechsher, or kosher certification; her rebbe in Israel told her to use only those with a hechsher. Indignant, her mother counters that the family has always used them, that their shul rav is of the opinion that it’s not a problem if they are unflavored.
“If it was good enough for us all these years,” the affronted mother says, “why isn’t it good enough for you?”
This tension is particularly disturbing given that the year of study in Israel has become a norm for much of the Orthodox world and families make sacrifices to save funds for this opportunity. It’s time we knew how to prepare for our children’s spiritual growth and possible changes in outlook that could and do follow, so we can avoid friction in the home later.
Many young people come back from Israel seemingly looking down on the world they left behind, often displaying a disconcerting, albeit unintentional appearance of arrogance.
Intentionally or not, however, parents often cut themselves off from their children’s experience in yeshiva and seminary. Consequently these young men and women begin to associate all their Torah learning solely with their rabbis and teachers in Israel, leading them to presume that their parents could not possibly understand all they have absorbed. The young people then come off as arrogant as they conclude that their parents are uninterested in their newfound, strengthened or added commitment to halachah.
In combating FOS, parents need to play a proactive role by setting up a weekly phone chavruta, or study session, with their children and regularly calling their rabbis and teachers in Israel for updates.
Most important, parents and children must make every effort to keep the communication lines open, so parents remain an integral part of their children’s spiritual growth and the children feel supported and encouraged. Neglecting opportunities for open communication can prove disastrous.
A few years back I couldn’t help feeling both saddened and amused to learn that upon a young man’s return to his home, he clandestinely toveled, or sanctified in the mikveh, all of the glasses and dishes in the house to guarantee that they were kosher according to the most stringent standards. In his zeal the young man broke a number of dishes and was forced to confess the deed to his mother.
Unbeknownst to him, however, in an effort to make her son feel more comfortable when he came home, the mother had toveled all the glasses and dishes several weeks before. This uncomfortable and potentially hurtful situation could have been avoided had the son made the effort to communicate his religious growth to his mother and had his mother communicated her support and acceptance of her son’s growth.
In addition to parents, yeshivot and seminaries in Israel must do their part to prevent FOS by encouraging students to relate their thoughts and feelings to their families throughout their year. Just as camp counselors make sure that campers write home to their parents, yeshivot and seminaries should set aside time for family letter-writing or e-mailing. Teachers and rebbeim might consider urging parents to take off a week to learn with their children in Israel if possible. Administrators and educators must view the parents as their essential partners in the development of each student.
The more communication between educators and parents and between students and parents, the better the odds are for an easy and pleasant transition back home after the year.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the national director of NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a division of the Orthodox Union.