Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the Year in Israel

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imageFlipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the Year in Israel
Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson and Chaim I. Waxman
Yashar Books
Brooklyn, New York, 2007
235 pages

Reviewed by Shana Yocheved Schacter

Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the “Year In Israel,” written by Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson and Chaim I. Waxman, with the help of a grant from Yeshiva University, documents the changes that some Modern Orthodox young adults undergo as a result of a year or more of Torah study in Israel upon graduating high school. The book describes their newly adopted serious commitment to the primacy of Torah learning and the observance of mitzvot, the diminished value of secular education in their eyes and the premium they place on a life sheltered from the non-Orthodox Jewish world. These shifts are evidence of a phenomenon known as “flipping,” which is often regarded with concern by parents and American yeshivah teachers, administrators and rabbis because of the different trajectory assumed by the returning young adults and the conflict this often creates. In recent years, the phenomenon of “flipping” has become commonplace. Consequently, it has been on the agenda at a number of communal conferences and is even the subject of a well-known song by a popular Jewish band.

The issue is complex. How do parents strike the right balance between staying involved in their children’s lives and not being intrusive or controlling? What about the possibility that parents may unconsciously guide their children on a particular course in an effort to correct the gaps in either their own religious or secular education, or both? Do parents feel threatened by their children’s changing identities because it raises serious questions about their own balance of religious, secular and materialistic values? How closely do parents need their children to mimic their own choices and lifestyles? Parents’ honest, personal introspection, as well as respectful communication with their children, is essential in allowing them to share and take pride in their children’s growth.

While concerns about “flipping” have been addressed in print over the past fifteen years, Flipping Out is the first joint attempt by an educator, psychologist and sociologist to articulate the issues. The book takes the next step in examining the historical, social and psychological dynamics that help parents and professionals comprehend this multi-layered and complicated phenomenon. Through first-person accounts of young adults who studied in Israel for the year, we hear about their understanding of the influences that accounted for their personal choices.

Of course, the adolescent who does not study in Israel is equally impressionable as he attends college in a new environment, away from home.

How do parents strike the right balance between staying involved in their children’s lives and not being intrusive or controlling?

The year in Israel is different, however, because of the exceptionally powerful role of teachers in Israel who influence the minds and lifestyles of their students through contact in the classroom, as well as through personal, emotional and spiritual experiences outside the classroom during free time and on Shabbatot and chagim.

The dissonance resulting from the differences between life in many yeshivot in Israel and the typical Modern Orthodox experience is significant. The prominent place of Religious Zionism, the openness to secular culture, the role of women in serious Torah study and religious rituals, the positive values of higher education and worldly culture and the maintenance of a respectful relationship with non-Orthodox Jews are all fundamental components of Modern Orthodoxy. In many Israeli yeshivot, however—and there are certainly differences among them—teachers forbid, or diminish the importance of, higher education, applaud a life isolated from secular influences and non-Orthodox exposure and idealize women’s traditional role of being exclusively wives and mothers.

It is important to note that the Modern Orthodox teen who embraces a Chareidi lifestyle can do so in an emotionally balanced and thoughtful way. In some cases, however, “flipping” may be indicative of deeper problems. Sometimes adolescents are “shipped off” to seminaries and yeshivot by frightened educators and parents who are grasping at straws for a solution to the teenagers’ social or emotional problems, or both. Of course, it is possible that a young adult who “flipped” is not in the throes of a rebellion or an emotional crisis masked by an intense focus on Torah study and religious ritual. Nevertheless, any extreme changes in a teenager’s behavior and beliefs should be taken seriously and examined carefully. Psychotherapy is an important resource that can help in this area.

It is important to respect the choices our children make as adults, and to allow them to recognize and appreciate the ramifications. By rejecting a parent or child, one creates a power struggle that prevents an honest assessment of the conflict. Longstanding expectations may be replaced with new realities as children reject Ivy League colleges (or college at all), and finding new ways of maintaining a connection between parent and child may be necessary. Honest and respectful conversations will allow and ensure growth and harmony.

The first section of Flipping Out, written by Dr. Berger, describes the history and progress of the year-in-Israel phenomenon. He notes that despite the intensity of the yeshivah experience, most students, when returning home, do not embrace radically different life goals and do not abandon their college plans, although they do become more committed to Jewish law and Jewish learning and to considering aliyah. He also cites varied reactions from parents, ranging from those who are horrified at the prospect of their child changing his way of dressing to those who embrace the changes in their child as they are grateful he is no longer the rebellious teen he was in high school.

Significantly, Dr. Jacobson does not try to offer a single explanation for “flipping.” One must recognize the vast differences among “flipping” students with respect to motivation, emotional and psychological realities, family background and personal hopes and fears. Providing a sociological perspective, Dr. Waxman notes that though peers are a significant influence on adolescents, relationships between parents and children play the most important role in the adolescent developmental process. The level of parental religiosity, or the lack of it, appears to be the most reliable predictor of a child’s religious commitment. In my practice, I have observed that when children feel a serious lack of spirituality and religion at home and sense an emphasis on professional and material success, they tend to be more receptive to their yeshivah teachers in Israel in an effort to achieve a more spiritually meaningful life. Others may “flip” to avoid the pressure of competing in the academic or business worlds, while still others “flip” to separate from exceedingly controlling or intrusive parents. These are all extreme cases. However, these explanations highlight that the phenomenon of “flipping” defies facile generalization.

A significant omission in the book is a serious study of the effects of the year in Israel on young women. One cannot help but be struck by the picture of a large black hat on the book cover, clearly conveying the message that the book addresses conflicts specifically related to young men. Worse, perhaps, is the implication that if young women “flip” it is less consequential than if young men do. Though Dr. Jacobson acknowledges that his statistics focus on young men, and he refers the reader to the work of other psychologists for information about young women, he also suggests that one can extrapolate about young women in many of the cases. This may sometimes be true, but there are many differences between young men’s and young women’s experiences in yeshivah in Israel that should have been acknowledged. In fact, I would suggest that the effect of a year’s study in Israel may have more repercussions for women than for men, especially in those cases where young women adopt a more traditional and home-based lifestyle, since they will shape the lives of their children—the next generation.

Finally, the book lacks suggestions on how to best help families of children in the throes of “flipping.” What advice can be offered to families as they face strong shifts in their child’s personal, religious and educational choices? While no single book on this subject could possibly deal with all the issues “flipping” raises, some practical ideas would have been appropriate. Perhaps a sequel will include a guidebook for parents on developing and maintaining relationships with adult children who chose a different path in life. Change is threatening to all of us and must be processed carefully, with sensitivity and respect, even during times when the feelings of rejection, anger, confusion and guilt may be at their peak.

The year in Israel can result in substantial emotional and intellectual changes. Open, honest and respectful communication will help young adults solidify their gains in the context of their own lives, in their relationships with their parents and in their future relationships in the years to follow.

Shana Yocheved Schacter, RCSW, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2009.

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