Last Monday night in Jerusalem, my family and I were walking home with thousands of people from a concert for Sukkot in Ir David, the remarkable archeological remains of King David’s ancient city, when I saw four young American yeshiva students, dressed in black and white, disrespectfully taking pictures of soldiers who were standing on the side to protect us. They were sticking their cameras in the soldier’s faces, an inch from their noses, and flashing right in their eyes. The soldiers grimaced and asked them to go away. I was disgusted by what I saw. I walked over to the yeshiva students and said, "These soldiers risk their lives for you. Should you really treat them like garbage?" The leader of the pack screamed at me, "It’s none of your business," and ran off with his friends. I walked over to the soldiers to apologize, but they rolled their eyes and told that they see way too many Americans coming to Israel and behaving like out-of-control idiots.
From there we walked to Ben Yehuda Street, where we saw the usual nightly parade of hundreds of American kids in Israel for their year after high school, either hanging out for hours on end, like so many lost sheep, or running amok, booze in hand, like wild jackasses.
In the famous and palpable divide between religious and secular in Israel, it is often overlooked just how often ostensibly religious American teens who come for their year abroad and behave like party-obsessed fools contribute to that divide. Secular Israelis read about the growing number of American students who are arrested for marijuana possession at their yeshivas, or the even more horrible story, last year, of a yeshiva student dying of a drug overdose, and this hardens their opinion that the religious are hypocrites.
Studying in yeshiva and seminary in Israel for the year after high school has become a rite of passage for thousands of American teens every year. I have a particular interest in the matter because this year my eldest daughter is one of those students in seminary. As a parent you’re not supposed to question the year in Israel. It’s part of the Jewish canon and creed. As far as the American Orthodox high schools are concerned, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he brought with him the 11th commandment: Thou shalt send thy high school graduates to Israel.
But questioning it is exactly what I have been doing on my trip to Israel for Sukkot. As you walk in the Jerusalem city center at night and see the often drunken American kids behaving like hooligans or just wasting so much of their year hanging out at boring caf?s, you wonder what they are gaining by being there. For many of these kids, Israel is really just a year of freedom, a time to spread their wings and shirk parental supervision. The problem is that it seems that some of the yeshivas aren’t really supervising them either, and they have way too much free time on their hands.
This is, unfortunately, the same impression that I gained last year when we visited as well. I saw so many American kids supposedly in a "yeshiva" who were drinking and humiliating themselves in front of secular Israelis who were then getting the mistaken impression that this is the way real yeshiva students behave.
Don’t get me wrong. I too came to Israel, of my own choosing, right after I graduated from high school. I studied in Israel for two years in the Chabad Yeshiva of Jerusalem. In terms of academic and spiritual growth, they were the two greatest years of my life. And the love and reverence that I gained for the Holy Land and the modern State of Israel from being there those two years have stayed with me my entire life. But without sounding self-righteous, I did not come to Israel seeking fun but Torah study. I was not concerned with freedom, but with a mastery of Judaism. I wanted to drink in the air of the Holy Land through the agency of Judaism’s greatest texts, rather than its pizza shops and shwarma stands. I was in a haredi yeshiva, where it was unthinkable that we would hang out with girls at outdoor plazas. No one even warned us that if we did so we would be kicked out. The very mention of such a prohibition would have been ludicrous, because whatever flaws we had as students, one of them was not that we thought that yeshiva meant being on Ben Yehuda flirting every night. Today, so many of the yeshivas and seminaries have elaborate rules of what is allowed outside the yeshiva and what is not. Would it not be better to screen the students before they arrive to ensure that they’re looking for the right things when they come to Israel in the first place?
Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong believer in the year abroad in Israel, which is why I sent my daughter there, even though letting my baby girl go away from home — even at 17 — was painful. And my daughter was fortunate to have registered in a seminary that is serious and studious and where she is, thank God, flourishing. Even so, I try to keep an eye on her from abroad. Just because she is Israel does not mean that I should not check up on her, inspiring — but also warning — her to make the most of her year by vastly increasing her awareness of her Jewishness and the Holy Land rather than wasting it in restaurants.
The blessings that Israel can bestow on one’s Jewishness are incomparable, which is why the year in yeshiva in Israel is so important. But lax standards in many of the programs, and parents who don’t check up on their children, are undermining the integrity of the idea. Worse, this laxity is having a nefarious effect on the State of Israel itself. Israel doesn’t need out-of-control teens from abroad who arrive with a wealth of cash and a paucity of values. On the contrary, the Orthodox kids who come to Israel must know that being there is a privilege and a responsibility, that one’s actions in the Israel must accord with the holiness of the land, and that because they are ambassadors of both American Jewry and Orthodoxy, their behavior is being scrutinized by secular Israelis to determine whether American Jewry has lost its bearings, and whether Orthodox Judaism has lost its sincerity.