“Iguess the first question is, how did you get here?” I’m sitting across from Dovid, a yungerman in a prominent kollel in the Tristate area. He’s graciously agreed to meet with me for an interview about his experience leaving kollel. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he tells me his story.
“You’re facing the need to leave full-time learning and find something else to do with yourself. What’s brought you to this point?”
Dovid goes back to the beginning.
“Joining kollel was never really a decision for me, honestly,” he says. He describes his parents as being more modern-leaning than yeshivish, but “very into us finding our own paths.” Starting off in yeshivah in Brooklyn, Dovid followed the system to its natural conclusion, through mesivta, beis medrash, and finally kollel. After eight years in learning, his time in kollel has run its course. Dovid is now faced with the challenge of moving on.
“Did you have a plan going in for this?” I ask him a question he would have dreaded back when he was on the shidduch scene. “If you’d been asked while you were dating where you see yourself five years after marriage, what would the answer have been?”
The answer is an eye roll, followed by a sardonic, “Still in learning, of course.”
His face becomes somber. “I wouldn’t answer any differently right now.”
Dovid first noticed a decline in his learning about two years ago. At the time, he pushed the thought of leaving kollel out of his mind, telling himself that even with the decline, he was learning more than he would be if he were working.
He describes it as a justification. “I needed to feel like I was still tied to the yeshivah in order to feel valuable. This was my way of telling myself that I didn’t need to make any drastic changes.”
His learning continued to spiral downward. The pressures of a growing family and increasingly limited finances played a big role in that. “I found myself falling asleep a lot, or just not even bothering to show up.”
After a while, the rosh yeshivah approached Dovid and told him he might be better off looking into something else. He suggested accounting.
“What was that moment like for you?” I ask.
“Devastating,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was devastated. Also relieved.”
“Relieved in what way?”
“For the past two years, there’s been a little voice in the back of my head telling me I don’t belong here anymore. I’d been shoving it away. I would feel too guilty listening to it.”
“So the rosh yeshivah telling you to consider other options is a validation of that voice, in a way.”
“Exactly.” Dovid nods. “Maybe I’m not crazy to think about leaving after all.”
Dovid has spent the last year and a half still in yeshivah, still officially running three sedorim a day. He’s dabbled in chinuch courses. While the idea looks great on paper, he’s come to the conclusion that he’s not cut out for the front of the classroom. At this point, he’s not really sure what to do.
“I can’t even let myself consider a nine-to-five job. At least with chinuch, I could tell myself I’m still kind of in learning. If I couldn’t look at myself that way, I would feel devastated all over again.”
“How do you feel right now?”
He thinks for a moment. “Confused,” he offers. “I feel confused.”
It’s a jolting conversation to have. Yungeleit are viewed as the cream of the crop in our society. Their first years of marriage are dedicated to building homes based on Torah learning and self-sacrifice. What happens, though, when the time comes to leave the four walls of the beis medrash and venture out to work?
There are numerous organizations that offer guidance with finding and launching a career. However, leaving behind the trappings of a kollel lifestyle can be a very difficult emotional experience. Dovid speaks of both a blow to his own self-image, and of how he feels others see him. Are such feelings common? How long does it take to adjust to leaving kollel? What can help make it go more smoothly? What can be done on a community level to help soften the blow and enable former yungeleit to adapt to a new reality?
Dovid’s inner turmoil, unfortunately, is far from uncommon. From speaking to people who have left kollel and established themselves in careers, it becomes clear that a number of common threads run through their diverse experiences.
Yosef, like Dovid, spent eight years learning full-time. During that time his family grew, and he had to adjust his schedule to take on more responsibility at home, as well as to accommodate his wife’s expanding business.
“It came to the point that we had to change something,” Yosef told me during an interview. “Either I left kollel, or we had to find a different means of support.”
It was an easy decision on paper, but much harder in practice. “When I officially left seder, I felt like I was giving up on my dreams,” he says. “There was a long time where I looked at myself as a second-class citizen. I felt like people saw me as ‘that old washout.’ I’m not learning full-time anymore, and it’s made me feel less valuable.”
Moshe is currently in transition and hasn’t fully left yet, but he is going through a similar experience. “Until now, I always felt like I was part of a group. We would talk in learning, we’d discuss all the different kushyos and teirutzim. All the ins and outs of the sugya. Now, I’m working on career development during first seder. Even though I’m in the beis medrash for the entire second seder, I feel like my input isn’t valued as highly. I feel like I’m being sidelined.”
He reflects for a moment. “It’s like everyone looks at me differently, as if I’ve got one foot out the door. I feel like my ideas aren’t respected as much because I’m leaving.”
Is the change real? Is it Moshe looking at himself in a different light, leading him to feel more marginalized than he actually is? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a combination. I know that I used to look at people leaving that way. It makes sense that others might be seeing me in the same light.”
It’s a lonely feeling, compounding an already difficult period.
To address these issues, we have to get some clarity on where they stem from. Dovid reveals to me his feelings on the matter. “All through my life in yeshivah, learning has been presented as the epitome of avodas Hashem. Chinuch is a close second. The impression I always got was that doing anything less is settling. That’s probably how I ended up in kollel in the first place.”
His wife got the same message as part of her upbringing. “My wife is very uncomfortable with me leaving klei kodesh for an office job. For right now, it can’t even be on the radar.”
Moshe got the same impression, from a different route. “My family was always the go-to-work type, yeshivish-balabatish. They were respectful of kollel, but it wasn’t something they pushed for.” Kollel as a pinnacle of avodas Hashem obviously didn’t come from home. “My decision to learn after marriage was partially based on an appreciation of ”zlearning as an ideal. I think the other part was because that’s what everyone was doing.”
Yosef’s take led to a similar conclusion. “The message that I got from yeshivah,” he says, “is that learning Torah is the best thing you can possibly do. It’s what life is about. I love learning, and leaving kollel meant I wouldn’t be able to do it as much. I felt down about that.”
He thinks for a moment. “I think the second-class idea is because we feel like we’re being taught to learn and learn and learn, and then all of a sudden we’re not. We’re not doing what we’re told is the best, and we feel like people will look at us differently now that we’re not doing what our rebbeim taught us to do. We’re taught what first class does, and we’re just not doing that anymore.”
So how does that feeling play out over time? Do people come to terms with it? Do they learn to just live with it, or is there a way past it?
Yosef has been out of kollel for about two years, and says he’s been able to change his perspective a lot. “For a few months after leaving, I just felt really bad about it. I was down, I felt bad about myself. Then I came to the realization that this is where I am right now, with this set of circumstances, because this is where I need to be. This is what Hashem wants. As for what everyone else thinks and how they look at me, I can’t let that matter.”
He describes it as putting himself in a bubble. “In my bubble, I don’t need to worry about what people think of me, whether it’s as a second-class citizen or a superstar. I’m just me. I’m comfortable with that.”
How was he able to make that work? “I’ve always been very independent-minded. I always had my own projects, and my own drive. It’s just a matter of using my independence in that way.”
Daniel, another former kollel yungerman, was able to tap a different resource. He’s been working for three years, and says his rebbi has been his lifeline. “Sure, I initially felt disappointed. It’s hard to leave. I knew I was doing the right thing, though. I was in close contact with my rebbi, with whom I’ve always had a strong relationship. I consulted with him at every turn. I know I’m doing the right thing.”
He speaks with an air of certainty. “My career isn’t turning out exactly as I had expected, and learning is definitely more of a struggle now than it used to be. But I know I’m where I need to be. Some people blame the system. I don’t.”
Ephraim’s path was more winding, with occasional bumps. “My kollel experience wasn’t what you might call typical,” he explains. “I wasn’t really part of the chaburah for most of the time that I was there. I had my own limudim, learned a lot with younger bochurim, and in fact had a few times when I almost left when I felt it wasn’t working well enough.”
His transition to work was also not typical. “Throughout my time in yeshivah, I always had a very close relationship with my rebbi. I would clear my limudim and all my plans with him. Leaving to go to work was no different. An opportunity suddenly came up, and it made sense for us. Rebbi said to go for it, and I did.”
Ephraim, Daniel, and Yosef all seem to have arrived at the same conclusion, albeit through different doors: A person needs to feel comfortable with what he’s doing and where he is in life in order to properly play his role in life, whether it’s yungerman, job searcher, or professional.
Doubts hold a person back — whether they’re about his ability to follow through, or about his direction. If a person truly believes he is where he should be, he’ll be able to make peace with it. Some people may arrive at this understanding through introspection. Some people have guidance. As we see through these stories, though, success rides on taking advantage of underlying strengths. Ephraim’s and Daniel’s relationships with their respective rebbeim, and Yosef’s sense of independence and self-awareness, enabled them to prevail in the end, but those assets were a long time in the making.
We’re left with two questions. First off, what can be done for those who are already on their way out, and haven’t yet been able to develop these resources for long-term emotional security? These people need a way to feel better about themselves and the way they present themselves to others. Creating a relationship with a mentor might be very difficult to do effectively at this point.
Secondly, what can be done on a communal level to help yungeleit who aren’t yet facing the challenge of leaving kollel? A few small investments might save them a significant degree of pain and heartache down the road.
Ephraim has some ideas. “Just as there’s such a thing as a chassan shmuess, for when you get married, to help you acclimate to a situation you’ve never had to deal with before, there should also be an exit shmuess, for leaving kollel.”
He’s actually been working on the framework for one himself, with his rebbi’s oversight. “Life really does change in a lot of ways when you go to work, depending on the circumstances. It’s not just that you’re not learning anymore — you’re in a completely different world sometimes. You may have to adjust your expectations, and understand that it’s perfectly okay to do that. You may have to prioritize things that until now weren’t as important. Things that used to be important may not be such high priority anymore.”
These kinds of decisions can’t be made alone. “The shmuess shouldn’t be a one-shot deal, either. There should be a connection, where the person giving the shmuess reaches out periodically. The yungerman should understand that the door is always open for him, so to speak.”
Such a plan not only gives a departing yungerman a concrete grounding for how to look at himself, but also plants the seeds for a potential guiding relationship, if there isn’t one already.
Aharon, a former yungerman and current psychotherapist, has another idea. “Many yungeleit just don’t have any exposure to working people beyond their family. A lot of the feeling of being second class comes from just not knowing what an erlicher balabos looks like. Set up yungeleit with balabatim to learn weekly, even. Let them get to know their chavrusas. This can form a mentoring relationship, to the point where they may see leaving kollel as an opportunity for growth, instead of the end of growth.”
Both Aharon’s and Ephraim’s ideas could potentially work. Either initiative could provide opportunities for people in kollel to build solid mentoring relationships with trusted individuals, and gain an appreciation of what life is like after kollel. The “fear of the unknown” would be reduced, and might instill in them more of a sense of appreciation for post-kollel possibilities.
Either plan could provide yungeleit a clear vision to help them chart the journey forward into life beyond kollel. and if executed properly, could possibly improve the ways young men leaving the beis medrash look at themselves and the world.
A weekly learning seder with members of the community, though, may not be enough to promote a healthy self-image. In order to ensure the emotional well-being of departing yungeleit, a deeper systemic change might be useful.
To understand what kind of change might be helpful, it’s important to look at the way the system works now. These young men have reported feeling that they’re “less than,” like second-class citizens. Being in yeshivah full-time insulates yungeleit from feeling that way. For these individuals, positive self-image is at least partly related to their being affiliated with full-time learning. The need for this kind of self-image is so strong, it can push aside other more practical considerations. Even financial well-being can be pushed aside for the sake of preserving the prestige of being in kollel.
This can have negative effects on a person’s spouse and family, especially if there is a certain misprioritization that happens during this struggle. It’s hard to let go of the dream of long-term, full-time learning. Not being able to let go and put it into proper perspective is what causes the guilty feelings after leaving. On an intellectual level, the person might know he’s doing the right thing. Emotionally, though, he’s just not up to it. He feels stuck in his feelings of loss.
To help people get past that, there are two points of action that might be worth considering.
First, for the yungeleit already in transition, regular and consistent support could be a lifesaver. Yeshivah alumni want to feel like someone is interested in how they’re doing, both emotionally and spiritually. Moving into the work force involves tremendous change —a potential culture shock, having to deal with unfamiliar kinds of people and schedules. People who no longer spend their day in the beis medrash don’t have the same access to what gave them spiritual anchoring and support in the past. These people need that connection now more than ever.
They’re also less likely to reach out for help, due to feelings of shame or guilt. Yeshivos could task someone with actively keeping in touch with these alumni, helping them understand that their struggles and experiences have value, independent of learning. They can still grow as people, and still maintain a real and valued connection to Hashem. The journey may be different, but the destination is the same.
The second point, and possibly even more important, is preventative in nature. The dichotomy between how people feel before leaving and how they feel after isn’t coming from nowhere. Although yeshivos do not intentionally give over the message that people who don’t learn all day are second class, at least some talmidim are picking it up. Talmidim certainly have a responsibility to clarify their perceptions of hashkafos with a rebbi, as well as how those hashkafos apply to them personally.
It’s also important that rebbeim understand their audience. There are boys who will not approach a rebbi in order to clarify an idea, especially if it’s presented as black-and-white. Rebbeim need to be able to have their fingers on the pulse of all the boys in their yeshivah on an individual level, and identify which ones may not come forward. These boys need to be approached and engaged.
Engagement with yeshivah boys is not a simple task. It requires an understanding of each boy’s family background, his personal history, and his current functioning. Each bochur needs to be looked at not just as a chavrusa or a masmid, but as a whole person. What are his strengths and weaknesses? What are his aspirations and fears? What drives him? Understanding these concepts can help a rebbi develop a case specific and personalized life hashkafah with each bochur or yungerman. In this way, kollel learning will be viewed as a part of a larger whole. A person’s growth in yeshivah can thus complement the greater framework of who he is as a whole person.
If the bochur can be helped to understand and accept himself as a whole person, and recognize the role full-time and intensive learning plays in the complex puzzle of his life, he may be able to view the eventual need to leave the yeshivah setting in a more healthy way. For this to happen, a strong and supportive relationship between rebbi and talmid needs to be in place well before the talmid even decides to enter kollel. Such a relationship could be cultivated as early as high school, at the same time that the hashkafah of full-time learning is introduced. The bochur who receives such attention may be able to more fully appreciate the time he spends in learning as a personal experience, as opposed to something “everybody does.” The decision to leave can also be made more comfortably, and with less damage to the individual’s self-concept.
In Alei Shur, Rav Wolbe ztz”l writes that yeshivah is not just a place where one goes to learn how to learn. It’s a place where one goes to learn how to live. If learning is indeed going to be an integral part of life, it might be beneficial for more focus to be placed on teaching for the whole life, not just the few years that are spent in yeshivah. —
Yeshaya Kraus, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Far Rockaway–Five Towns area. He works with couples, parents, and individuals, and is particularly passionate about the kollel exit experience, both from an emotional and logistical standpoint.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 750)
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