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Live and Learn

Coming back from seminary in Eretz Yisrael is always an adjustment, but this year’s homecoming is unique. A seasoned mechanches tackles the issues you may be facing


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arch 12, 2020 has become known to seminary girls as That Thursday.

It had been a hectic few weeks. Seminary play season, Israeli election drama, and most importantly, Purim: Chagigah prep, yemei iyun, mishloach manos tumult, and Purim seudah plans in and out of Yerushalayim.

Thursday, the day after Shushan Purim, was slated to launch the productive two weeks of serious learning before Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Pesach break.

Instead, morning dawned to the realization that coronavirus was real. Flights were starting to look iffy and girls realized they’d better figure out where they wanted to get stuck after Pesach because restrictions were tightening. Girls who had been planning to go home made the quick decision to stay put in seminary, and many who intended to stay were scrambling for tickets.

That was in the morning.

As the day went on, the changing directives from the Israeli government were coming so fast we could hardly keep up.

By noon everything had been turned on its head, and by late afternoon, as the Eastern Seaboard was barely washing negel vasser, we were already saying goodbye to waves of girls heading for the airport. Twelve hours later, they were home.

I’m always amazed by my students. Naysayers talk about “kids these days” and millennials, but if you want to reignite your faith in humanity you should meet the girls I know. In conversations with students, I’m hearing about excellent coping skills, beautifully adjusting relationships, and continued growth and learning.

Nonetheless, the challenges are real. Here are some of what seminary girls may be facing — and ways to rise above.

Help! I’m Mortal!

You realized it wasn’t The Perfect You arriving back home, with flaws a thing of the past. And yet, join the club, you may still be disappointed by just how human you really are. Your davening may have suffered, or you may have slipped regarding entertainment options you never wanted to go near again. Perhaps bad middos you thought you’d beat are rearing their heads. Changed circumstances means adjusting to different challenges.

This might be the first time in your life that your time is your own and what you’re doing now is very telling. What if it’s showing you that you’re not nearly as strong as you thought?

Our social circle is the most powerful source of influence we have. If your friends are staying strong, you should be doing well, too. If you’re sliding, my guess is you’re not as connected to your growth-oriented friends from seminary as you could be.

Find out what girls are up to. How do they avoid keeping their afternoons from falling into disappointing patterns? Brainstorm together and be there for each other. There’s powerful strength that can be drawn from the company we keep.

As for failure, it’s not an unfortunate detour, but part of the program. In Rav Hutner’s famous words:

The tzaddik will fall seven times and get up. The unintelligent think that this means, “Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will get up.” The wise know well that this means, “Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will get up.” (Igros U’Kesavim, pp.217–218) 

Failure, when used properly, makes you great.

One of the biggest mistakes when you break your diet and take a truffle is to give up and finish the entire box. Life is not all or nothing. If you’re sliding, cut your losses. Don’t wallow in negativity or give up. Rather, force yourself to put on the brakes and move past it. If you can do better today than you did yesterday, you’re a heroine.

In Eretz Yisrael you were running a marathon. Now, without your consistent trips to the Kosel, with roommates scattered across the globe, and distance learning, you’re running a marathon with weights on your feet. What looks like less ground covered is not any less impressive.

 

It’s Just Not the Same

I hear you loud and clear. You’re not feeling as inspired anymore and not growing like you were in seminary.

I’m going to say it, but you know this already: Greatness doesn’t come from feeling inspired. At best, inspiration is like lightning in a dark rainy forest; it lets us ascertain that we’re headed in the right direction. Or you might want to look at it like a free taste in an ice cream shop so we’ll be willing to pay the price for the whole package — in this case, the hard work to achieve spiritual improvement. That high you get from a great class or beautiful kumzitz is a good start, but fleeting. It makes you feel good but doesn’t mean you are good.

I assume many deep thinkers among the nations were excited by Kri’as Yam Suf, but only Yisro and Rachav actually showed up. Chazal tell us that many Yidden were inspired by the Makos to almost leave Mitzrayim — but almost didn’t count. Deep thoughts and inspiration can only take you so far.

We need to push when it’s hard and experience discomfort in order to grow. Easy growth leads to easy loss of that growth; the real change is being cemented now when you move forward despite the drag.

Remember your journal from seminary? If you start writing in it again, you can look back after a few weeks or months and see that you really are going places.

My Brother Told Me I’m a Flip-out

Here are the typical scenarios: Someone’s looking for you, getting frustrated because you’re not answering. You’ve finally been found davening Minchah in your favorite corner. Or you’re asked, whatever happened to that dress you always lived in, but let’s face it, you knew it was never really okay. A look of realization dawns and you get the drawled, “Oh, seminary flip-out, huh?”

Let’s be clear. Although expressed inelegantly, that was a compliment.

Someone noticed that you took advantage of your time in Eretz Yisrael. Don’t get defensive, just have your comeback waiting. You could make do with a simple “Thanks!” or “I guess it takes one to know one.” Either way, being proud of who you are is a great formula for holding on to your growth.

I remember a high school girl telling me, “When she came back from seminary, we teased my older friend from shul about her frum haircut, longer skirts, and kavanah. But six months later, when she couldn’t take the pressure and acted like the rest of us, we felt she’d let us down. Why’d she take us so seriously?” The way to avoid backsliding is by standing up tall and proud.

My Sister Says I’m Extreme

One person’s extreme is someone else’s normal, depending on so many factors. However, certain words are just plain loaded and intended to be that way. Rarely is someone labeled “extreme” as a compliment. “Fanatic” is a close relative.

It’s unfortunate when, rather than trying to understand or accept, a friend or peer becomes negative. But what if your path really is unhealthy?

I’d like to recommend you keep two questions in mind: First, can you still have a good time with your friends? What you call “fun” might change, and there are introverts and extroverts, but you need to be able to enjoy society as you always did.

Second, are you comfortable with how you look and do you feel like that’s the familiar you staring back at you from the mirror?

A negative answer to either question would trouble me. This is a particularly important area in which to have a rav or mechaneches to turn to. A trusted outside voice is helpful in assessing when “extreme” is a problem.

There’s a Lot of Helping Expected Here! 

So we agree. If you grew in seminary, that’s good, but if you want to stay integrated and healthy, you need to make sure you’re not going too far too fast.

Here’s the one exception: kibbud av v’eim.

Your parents gave you everything and spent a lot of time, energy, and money sending you to seminary. Call it flipping out, call it extreme, call it fanaticism, but I have yet to hear of parents complaining about kids who came home a bigger mensch.

No reasonable parent expects their child to be their clone, and differences in lifestyle decisions are to be expected between parents and children. But if you commit yourself to speaking nicely under all circumstances and doing things to make your parents’ lives more comfortable, it will go a long way in helping you work out any disagreements that arise between you.

My Mother Gets Cold and Tells Me to Put on a Sweater

You’ve had a great year. You’re not the same person who left last summer: You’re more thought out, more mature, more responsible. That’s great, but your family isn’t fully familiar with the new and improved you. After all these months, everyone has to get used to each other again.

There’s another aspect to this. You’re not used to maneuvering within a home setting and having to take other family members’ expectations into consideration. You’re used to doing things your own way.

But back in the days before you left for seminary, it was a given that your parent would ask you when you’re going to sleep or make suggestions about what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Now, after managing on your own all year, it rankles.

All of you need to adjust. I recommend a three-pronged approach:

First, don’t overreact. Being asked when you’re going to sleep, or a suggestion to put on a sweatshirt is no big deal.

I realize it’s not always as benign as that, and often the issue is larger. What if your parents want you to go to an Ivy League college, and you want to do an online degree? Or you want to have yourself assessed and treated for a mental health issue you feel has been hindering you and your parents feel it will benefit you more to continue dealing with it on your own?

Step number two is to communicate. Plan for earlier in the day when you’re less emotional (we’re home, remember?), after you’ve thought things through and even made yourself some notes. Stay calm and logical, and be prepared to compromise when you can.

Finally, have patience. Don’t give up if you don’t see immediate results. You were gone for six months, give yourself — and those around you — time.

I Can’t Decide What to Do

What if you’re just not sure how much compromise room you have, either because there are halachic parameters, like in the college example, or you have doubts about your emotional limitations, like the girl who wants to go for an evaluation?

One of the greatest gifts you can grant yourself is an outside address for advice. Many girls straight out of high school have never asked a rav a sh’eilah or spoken with a teacher of their own volition. By now, that’s probably changed. Reach out and strengthen your connection with a rav or teacher now, as decisions start cropping up.

A girl I know was having an unresolved issue with her parents over what kind of phone she should have. The differences were slight, but each side was holding their ground. Finally, her father gave her a slip of paper with a rav’s number on it. He suggested she call and promised to respect her decision if she came to it with the guidance of a posek. That’s superb chinuch. Putting aside the cell phone issue, this girl is learning how to reach out for guidance.

Contacting a rav or rebbetzin when an issue isn’t earth-shattering is a great way to open up a channel. Even a brief email when something comes up will ensure that when you really need that direction, you’ll feel comfortable being in touch. But even if you do show up out of the blue with a sh’eilah or needing advice, it’s not odd and there’s no reason to feel awkward.

Your parents are amazing and they love you more than anyone else ever will. However, as a parent, I know that sometimes an objective outside voice is invaluable. This will help you now, as you start career training and shidduchim. And investing in a connection with a posek or mentor — preferably both — will prove even more important down the road.

There Is No Way I’m Teaching

Having a mentor is important. Being a mentor can be even more so. I’ve found that the single most successful way to develop yourself in a positive direction is to give. Additionally, giving Torah over to others is a strong antidote against being negatively influenced. A person can’t breathe out and breathe in at the same time.

It’s morally awful out there, and some of that gets in here. If you want to resist being effected, influence others.

You say you’re not a teacher type, but there are plenty of ways to give over Torah. Partners in Torah is one idea. So is volunteering once a week at your high school. Call elementary schools in your area to ask if they know of kids who need tutors. And some of the most beautiful divrei Torah I see are from seminary alumni who send out parshah emails.

You may not be ready to commit to teaching as a long-term calling, but if you’re bright, personable, and excited about Yiddishkeit, how about teaching for a year or two until you’re trained for your chosen profession?

Full disclosure: I have an ulterior motive. Klal Yisrael rides on melamdei tinokos shel beis rabban (teachers of children) and recruitment is down these days. Some of the most talented and successful teachers I know started out as temps.

Either way, teaching Torah is hands down the best way to keep growing and a surefire method to ensure that you’re learning, which is imperative.

My Family Isn’t Interested in Joining My Nightly Mussar Vaad

When I said you should reach out to others, that’s not what I meant. Sure, I know mothers who have chavrusas with their daughters when they come back from seminary. One girl wouldn’t miss a word of my class because she reviewed it with her mother once a week over the phone.

Generally speaking, though, lie low. Yes, you’re excited and passionate, but be careful not to be annoying.

My dear mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Marcia Weinberg, is one of the most fantastic mechanchos I’ve ever encountered. She has a cartoon in her kitchen showing a packed, standing-room only New York City subway, and a man on a bench with two empty unclaimed seats next to him.

He’s holding a sign that says “Ask Me about My Religion.”

All the Things I’ll Do When Lockdown Is Over

The end of seminary is always a crossroads that comes loaded with expectations and anticipation. There’s a recurring problem of girls who finish seminary and rather than charge forward, they go into waiting mode. They have plans for “after they’re married” or “after they get a job.”

This issue is exacerbated now. We don’t even know what we’re waiting for. The uncertainty and lack of familiarity can be paralyzing. There’s a lot of murmurings of “waiting until this is over and then…”

I’m reminded of a story I heard from Rebbetzin Rochel Sorotzkin a”h. She was newly married and fleeing from Vilna to Shanghai with her husband, Harav Boruch Sorotzkin ztz”l. The last piece of advice she received from her father, Harav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch Hashem yikom damo, was to make every station in life feel permanent, even the train they were about to board for an 11-day journey across Russia.

She recalls spreading a tablecloth in the train compartment and keeping as similar a schedule as possible to home.

The young couple then had to take a boat from Vladivostok, Russia, across the Sea of Japan, and were told they’d be at sea for two days. They unpacked what they’d need, again put that tablecloth on a rickety little table in the corner, and got right into a schedule. She described how funny that seemed to other travelers who intended to simply live out of their suitcases for the short duration.

In the end, they were delayed on the ship for two weeks and in transit for six months. That time, she recalled, was constructive and positive for her. For most people, however, it was a lot of wasted time, just waiting and living out of suitcases.

Every day is given to us for what can be accomplished on that specific day. Learn a sefer, take a course, or start a chesed endeavor you’ve always dreamed about. Get up in the morning and go to sleep at night with a plan of what to do in between. Stop waiting and start living.

Turbulent Take-off, Soft Landing

In years gone by, when a seminary girl got off the plane from Eretz Yisrael, she was faced with an acclimation that was confusing and challenging. City streets at home are jarring after months in Yerushalayim, summer school is a far cry from the classroom left behind, and tzniyus standards (or lack thereof) are difficult to navigate. June was a challenge.

Try March.

Pesach break was premature and your return to seminary is currently derailed. That’s the down side. But the streets outside your house are empty, summer semesters haven’t begun, and fashion pressure is nil. That makes life away from seminary a lot easier and provides an opportunity for staying strong and getting stronger.

The Gemara relates a perplexing account:

Rabba bar Chana said, ‘One time we were traveling on a ship and we saw a certain fish. It had sand on its back and there was grass growing on it, so we thought it was an island. We went up and baked and cooked on it but when the fish felt the heat, it flipped over. Had a ship not been nearby, we would have drowned. (Bava Basra 73b)

Rav Yerucham Levovitz explains (Maamarei Elul Tishrei, p.65):

“This is certainly a mashal, and the hidden message is as follows: A person has to have insight into himself. Does he build his spiritual structures on hard ground and reality? Because he may delude himself that he’s building on dry land, and comfortably strolls around…but if it turns out to be a foundation which isn’t strong, it will start moving around, and not stay in place. It can flip over when threatened, and it turns out it was an [unstable] fish, and not a [secure] island and all that was constructed can sink and be wiped out as if it never happened.” 

The unexpected turn of events this year can be used to your advantage. What’s unfolding as you envisioned, and what isn’t? What did you rightly assume to be spiritually safe harbors, and when do you find yourself on shaky ground? What can you do to make your foundation rock solid?

Seminaries have done an astounding job of keeping classes going. You’re hearing end-of-year shiurim and messages about applying seminary to life while you’re already home. Additionally, your teachers from seminary are more available because it’s still your year and we know that.

You have a better idea now about what kind of classes you’re likely to stick with long term. You’ve looked around and thought about chesed options. You’re learning to balance old friendships with new.

What a unique opportunity to fuse your seminary self and your home self during this time. The same Yad Hashem that pulled the plug so unexpectedly on seminary life in Yerushalayim is also providing you an opportunity to build a sturdy bedrock for all your dreams and aspirations before this school year is over.

We’ve traveled a very long way since mid-March when floods of seminary girls rushed to Ben-Gurion airport. But the real road ahead is to continue sharing growth with all of Klal Yisrael.

 

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 693)

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