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Live and Learn: the conversation continues

My seminary year was cut short, now what?




here’s been a lot of feedback to the feature that examined the challenges of returning home from seminary prematurely. A number of the letters highlighted situations I suspect many may be facing. As Bassi Gruen told me, “for every letter that came in, there could be another hundred girls with the same issue. Write a follow-up.” Here it is.


Live and Learn

Isn’t it what’s inside that counts?
My family expected me to “frum out” in seminary — but I didn’t. They comment and joke when I do things they expected I’d avoid after seminary. Should I use this as a springboard to meet to their expectations and “prove them wrong”? I may have not changed much on the surface, but I grew internally!

Taking things on to prove others wrong is never a good idea; growth needs to be internally motivated. It’s difficult to deal with people’s disappointment, but the real trouble here is that you sound disappointed in yourself.

I’m curious as to what you mean by changing internally but not externally. Real internal change usually impacts us externally, albeit sometimes subtly. If you love holiness, you act holier. If you love Torah, you act more Torahdig. If someone has stronger feelings about Yiddishkeit, that’s awesome. But if they haven’t improved their mitzvos, it’s like taxiing the plane to the runway and not taking off.

When someone maintains she’s changed inside but not on the surface, those are often code words to convey that her tzniyus isn’t where she hoped it would be. That’s very much not a superficial issue.

There’s an opposite phenomenon that’s also true, as we see throughout Sefer Hachinuch: Changing your outward conduct will change you. Whether it’s an entertainment, phone, or language issue, adapt this tool. Give yourself a few weeks of acting as if you’ve reached the level you thought you’d be on. If my hunch is right, and this is a clothing issue, this approach is particularly effective. You’re not faking it, you’re trying it. You may surprise yourself.

And then there’s this:
Coming home early was terrible for me. I was waiting until after Pesach to pack in the serious hashkafah seminary offered. But now it’s over and I just have regrets.

I feel bad when I see girls floating through first semester, and this year that approach backfired big-time. Sometimes limited resources, including time, is a blessing in disguise.

Lahav Bais Yaakov is a half-year seminary with an extension until Nissan. Within a month, as other seminaries are barely settling in, the Lahav girls have already formed a cohesive group and are sprinting ahead.

You say you regret missed opportunities. Regret is not a bad thing. It can motivate us to change and improve. One idea, COVID-19 depending, is to return for another year or semester to Eretz Yisrael and make up for lost time.

However, associating religious growth exclusively with seminary is faulty thinking. The variety of learning options in chutz l’Aretz are breathtaking. Start your own if you want something that doesn’t yet exist. Growth is the work of a lifetime.


I need a navi to enlighten me
I’ve been really disturbed over how we were in seminary one second and then back home the next…. I think about how I acted in Yerushalayim, especially in the beginning of the year, and I’m embarrassed. I wonder if the message in this whole thing is that our behavior didn’t fit with the flavor of Eretz Yisrael as much as it should have.

You’re to be commended for trying to improve yourself when troubling events befall you. A general rule is that we each have the tools to read our own lives, so I have enough to do looking at myself in the mirror. Commenting on why things occur in other people’s lives is beyond my scope. We have daas Torah to guide us there.

That said, the issue you’re bringing up shouldn’t be dismissed. You gave me a lot to think about. Did I, as a seminary teacher, not adequately impart the idea of kedushas Eretz Yisrael? Is this underemphasized? I’m curious to hear from others if they also feel they’d up their behavior in the paltarin shel Melech (King’s palace) if able to do it again.

I’m doing relationship inventory
I had a group of friends in seminary that worked, but now that I’m home, I think it was just proximity that brought us together. I feel like I missed opportunities to connect with the girls I could have had a great year with.

The Rambam (Avos 1:6) lists three levels of friendship. Lowest is a friendship based on mutual gain and reciprocity, like roommates or business partners. Middle tier is people you honestly enjoy spending time with. You feel secure that your friend accepts you and you accept her. Highest is when you share goals and passion for the same ideals and build each other through that bond. Most girls dream of finding that top-level friendship in seminary, but not everyone does. It’s always easiest to connect to the people who are most available, but in future social forums, maybe remembering this experience will motivate you to choose differently.

Sometimes that post-sem friendship analysis leads to strong reactions:
My best friend from seminary let me know that she’s stopping our friendship because she now realizes that it’s too intense. She told me other friends feel the same way, and I need help.

Ouch, that hurts. Whenever we get negative feedback, the first question to ask is: Is it true?

If you feel it might be, realize that nowadays, there are unfair assumptions regarding what can be gotten from friendships. There’s hunger for deep connections coupled with emotional neediness. One way this expresses itself is expecting more availability, responsiveness, and maturity than a friend can provide. This also causes a loss of appropriate boundaries. I hope you’re able to get this back in a healthy direction.

Going forward, if you agree that you need to learn how to create boundaries that don’t come naturally to you, try the 60 percent rule. When you want to share, share 60 percent. When you get emotional, show 60 percent. It’s still you, but you keep some of yourself private.

I’m sorry you were given this feedback in such a hurtful way. For those champions of mental health out there, what should be done when friendship hits a snag?

Let’s get the biggest deal here off the table first. When it comes to this kind of situation, the “other friends think so also” thing is totally unacceptable.

If you’re trying to slice someone down to nothing, it’s impressively effective to use this strength in numbers. But if what you’re going for is civil discourse, this is not okay.

There are extreme cases of people needing to be confronted by several friends/relatives simultaneously, and then, with professional guidance and halachic input, what’s appropriate can change. But it’s hard to imagine friendships post-seminary that fall into that category.

Next, realize that the goal is not solving the world’s problems, but troubleshooting. The conversation should be about patching something specific in the friendship, not destabilizing someone’s sense of self with broad statements about their personality.

Even when problems are substantial, informing a peer that they have major problems is unhelpful. For that, turn to a professional, mentor, or rav.

Dropping the psychology jargon is also a good move. Not every standoffish girl is anti-social. She exaggerates, she’s not delusional. She tends to be emotional, please don’t call her psychotic. Not every bad week is a crisis, and not every intense teenager is enmeshed or codependent. Just because your friendship feels bumpy doesn’t make it toxic.

Finally, beware your own emotional state. After big shake-ups, like, say, a pandemic, relationships get stirred up. But before discovering previously undetected mental imbalances, make sure your own life is stable. Showdowns in female friendships often happen when the great confronter is dealing with her own predicament.

Cutting off relationships is all the vogue — and almost always a mistake. It’s generally a way of dodging dealing responsibly and maturely with what human relationships really are: flawed, human, and works in progress.

This might be serious
I’m not adjusting to being home. I feel like your advice was fine for girls doing okay, but I’m seriously not.

You don’t sound good and I’m worried.

Are you a slow adjuster who needs time? Was camp always better in August than July? Did you only start liking your roommates second semester?

This could be a physical issue. One girl developed intestinal problems in Israel but didn’t stick to her diet at home. Yes, she felt horrendous. Another was sluggish and decided she was depressed, but turned out to be anemic. A slew of emails I got were sent at unearthly hours. How do you expect to feel when you’re up at 4:30 a.m.? Three days of sane eating, sleeping, and exercise can work wonders.

Coming home from seminary is a huge adjustment. It can easily play up emotional weaknesses you battled in the past or trigger new ones. Life decisions such as shidduchim and career choices are stressful. Throw coronavirus into the mix, and it’s no wonder you have a bubbling brew of toil and trouble.

Speak to your parents or GP about getting to the bottom of this with a behavioral or medical assessment.

And keep in mind the words of Rav Dessler (chelek 5 p.89): “We learn that a time of despair is only such because that’s how it appears to our eyes, but in truth, behind the [difficult situation] stands a [potentially] great revealed light. It is incumbent upon us not to give in and not to give up and in that way, we will merit that great light.

Please let me know how you managed to move forward despite the difficulty.

No one size fits all

The ideas brought up by readers and students are thought-provoking. There are few black-and-white answers to these complex questions; it’s the beginning of a conversation. I invite you to continue it.

Mrs. Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 696)

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