Set Back

At a wedding recently, an acquaintance began a discussion about the groom and the young men in attendance. His comments were not new — “Why is it that all these boys are now wearing a ‘gartal’ when their fathers and grandfathers never did? “They all now wear only dark suits and white shirts. That is not how their parents dressed.”

The conversation progressed from there and while no one involved seemed to overtly be passing judgement some of the parents whose sons were included in the scene did express dismay, even frustration. One father said “I see this as a setback. There is no reason my child can’t be engaged in the world and still be very ‘frum’. But he and his yeshiva mates have become withdrawn, disconnected.” The exchange reminded me of an article I read quite some time back.

In 1974 Dr. Larry Berkower, a Detroit based psychiatrist, published a candid article in the Journal Tradition. The Journal which bills itself as “A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought” ran the article under the title “Emotional problems of Yeshiva students.” The article is fascinating even today, some 44 years later, because not too much has changed, at least not for the better. Maybe some of the problems he noted have become even more concretized.

In his introduction to the article Dr. Berkower states the obvious caveats. These include that the concerns he is writing about apply only to “a small fraction of yeshiva students” and “yeshiva students would compare most favorably with students taught in the permissive atmosphere of our present day public school system.” While some can quibble about the latter comment arguing that some studies report that yeshiva high school students have a somewhat higher rate of anxiety disorders than their public-school cohorts that is a hard to quantify finding as many yeshiva students are not available to be researched. The reason for that seems to have more to do with institutional resistance to having their students included in such research for fear of a negative outcome.

Dr. Berkower began the core of his thesis with the question “How do emotional problems develop in a yeshiva student?” He goes on to point out that the rabbis in some seminaries become parental substitutes and as role models may create a level of disagreement between what the parents seek for their child and what the rabbis want their student/surrogate child to become. Also, he refers to some of the behaviors of the students as “schizoid” which implies a level of social detachment and limited emotional expression a portion of which is due to a dearth of emotional support in the yeshiva setting.

These concerns, rabbi as role model in surrogacy for parents and students developing schizoid aloofness, apply to vulnerable individual students. Their personalities may be what creates an idiopathic dependency that should be addressed with a combination of parental involvement and appropriate counseling. The greater issues that Dr. Berkower raised are the institutionally based concerns.

“Institutional Chauvinism” as defined by Dr. Berkower is something that goes well beyond school pride. It may not exist in all yeshivot but when it does exist it creates an environment for all the students that causes them to essentially demean other yeshivot and those who attend them despite how devout the others are. There is a sense that there are “warring factions” between these different schools. Rather than allow for a big tent view of what a Torah based life is and how to include as many as possible in that framework divisiveness rules. In 1974 Dr Berkower pointed out that there is competition for the best students between these yeshivot and that contributes to the conflict, but he also noted that economic factors play a part. These very same issues remain today.

In psychology, the phrase institutional syndrome refers to deficits or disabilities in social and life skills, which develop after a person has spent a long period living in mental hospitals, prisons, or other isolated institutions. Berkower pointed out that this syndrome is not uncommon for yeshiva students who have “had little contact with a variety of career alternatives in the outside world.” As a result, yeshiva students latch on to a yeshiva life not because they choose to but because they lack a sense of independence and personal security to allow themselves to explore all the options that may be available and instead opt for an insular path.

To overcome these possible pitfalls Dr. Berkower suggested five interventions. First and foremost is need for parents to carefully select the yeshiva for their child. It should be a place with staff that is “mature, warm and inspiring.” He also suggests that it should be a yeshiva with an independent counseling system concerned only with the needs of the student. The yeshiva should also have social, recreational and sports activities available to reduce tension. The yeshiva should be aware of each students’ particular strengths and talents and gear its program toward individual student needs. And finally, Berkower recommended that the students in the yeshiva should have contact with the outside community to “expose them to a variety of career alternatives and living styles.”

I would add just one more. If you do not wish to see a “setback” in your child, you need to stress your own family mesorah and prepare them for what they may be exposed to outside of the home. This applies to not only their seminary experience but college, should they opt to go. This should not happen at the last minute, just prior to the student flying off for his gap year in yeshiva. It should be an ongoing discussion. After all, discussing a family mesorah is linked with a healthy sense of personal efficacy and resilience!

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York. He is the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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