Orah Wilens

Gap Year in Israel? Dialectical thinking can help

The gap year in Israel has become a given for many Jewish students after graduating high school. A year in Israel can be a source of growth, a place to gain perspective and develop self-actualization. But for students that struggle with mental health issues, achieving these goals may well be out of reach.  

Leaving home and being an ocean away in a new environment is challenging enough. Sadly, many gap year programs, including seminaries and yeshivas, don’t have a full understanding of the mental health struggles students are dealing with, and especially how those struggles affect religious growth.  I’ve heard countless stories from students who were told by teachers or administrators to “just push through and to keep going,” or to “take on more religious stringencies,” and that “everything would be okay.” The problem is that those staff members, who likely lack professional mental health training, don’t understand that what they are communicating to their students can be at best ineffective, and worse, actually detrimental.  

Learning dialectical thinking

While we mostly do this naturally, dialectical thinking is simply the ability to view issues from different perspectives and come to the most reasonable resolution of seemingly contradictory information. In his brilliant philosophical essay Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l,  addresses this through the duality of an individual’s role in the world, specifically, how a person of faith copes with loneliness in a narcissistic, materialistic society.

Rav Soloveitchik cites the two narratives in Genesis of the creation of man, calling them Adam I and Adam II, and his role in each version. Adam I was commanded to build the world and master it, and is therefore concerned with the “how,” specifically, how to resolve society’s hardest problems and challenges and create solutions. He desires to be in control and is in constant pursuit of bettering the world, continually asking himself how he can do that. In contrast to Adam I’s utilitarian mindset, Adam II is more focused on the existential “why” questions of life. He grapples with his place in society and is fueled by his pursuit of finding meaning and purpose in life. Adam II is not commanded to rule the world, but rather to work and guard it.

Living a life of balance: Self actualization

This dialectic, says the Rav, offers insight into how to live one’s life to the fullest. He proposes that it is through the lens of both Adam I and Adam II that an individual can come to self-actualization. The story is not about Adam I versus Adam II, but rather an aspiration to find synthesis between these two seemingly opposite pursuits, and to recognize that in order to live up to one’s potential, one needs to work on living a life of balance.

These two sides of our nature are in constant conflict with one another. Self-actualization can only exist when we work to think dialectically, to build a synthesis between both sides of ourselves. Rather than holding up a rigid lens to life, we can introduce nuance to seemingly black and white situations. Dialectical thinking helps us recognize the importance of having a framework and hierarchy to outline one’s growth, while at the same time, recognizing the importance of not getting caught up in a linear definition of growth.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, perhaps best-known in the field of self-actualization, described a hierarchy of five basic human needs that must be met to reach self-actualization: physiological, safety, love and belongingness, esteem, and finally, self-actualization. Maslow explains that motivation is based on individuals looking for fulfillment and change and demonstrates the importance of having one’s lower needs met to climb that pyramid. For example, a student who is hungry and tired will find it challenging to focus on their studies. That student needs to fill their baseline physiological needs first before their cognitive needs can be met. Self-actualized people are fulfilled, says Maslow, because they are living up to their potential and doing everything which they are capable of doing.  

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Training as a DBT therapist in Israel has led me to understand the importance of being able to internalize the nuance of Maslow’s pyramid, especially noticeable in my work with young women in Israel for their gap year, particularly those in seminaries. Many are grappling with mental health issues and question how their newfound religious growth will fit into their lives.

Many students come to Israel very motivated to learn and grow but can become frustrated by mental health struggles that are holding them back from their spiritual pursuits. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help students conceptualize a religious and mental health roadmap, which helps them recognize that before they can fully focus on spirituality and self-actualization, they may need to work on the lower rungs of the pyramid. The nuances of this model help students understand that yes, they will be able to learn and gain from their time in seminary/yeshiva, but if they work at developing a better understanding of their mental health, they will gain even more from their experience.

Rav Soloveitchik and Abraham Maslow challenged us to strive for a lifestyle of balance and see the world through a different perspective to ultimately bring them a more holistic means to self-actualization. With the right preparation and mental health support, these students can have a successful gap year in Israel.

About the Author
Orah Wilens works as a leader of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills groups at Machon Dvir, and also sees individual clients. She earned a master’s in social work at Wurzweiler School of Social Work in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Orah’s experience includes fieldwork at the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, where she ran programming and support groups for older adults. As a long-time advisor for NCSY, a Jewish youth group under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, she mentored teens for the organization’s Midwest and West Coast regions, and was a staff member on its Israel summer programs. Orah is the co-founder of 4G NCSY, the first NCSY program specifically for girls. Originally from Chicago, Orah graduated from Touro College with a B.A. in Psychology.