The 5779 Yeshiva / Seminary Buyers Guide

It’s that time of year again. Israeli yeshiva and seminary representatives are arriving in the US to speak in high schools and present to parents at Israel fairs. And of course, students and their parents are beginning to ponder if yeshiva/seminary is right for them and. if so, which one.  At present, there are 23 programs for young men and 21 listed on the joint application for women. In addition, there are many co-ed programs, university programs, and Israel experience gap year programs of one stripe or another. In total, representatives of close to 50 different programs will be presenting at schools and Israel fairs. The seminaries and yeshivot offer a variety of superb programs with some of the most talented Jewish educators on the planet; however, the nuances and unique elements of each are sometimes lost during the 20 or so minute presentations given at Israel fairs.

I vividly remember schmoozing with parents at the conclusion of the major fair in New Jersey. The glassy-eyed family admitted that they were more confused after the event than before they started searching.

Often, when students arrive in Israel, they appear as deer caught in headlights with no clear understanding of what they have gotten themselves into. Beyond spending the academic year in Israel, they often don’t seem to grasp what the yeshiva/seminar program they have decided to attend offers or expects.

A further point to ponder is the manner in which students choose. Too often, students base their decision on where friends are going as opposed to which program is best suited for the student. Yeshivot and seminaries are not summer camps.  Usually, within a week or two, new friendships are made and groups are realigned. Like college decisions, students and their parents should look to see which program is best for them.

Here a few questions, suggestions, and issues students and their parents might want to consider this week and in the coming months.

Full disclosure: my wife and I teach in yeshiva/seminary programs in Jerusalem.

General issues:

Are you looking for a large program or a small one? How many students are in each course at any one time? While almost all the programs advertise sizable faculties, the crucial question is not how many members sit on the faculty but how many hours does each faculty member actually teach or spend in the institution? A well-known personality may appear on the brochure when he or she only teaches an hour or two a week. How much “quality” time will your son or daughter actually have with any faculty member?

Do you want an Israeli program, a program for students from outside of Israel, or a combination program?  Israelis and students from outside of Israel have very different needs.  Israelis, whose home is not far from the yeshiva or seminary, require less TLC, fewer trips and tiyulim, have different food expectations, and have lives outside the institution. If they are sick, they use the Israeli medical system and can go home whenever they need.  Foreign students’ entire world for the year consists of the school. Programs take this reality in consideration in radically different ways.

Will the faculty or Rosh Yeshiva know your son or daughter’s name? Does that matter to you? Some students prefer anonymity while others flourish in a more intimate environment. That the program has100 or more students demonstrates how many students they attract but probably also limits the amount of time and energy faculty members can devote to any one student.

Is the program more like Teaneck in Israel where the students remain in an environment they are used to or are they challenged outside their comfort zone to interact with Israeli peers? I know one parent who complained that Israelis in his son’s yeshiva were more like scenery than peers and others I know wish that their year in Israel had been spent with more time devoted to interacting with natives.

Some students thrive in urban areas which allow them to get out and experience the broader culture while others feel that the more isolated schools foster more religious growth with fewer distractions.

Worldview and philosophy:

As a teacher for almost 25 years and having taught high school, college students, and in several Israeli institutions, it seems to me that the role the yeshiva or seminary’s philosophy and worldview plays is often ignored when students make their decision. Most people reading this will probably be considering one of the many programs connected to Yeshiva University’s S. Daniel Abraham Israel program or a school on one of the joint yeshiva /seminary applications. The representatives are doing their best to be honest but also to attract students. They will all proudly announce that their program is “Modern” or “Central” Orthodox and “Zionist.” But those terms mean very different things to different people.

One question worthy of asking is the attitude towards secular studies. Will the school support a student’s decision to go to a secular college or will the rabbis try to talk students into switching to Yeshiva University? Will a student who plans to continue on to Yeshiva College or Stern find a supportive peer group? Which rabbis at YU do alumni of the yeshiva flock to? Does this rabbi’s philosophy jibe with the student’s parents? Or even further, does the faculty of the yeshiva suggest changing from YU to a more right-wing institution such as Lander College or Yeshivas Ner Yisroel or even not to go to college at all? Do the teachers at the seminary push marriage before college?

When I was the rabbi for the OU’s JLIC program at Brandeis, a student complained that when he was in Israel, he was told by one of the rabbis in his yeshiva on the first day that he was not going to go to Brandeis. This interaction jaded that student’s experience for the entire year.  Along those lines, I have met parents who later discovered that the rabbis at the yeshiva disparaged Yeshiva University and pushed their students to continue on to Haredi yeshivot instead of college. While students should be free to choose their direction in life, parents also deserve to know what viewpoints teachers of the yeshiva or seminary support.

What about relationships with past friends or students of the opposite sex? Does the yeshiva or seminary frown on relationships during the year? Do they make students “break up”?  What is their attitude towards coeducation generally? Does the yeshiva address sexual preference? What about racism? Does the yeshiva or seminar support political positions either Israeli or American or are the teachers careful not to discuss politics with students?  I’ve met parents who were very upset that the yeshiva took particular political stances and even pushed students to attend protests during the year.

How does the faculty discuss students’ home communities?

What does the seminary or yeshiva mean when they say they are Zionist? Do they support serving in the army? Do they push serving in Sherut Leumi or the army? What about the faculty? When they say they support serving, did the rabbis serve? Do they support their own children serving in the army? In Israel, not serving in the army is a major decision and attests to a particular attitude towards the State of Israel. Does the yeshiva say the prayer for the State of Israel and what does the seminary do on Israel Independence Day?

I think you get the picture. Seminaries and yeshivot are religious institutions and want to teach not only particular texts but also a worldview. Parents need to ask themselves what type of worldview they feel comfortable with. Many students at the beginning of adulthood adopt the worldview of dynamic teachers. If this position clashes with the student’s parents’ way of thinking, things might be less comfortable upon the student’s return.

 Technical details:

Each program offers a variety of benefits and elements that a student and their parents want; however, no program can offer everything and students need to prioritize those pieces which are more critical than others:

  • Does the yeshiva offer college credits? All those on the S. Daniels Abraham program do offer transcripts. Remember, it is up to the college to decide if they will accept credits from yeshivot and seminaries.
  • How much Hebrew is offered daily? Often yeshivot and seminaries offer a once or twice a week ulpan whereas universities demand a much more intense program. Some gap year style programs offer an immersion style experience. It’s hard to develop both modern Hebrew fluency and text skills at the same time and often the student has to choose what the focus should be.
  • Student Life – what is offered beyond classes?
  • Do students have time for music or other pursuits?
  • What, if any, sports facilities are available? Does the yeshiva attract students who participate in those activities?
  • Tiyulim – how often and to where? Almost every institution offers “seeing Israel with ‘Tanach’ in hand.” But there are objectively quantifiable factors such as where and when the trips take place. Also which trips are educational and which are just for fun and seeing the land? How do they integrate experiencing Israel?
  • What happens on both “in” Shabbatot and “out” Shabbatot? What happens if a student has nowhere to go for Shabbat? Who takes care of him or her? Must he or she leave the dormitory for an extended period of time? Who supervises students who stay in the building on “out” Shabbatot?
  • How much and what is the quality of food? Does the school ever run out of food? What happens then? What happens to make sure that students are eating properly?
  • Where do the students come from and where are they going after the year or two? It is important to remember that most of the gap year programs run for one to two years and therefore the social group changes annually. It may be more sensible to see where the seminary or yeshiva wants to get students from and how well their alumni are doing than to judge by this year’s group. The turnover is annual.
  • How much does the program cost? What does the tuition cover (medical insurance, dorm, full-board cafeteria, laundry, phone, quality of the building etc.)

 Safety, security, medical, and discipline:

Almost all the programs follow the safety regulations set forth by MASA and the Israeli Ministry of Education. But what about free time? Are students allowed to go out at night? Is there a curfew? What about spending Shabbat in friends’ apartments? To be honest, one of the most difficult inhibitors to religious growth is the unsupervised time spent in parents’ apartments. One parent told me that his son, who had attended an Israeli Yeshivat Hesder program, felt that access to the family apartment ruined his academic experience since, once in the apartment, with all of its amenities, he didn’t want to leave.

What is the school’s policy regarding drinking, drugs, electricity on Shabbat, dress code, curfew, and other violations? How strict or lenient is the school regarding what the students do during their free time and how will the administration react to students who violate the school’s policies? Will the faculty know if a student is sleeping in all day and not attending classes or other parts of the program? If so, what do they do about it?

What medical options are available? If a student is sick or hurt, who takes care of the student and who accompanies him or her to the emergency room? Will it be a (young) madrich or a senior administrator? How will parents know what is happening on a regular basis and how open are the lines of communication?  Does a doctor visit the institution? Does the seminary or yeshiva pay attention to eating disorders, which are a common danger for students living away from home for the first time. What about other mental health issues?

What protocols are in place to deal with abuse — sexual or otherwise? Is the issue dealt with in an appropriate manner?

In general how often does the school communicate with parents?

Some institutions are more hands-off while others are more hands on.

Will someone know and care for your child?

 Educational goals:

What type of educational program is offered? Traditionally, seminaries offered a broad curriculum while yeshivot concentrate on Talmud.  Is it mostly traditional Talmud or does the yeshiva cover more subjects?

Things are changing. So ask: how much of any topic is taught?

Ask for the actual class schedule so you can compare apples to apples. How long is the day? What happens with students who cannot handle the length or intensity of the academic program?

Two yeshivot might say they offer Tanach classes whereas one may offer it one or two hours a week and another much more often. The same goes for seminaries. If Talmud is important to you – is it important to the teachers in the seminary? Do they teach on a similar level to men’s yeshivot? If not, why not? Do they have trained people teaching each subject? Just as not everyone is trained in Talmud so too not everyone is trained in Tanach. What is important to you?

What types of guest speakers and seminars are offered?

Basically, is the curriculum and approach focused or broad?  Each style has its benefits and detriments. What is important to you?

In other words, what does the seminary or yeshiva actually teach and what can a student expect to learn over the course of the academic year?

 Should the student attend or go straight to college:

This is a complex question. The gap year isn’t for everyone. However, in my experience, students who spend a year in yeshiva or seminary leave having gained in innumerable ways.  Not only do students have the chance to develop religiously and think deeply and seriously about their future but they also have the opportunity to create lifelong friendships which will stay with them in college and in the years to come.

The choice of if and where to study in Israel is an important one which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Armed with the appropriate information, the year can be a life-changing experience.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.