Yeshiva, COVID-19, and Mental Well-Being

Hebron Yeshiva in Givat Mordecai. Credit: כורש via Wikimedia Commons
Hebron Yeshiva in Givat Mordecai. Credit: כורש via Wikimedia Commons

I was thrilled to hear the recent news that thousands of American high school graduates have begun to matriculate into yeshivot and midrashot in Israel for year-long programs, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The enormously popular gap-year program has opened the doors of intensive Torah study to countless students over the past decades. God willing, all of the yeshivot open for the year will operate safely and in good health. I write, however, about another challenge that yeshivot must overcome, both this year and in future years, one which has long percolated under the surface but has yet, to my knowledge, to be addressed in any systematic way.

Put simply: yeshiva can be an emotional pressure cooker. I am enormously grateful that after high school, I had the opportunity to learn Torah more or less uninterrupted for a year, but that year was psychologically straining in ways distinct from anything I have experienced before or since. Discussions with students who attended my yeshiva as well as others confirm that these are, if not universal, then at least widespread occurrences:

  • The constant drumbeat of new ideas, both in the realms of Talmudic discourse and broader philosophical discussion, requires constant attention and focus.
  • Chavruta study is by its nature adversarial: any opinion voiced at any point is subject to attack and deconstruction, forcing students to be on their toes at all times.
  • Lack of sleep is endemic; even though most programs technically allot at least eight hours between the end of one day’s schedule and the beginning of the next, some of the most valuable discussions come at the day’s close.
  • Most significantly, in many batei midrash, there is enormous pressure from peers, rarely articulated but often felt, to spend more and more hours immersed in study.

To be sure, with the possible exception of sleep deficits, all of the above have very salutary effects as well, but their potential to serve as psychological and emotional stressors cannot and should not be ignored. In my own experience, I occasionally—and at times often—felt very overwhelmed and shaky, in no small part due to the above four factors. Thank God, I was also blessed with an extremely supportive family back in the USA, and was not then dealing with any major life concerns outside of the yeshiva’s walls. Had I been dealing with more external challenges, as so many yeshiva and midrasha students do, I can only imagine that I would have felt the internal stresses unique to the institution more acutely.

It is also important to note that my time in yeshiva was, thankfully, free (for the most part) of deliberately psychologically manipulative educational practices. It is unfortunately well-documented in print and in rumor that these practices are anywhere from present to rampant at many gap year programs, and it should go without saying that these are deeply pedagogically problematic, both ethically and practically. Nonetheless, they frequently continue to occur, only adding to the stresses present in yeshiva in a normal year.

I worry, then, that these emotional stresses will be more pronounced in this year. An important release valve for me (though I used it infrequently) and most other students is the ability to leave their seminary. Yeshivot by their nature are total institutions—education happens in the same constrained physical locations as eating, sleeping, and socializing—but there were no gates around my campus, and no one monitoring my whereabouts. Time spent outside yeshiva, whether in the occasional casual Friday afternoon meetings with high school friends in Jerusalem, periodic volunteering, or even yeshiva-organized tiyulim served as points to break up the sensation of being cloistered and restricted, and the mere ability to leave campus was itself a powerfully calming notion. This year’s crop of students, encumbered by COVID-caused restrictions on movement, will feel far more fenced in than I ever did, and I fear that this will strike a psychological blow. Furthermore, most Americans starting in yeshiva or midrasha right now had their senior years of high school terminated early; their social connections with friends may start out weaker to begin with, and the challenges of maintaining those previous friendships absent the ability to see one another in person may be extraordinarily difficult, thus losing the students a critical social anchor.

How can yeshivot mitigate these challenges? I propose four actionable steps, none of which is dependent on one another, but each of which should be considered especially during this pandemic year as well as the long term:

  • Psychological manipulation as an educational tactic should end immediately. Preying on students’ insecurities, engineering social divides, and undermining students’ pre-existing support systems are all unacceptable. Those educators who view themselves as carrying on the spirit of the Novardok yeshiva, famous for its driving its talmidim to self-negation and -abasement, should bear in mind that at least Novardok students knew what they were signing up for.
  • All yeshivot should not only offer, but advertise, the availability of psychologists and/or mental health professionals. Several programs commendably already have such counselors on staff, but yeshivot should make it clear from the start of the year that those services are available and encouraged, free of stigma. Furthermore, students should be assured, truthfully, that sessions with those professionals are private, with no details being provided to the administration or regular instructors without the student’s consent (with obvious exceptions for dangerous circumstances). Finally, Yeshiva University, under whose aegis many students attend gap year programs, should consider offering its students in Israel counseling at least on par with that it provides to its students on its New York campuses.
  • Students who may be more emotionally vulnerable, especially LGBT students, but also students with difficult family situations, complicated relationships, or other circumstances should be explicitly welcomed and supported by their institutions. Yeshiva and seminary pose enough inherent stresses that those likely to be burdened with other worries should be specifically and proactively cared for.
  • This is particularly relevant for this year, but yeshivot and midrashot should make it clear to students that they should take time and space for themselves when necessary. Mental health breaks are de facto commonplace in yeshivot, but typically with secrecy and excuses; yeshivot should be proactive in encouraging students without other releases from the rigor of their programs to take care of themselves.

I hope that, regardless of the specifics of the above suggestions, yeshivot and midrashot take care to look out for their students’ mental well-being in addition to their physical help, and that talmidim and talmidot advocate for themselves, recognizing their own needs and making space for themselves. In this strange year, God willing, Torah study should thrive alongside the physical and mental health of its students. יגדיל תורה ויאדיר!

About the Author
Daniel Shlian is a PhD candidate in inorganic chemistry at Columbia University. An alumnus of Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Har Etzion, he lives with his wife and son in New York, NY.
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