By Doni Joszef
In the coming days and weeks, thousands of American teenagers will embark on an interesting voyage. Away from the carefree comforts of home-sweet-home, they’ll gradually digest the culture shock we’ve come to call “the year(s) in Israel.”
Israel is an intense place, and the transition from adolescence into young adulthood is an intense time. It’s when introspection and independence begin to replace the nonchalant naiveté of youthful invincibility. (Not coincidentally, it’s also when alcohol becomes legally accessible.)
The adjustment is often, if not always, a challenging one.
If you’re heading to the Holy Land, brace yourself for some inevitable growing pains. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you make your way along the journey.
Don’t wait for magical miracles. Lots of students (my former self included) develop the faulty impression that yeshiva converts sinners into saints by some sort of “miracle grow” stardust. If you’re expecting Divine revelations or prophetic visions, you’re in for a disappointment. Inspiration? Maybe. Instant transformation? Not exactly.
Think of your year as an unsown garden waiting to sprout; unless you put in some hard work to make the seeds blossom and bloom, no amount of wishful thinking can convert fallow ground into fruitful gardens. The sooner we take personal ownership of our own growth, the sooner we reap the rewarding results of our investments.
Set up a consistent schedule and routine. This sounds simple, but I think it’s the most important piece of advice I can offer. We are not accustomed to constructing our own structure, nor do we find it very exciting to repeat the same behavioral patterns on a consistent basis (booooooring). Which is why terms such as “structure” and “routine” don’t strike us very favorably. But personal growth—in any discipline—is virtually impossible without consciously configuring a daily routine to reinforce and foster the positive momentum.
It’s easy to slip into pinball mode, where you sort of bounce from class to bed to book to Burgers Bar to bed (and then back to Burgers Bar). Before you know it, you’ve finished a lot more burgers than you have books, and all you have is a nice sized belly and even nicer sized credit-card bill to show for it.
I’m not preaching an all-work-no-play type of boot camp. I just think it’s important to underscore the need for a daily schedule to facilitate the growth of more than just our waistlines.
Keep an open mind. Some people think of yeshiva as a kind of insular brainwashing center. To a certain degree, it is. Students are exposed to a very different way of living and thinking than mainstream modern minds are trained to appreciate. The cultural focus is less on means and more on meaning.
Learning inherently involves a certain degree of brainwashing, and if the psychic change turns out to produce a more positive, refined, sensitive human being, who’s to say such a washing did your brain a disservice? We are all brainwashed—to some extent—by the cultural and social surroundings in which we reside. The question isn’t “Am I being brainwashed?” but “Is this wash a good fit for my brain?” Only you (not your parents or your teachers) can answer such questions.
Unplug (at least a bit). Technology has made our world a smaller place. While this shift makes it easier to stay in touch with the outside world, it also, for this very reason, makes it harder to cut the cord which holds us so bound in its constant flow of content. This means that Israel and America are no longer 5,700 miles apart. They’re now just a Wi‑Fi connection apart (which is to say, never apart). To temporarily “unplug” is easier said than done. But it helps to salvage some moments for personal space—if not for religious purposes, for your own mental health.
Easy does it. Take it one step at a time. Overnight transformations are tempting, but they’re highly vulnerable to overnight reversals. Don’t microwave your experience; soak it up. Let the process unfold in a slow yet steady, step by step, day by day, incremental trek toward personal growth.
See you on the other side . . . v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, is in private practice working with individuals, families, and groups in Lawrence. Available by appointment. Call 516-316-2247 or e‑mail DJoszef@gmail.com to schedule a consultation.