By the time you are reading this, my wife and I, like thousands of other parents, will have just said goodbye to our recent high school graduate, watching him clear security at JFK Airport with nary a look back. I’m sure he will be laughing boisterously with his friends, and soon-to-be friends, on this group flight for at least three schools; we will surely joke about the poor souls doomed to fly with hordes of eighteen-year-old boys flexing their “free-from-parents” muscles for the first time. But underneath the excitement and anticipation, I am certain that all the parents bidding their children farewell will be wrestling with the same questions: How is this year going to change my child? Will the school she is attending really be able to take care of her on her first foray away from the nest?
Spending a gap year in Israel between high school and college has become a rite of passage in our communities. High school graduates now have a plethora of schools to choose from. Some young men and women have the opportunity to visit the schools before choosing which one suits them best, but most students simply choose a school, sight unseen. They do their homework, but ultimately the institution we are entrusting our children to, in what is arguably one of the most formative years of their lives, is a matter of faith and trust.
I am happy to report that our trust is well placed. I recently went on a whirlwind trip to Israel with several OU staff members where we visited nineteen yeshivot and seminaries in four days. We met with administrators, rebbeim, teachers and students, and found that while each school has its own individual flavor, they all seem to share two primary goals. Firstly, they are teaching our kids how to navigate texts. The schools help our kids understand sources, grapple with questions and see the old and familiar through new and diverse perspectives. A Rashi they learned in fifth grade suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Our kids learn that there are levels and nuances that take time and energy to uncover, but the knowledge and truth they discover are well worth the investment. Secondly, the schools are overwhelmingly focused on personal and spiritual development. This growth takes place through mussar talks and chesed activities, but also through taking our kids’ hands as they look in the mirror and begin to figure out who they really are, not in the context of their families or communities, but in the context of themselves. They are taught to reflect on fundamental questions: What are my strengths? Which areas do I need to develop? What are my attitudes toward God, spirituality and prayer?
The schools I visited are not trying to fit students into a “one-size-fits-all” mold. They work with each student “ba’asher hu sham,” where he is. One rosh yeshivah in particular told me that he runs not one, but 140 yeshivot because the school goes out of its way to cater to each individual student.
The purpose of this trip was to recruit students from the many schools at a point in which they are ripe to take on leadership roles in a number of our programs including NCSY, Yachad, Heart to Heart and the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus when they come back to the States for college. The products of these schools are precisely the role models we want–young men and women who have taken the time to grow in their learning and in their self-awareness and character. We are enthusiastic about partnering with the schools to help these students achieve the next level in their personal development–leadership training. By becoming advisors for any of our programs, these young adults assume impressive responsibilities acting as planners, programmers, teachers and mentors. They will be helping younger kids through the pitfalls of adolescence. They will be pushing wheelchairs, serving meals, singing, dancing and giving their hearts and souls to a cause that is both selfish and selfless–the continuity of the Jewish people.
As a parent and as a Jewish communal professional, I am extremely impressed by and grateful to the network of yeshivot and seminaries in Israel for “filling in the gap,” and for working with all of us, year after year, to develop a remarkable cadre of leaders and individuals.
Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director at the OU.