Friday, January 15, 2010

Israel Media Phobia, and Some "Untruths" About the Gap Year

We all know the Israel-media phobia. When you tell a coworker that you're taking your vacation in Israel, they give you a wide-eyed stare, wondering if you've lost your mind. "You're going there? But it's so violent and dangerous."
There's really nothing to say, because you can't argue with what they've seen on CNN. How do you explain that, thank God, life in Israel is great: calm, serene - secure, sure - but nothing like what it seems like on TV.
Now it seems like the Gap Year in Israel will soon suffer from the same Israel-media phobia.

Poor post high-school year in Israel. It can't seem to catch a break. First a series of articles published by ATID on the nature of the education in many of these schools and the employment challenges faced by those who teach in them. At least those articles rang true, and raised real issues.
But now the Jewish Week has published an expose revealing the terrible truths of life for "many of our youth" during the gap year. Sadly, the article violates so many of the rules of responsible journalism that it's difficult to know where to start.
Jerusalem — It’s 2 a.m. in Israel’s holiest city. Do you know where your children are?
Probably not, if your kids are learning in one of the dozens of yearlong post-high school yeshiva or seminary programs in Israel, an increasingly frequent rite of passage in many Orthodox communities in the diaspora.
While some Israel-based “gap year” programs have strict guidelines about where their students can go during their free time, as well as curfews, others give their 17- to 20-year-old charges free rein to hang out wherever they please, even if it’s in Jerusalem’s bar district way past midnight.
“If my parents knew where I was right now, they wouldn’t have sent me to Israel,” a very drunk 17-year-old yeshiva student confides during a night out with his school buddies at “Crack Square,” a well-known downtown hangout for thousands of young Jerusalemites in search of a good time.
The teen, who says his father is “a very Orthodox” American rabbi, explains that his parents sent him to a mainstream Orthodox yeshiva “to get me back on the derech,” the Hebrew term for path. He spent part of the previous year in the States “drunk and high a lot.”
The rabbi’s son comes to Crack Square — a picturesque plaza on bustling Jaffa Road leading to a warren-like series of alleyways with dozens of bars — “a few nights a week,” where, he says, he throws back “six or seven drinks” a night.
I think we can all agree that this is not a good thing. But by using this element to introduce the piece, the author gives the impression - clearly intentionally, that this phenomenon appears across the spectrum of religious communities. Not true. It's quite clear that many yeshivish children come to Israel - or are deliberately sent here by their parents - to send them away from the house. Maybe they'll turn around in yeshiva. There are a number of chareidi yeshivot dedicated specifically to dealing with these types of children.
But the article then proceeds to discuss not chareidi yeshivot - but Modern Orthodox ones, specifically mentioning Sha'alvim, Hakotel, Kerem B'yavneh and others. How many modern Orthodox yeshivot in Israel are there for students with drug-related problems? I can't think of any.
The article then proceeds to list some of the challenges that young people may face during their gap year.
While only a small percentage of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 yeshiva and seminary (“Torani”) students spending their gap year before college in Israel frequent places like Crack Square on a regular basis, up to a third of them will face some type of potentially serious problem during their time abroad, according to the experts who counsel them.
First of all, what is that small percentage? Why doesn't the author tell us what it is? Does she know? If not, that's terrible reporting. And if she does know and doesn't tell us, it's because she's trying to make her article seem worse than it really is. Also terrible journalism.
Let's run the numbers. A third of a third of somewhere between two and three thousand - let's say 2,700 (to make the math easy) - which comes out to about three hundred kids. What are they struggling with?
Caryn Green, the director of Crossroads, a Jerusalem organization that assists troubled English-speaking youth, estimates that at any given time a significant percentage of yeshiva and seminary students are dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, overwhelming religiosity (commonly referred to as “flipping out),” a crisis of religious faith or substance abuse.
I'm certainly not flippant about the problems that kids face during their year after high school. I consider eating disorders, depression (clinical) and substance abuse serious problem that require direct and immediate intervention. But what post high school student doesn't experience anxiety - especially when they're at a difficult crossroad in life, aware that the choices they make during this year can greatly influence the rest of their lives? Also, while parents - or the Jewish Week - might consider "overwhelming religiosity" a "problem", the kids who do flip out certainly don't feel that way. And what better place to deal with a crisis of religious faith than in the framework of a yeshiva or seminary dedicated to learning about faith?
First of all, I find the wholesale lumping of these issues - the clinical and the common - terribly unfair. Secondly, how many of these problems stem from the Israel programs, and how many of them existed before Israel? Sure, a good number of young women develop or arrive in Israel with eating disorders. But how many of them stemmed from home, imagery in Western society, or any number of other factors completely unrelated to the year in Israel?
Finally, the most damning aspect of the article is the conclusion: the year in Israel is a dangerous experience that must be reigned in.
“It’s the elephant in the room nobody’s talking about,” Poleyeff said bluntly. “It’s an uncomfortable issue that can involve the police. There have been drug busts.”
Please. Every school administrator at every school talks about and deals with these issues, for simple business reasons. Every school lives year to year. A bad autumn, with a simple incident (that every student knows about) leads instantaneously to a bad reputation that will harm next year's recruiting.
In that atmosphere, there's no better place for young Orthodox students to spend their year after high school. Does anyone seriously think that our kids would be better off skipping their year in Israel and spending the year in an American university? And what about the high schools themselves? Drinking problems? Parties? Pre-prom events? These don't happen at schools in Israel, but they do happen in many of the high schools from which they recruit.
Do I think that there are no problems with the Israel experience, and that there are no yeshiva students struggling with serious issues? Hardly.
But to write a suggestive article implying a danger that's just not there, using examples out of context to paint a pictures that's simply inaccurate hurts the very population the article claims to want to protect: the children who stay home out of fear due to Israel-media phobia, as a result of the puffed up imagery of irresponsible reporting.