This past week marked the 20th anniversary of my flight to Israel for a post high school year in yeshiva. On September 8, 2003, I left from JFK airport, along with approximately one hundred other young men, to attend Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim in Beit Shemesh. It was a transformative year that made a lasting impression on my life and has influenced all my subsequent decisions.
Reflecting on a 20-year anniversary made me feel really old. After I came to terms with that fact, I was able to reflect on how much I gained from that year. It reinforced the concept that not all investments are measured by financial return on investment (ROI). Sometimes an experience can pay off in much more important ways.
Below is a short list of my ROI from my year studying in Israel:
Achieving a level of independence and confidence: One of the most obvious benefits of moving abroad for a year is that it helped me grow up. Until I left for Israel, my parents basically did everything for me. Sure, there were occasional moments where I acted independently and even worked to earn money. However, I was reliant on them for most things, many of life’s decisions were made for me, and they informed my daily structure. Then I was suddenly on my own in a foreign country. There is support from being part of a yeshiva or seminary program and many people even have family in Israel. However, for many students, it’s the first time they must fully control all aspects of their life.
One component of that control is deciding how to spend their time. While in Israel, the activities generally fall into three broad buckets: Learning Torah, socializing, and exploring. Every student decided their personal allocation between the three. I had friends who spent the entire year hanging out on Ben Yehuda, visiting Machane Yehuda, or wandering around the old city looking to socialize. Other friends never left the bais midrash. There were others who explored the country, hiking, and traveling to different neighborhoods. Most people had some combination of all three. The important point is that it was their own decision on how to spend their year. For me, this independence led to more confidence, which set the foundation for other aspects of life. It helped me both socially and professionally over the subsequent years.
A commitment to learning Torah: The main reason why many students go to Israel for the year is to spend time learning Torah. For most of us, there is no other time in our life where we can spend a full year dedicated to Torah study. During yeshiva, students will attend a variety of shiurim and work on their learning skills.
The biggest benefit for me, is it instilled a lifelong appreciation for the importance of learning Torah. As one goes through life, it is not always easy, or even possible, to learn for a few hours a day. When I was attending business school at night, after a full day of work, and getting home after midnight four nights a week, my Torah learning was lacking. Similarly, when I was attending early morning and late evening networking events trying to build a business, while simultaneously working during the day and shidduch dating at night, my Torah learning was not as much as I would have liked. However, I constantly strived to maintain a commitment to daily Torah study in some form. As life’s seasons change, and schedules become more flexible or manageable, that study was able to take on new forms.
A passion for yiddishkite: I’ve always been passionate about our people and our history. I’m a history buff who enjoys watching documentaries about different aspects of Jewish life and loved listening to stories from my grandparents about growing up in the old country. I also relish the minahgim, holidays, and traditions. However, there was a certain specialness about celebrating so many important Jewish occasions in Israel with my entire yeshiva. From davening on the yamim noraim, to the festivities on Purim, to a tisch on Friday night, or lighting Chanukah candles with a hundred other friends, I was left with a fondness towards these important aspects of Judaism that resurfaces as I celebrate these occasions anywhere else in the world.
Setting my priorities: It’s hard to say exactly what my priorities were in high school. Possibly hanging out with friends, watching sports, going to the gym, or reading finance books (yes, I was very cool in high school). What is clear is that they were out of whack or nonexistent. My year at Reishit helped define my priorities. Since yeshiva, I have become much more cognizant of how I allocate my time, which now always includes Torah study, davening with a minyan, and spending time with family. Furthermore, the theme of living a Torah lifestyle became much more important to me and guides my decision-making process today.
A love of Israel: My elementary and high school yeshivas were very Zionistic and endeavored to instill a love of Israel. My family held similar values and we visited the country a few times. In some respects, that was all successful. However, there is nothing that compares to actually living there in order to develop a deep love of Israel. Walking through the streets of Yerushalayim on Yom Haatzamaut or Sukkos, hiking in the Golan or Eilat, davening with the whole yeshiva on Masada at sunrise, or even ordering a shawarma from a gas station, riding a sherut between cities, or getting reprimanded by an impatient Israeli, were all part of the experience that I think back on fondly. In the two decades since I was in yeshiva in Israel, I always feel a sense of being back home when I land in the country for a quick visit. I also feel a sense of longing when I take off from Ben Gurion airport after my trip is over. There is no question that my year in yeshiva infused this passion within me.
Who I married: When looking for one’s bashert, one of the most important things is to make sure you have a similar outlook on life, goals, and desires. These aspects about me may have been different if I hadn’t spent a year at Reishit. Consequently, this would have impacted the type of women I dated and ultimately who I decided to marry. Needless to say, I am quite happy with the way things turned out in this regard!
Discipline: Spending 16 hours a day, six days a week, learning requires discipline. Obviously, there were breaks to this intense schedule with tiyulim and other experiences. However, on most days, most hours were spent involved in Torah study. I think the discipline developed from a yeshiva lifestyle is often overlooked, yet it’s also the quality that can be transferred to other aspects of life and is important to success in any area.
The discipline I developed in yeshiva, the willingness to push myself and work at something, helped me in college, where my grades drastically improved compared to high school. It helped me power through exams and accreditations I received while working. It also gives me the chizuk to work longer and harder to meet certain deadlines, while maintaining a reasonable work life balance. It’s possible to develop discipline through other experiences in life, but for me it was developed in Israel.
Lifelong friendships: One of the biggest benefits of yeshiva are the lifelong friendships you develop. While people in your life come and go, it’s always important to have a few lifelong friends with whom you share common values and who will be there in good times and bad. I am still in touch with many people from my yeshiva days. Some were in college with me, others were post college roommates, more than a few became clients, and others I only touch base with a few times a year when I pass through the area of the country where they reside. A strong support network is fundamental in life and, for me, many of these relationships began from my year in Israel.
It’s important to note that everyone’s experience in Israel is different. There may be some readers looking at this list who benefited in completely different ways. That’s fine. The key is understanding that money can buy a lot of things, but one of the best things it can buy is experiences. The positive experience of spending a year studying in yeshiva may have the highest ROI of any investment you ever make.