In my private practice in Jerusalem, and through my teaching at various seminaries, I have the pleasure of spending a formative year with many young women as they explore and grow in their Yiddishkeit, experiment with new identities and ideas, and grapple with myriad challenges, often for the first time.
Toward the end of their seminary year, certain patterns emerge in the thought processes of these young women, most of which pertain to questions about their return home. The greatest over-arching questions relate to how they will be accepted, evaluated, and judged by their friends and family upon their re-entry into their home environment.
It is no secret that the year in Israel is a time of evolution (and, at times, even revolution), with sometimes dramatic changes, both physical and spiritual. These changes can be a source of pride and also of conflict, leaving parents wondering what role they ought to play in their child’s readjustment to life after their year in Israel.
After countless conversations with former students and clients, I have observed what I believe to be the most common changes young women experience during their year in seminary, which I share here along with suggestions about how to approach these changes.
Changes in Dress
One of the most basic ways we express ourselves to the world is through our dress. We make style choices based on our likes, our comfort, and the image we want to project. Add in the role that clothing plays in religious observance and identification, and the question of dress becomes one with which seminary girls grapple throughout their year in Israel and in the years that follow.
When asked about concerns they have about returning home after their year, one of the most popular responses is something like, “I am dreading all the questions about my skirts and sleeve length, and the questions from the neighbors like, ‘Oh, so you’re only wearing skirts now?’ or ‘So you came home and you’re now wearing long sleeves?’”
For the vast majority of students, their year in Israel is a time to ask their fundamental questions, and not necessarily discover the answers. Many will spend the months and years afterward trying to figure those things out. They recognize that in the Orthodox community, what we wear is often seen as a reflection of who we are – and if they don’t yet know who they are, the clothing choices they make are often part of the process of figuring that out.
What is a parent’s role?
Here is an opportunity to emphasize how much you love your child. Focusing on what she is or isn’t wearing is focusing on the external. After a long, intense year, what most of these young women need is a constant reminder of their value and worth, and that has little to do with what they’re wearing. Focus instead on the more spiritual dimensions of your daughter’s year – how does she feel she’s grown, how has her worldview changed, etc. If you have a genuine curiosity about her clothing decisions, encourage your daughter to share how she reached certain conclusions and how she feels about them. Remind her how beautiful you think she is, regardless of what she’s wearing.
Change in Religious Observance
Most parents of today’s adolescents are familiar with the term “flipping out” – the tendency of students to enter their year in Israel with a certain religious/spiritual orientation and to finish their year in a seemingly different place. The phenomenon manifests itself in varied ways – where they are comfortable eating, what they are comfortable listening to or watching, who they are comfortable hugging, and more.
While some of the “flipping” might be a source of concern to parents, it’s actually completely developmentally appropriate. When my colleagues Dr. David Pelcovitz and Dr. Scott Goldberg researched this community-specific phenomenon a number of years ago, their findings matched the description of the developmental trajectory one finds in the academic literature. There are several reasons for “flipping out,” including the full immersion in learning without distraction, the removal of grades, the exposure to like-minded people with similar goals, and, critically, the stage of adolescent development during which a great emphasis is placed on identity formation.
What is a parent’s role?
Encourage your daughter to share her motivation for the choices she has made, what books or sources helped her reach the conclusions she did, and who helped her make these decisions. Our children want to know that our relationship with them is stable no matter what or who they become. So we can decide whether or not we want to change the kashrut standards in our homes, but the ultimate emphasis needs to be on the mutual love and respect within the family unit. It is no secret that our children develop their own behavior and attitudes based on what is modeled for them. If we can be inquisitive, respectful and accommodating, our reward will be raising children who share those values.
Changes in Independence
One of the greatest differences in the life of a seminary student as compared to her high school life is the degree to which she is responsible for herself. Students arrive for their year in Israel with diverse experience in responsibilities like preparing food, washing laundry, and scheduling doctor’s appointments, but the year in Israel encourages independence across the board. Different schools employ varying degrees of “hand-holding” for their students, but in nearly all cases the seminary experience includes practice in what has become known as “adulting.”
What is a parent’s role?
We might want to indulge our kids and do things for them in an effort to “take care” of them and make them feel supported and loved. Sometimes we do things for them because we think (we know!) that we can do it better, more efficiently, more correctly, or more to our liking. When they come home from Israel, we can show our daughters how much faith we have in them by trusting them to be independent. Encourage your daughter to take on more responsibilities around the house (or even take charge), to file college-related paperwork on her own, and, perhaps most importantly, to make decisions on her own about matters that pertain to her life.
Surely we can help along the way, but as our girls turn into women, our role evolves from executive producer to a supporting actor. If we give them space, very few of their mistakes will be irreversible or altogether terribly consequential. Allow them to build up the muscle of independence when it’s safe to mess up, so they become strong and capable women when they are more on their own.
A Word About Body Changes
One of the biggest worries among the young women I see in my practice is the reaction they anticipate from their mothers regarding weight they may have gained over the course of the year. So what is your role? It is very simple: Almost nothing. The only time to intervene is if there is an actual concern about a threat to your daughter’s health. If you are worried about patterns or habits that catch your attention and you suspect an eating disorder, the first step is reaching out to a professional to ask how you might approach the conversation with your daughter.
Your daughter spent months working on her insides – what a shame it would be if the focus upon her return home is on her outsides. She will figure out what “healthy” means to her, so long as she is provided with an environment that allows her the space and unconditional love that real discovery requires. Remember that bodies change. They are supposed to. Weight may be gained and weight may be lost. The most important thing is that our daughters understand that who they are is more valuable than how they look.
The Road Ahead
The summer immediately after seminary is not really the “next chapter” in our daughter’s lives. In reality, it’s much more like the closing credits of a great movie. Many of them are still digesting what they experienced, what they learned, and how they feel about all of it. Decisions they have made in recent weeks and months might be the decisions they stick with, and they might not. Even more change might be around the corner. There might be inconsistency, a lack of clarity and/or a sense of confusion. This is all perfectly normal. For emerging adults, figuring out who they are is the highest order of business. If we want our children to become adults who are thoughtful, intentional, loving and responsible, our greatest task is to model these values for them.