Monday, November 10, 2008

The Sem Years

Before someone decides to hand me my head on a platter, let's make clear that I am Tzioni in that I love Eretz Yisroel and yes, I believe that living there should be what Jews yearn for. Having said that, I am also willing to say that actually living in Israel, right now, is not possible for many Jews who live chutz l'aretz. Some of the reasons for not making aliyah right now are not being able to make a parnosah and leaving close family behind. The first is a real area of concern; no job available means no money to support a family. The second is pooh-poohed by far too many people. They give their answer that being in Israel trumps kibud av v'aim. Sorry, but my Rav sees that differently. And given the age and situation of my mother, my Rav's opinion makes much more sense than those who say "Aliyah today no matter what."

But we do have one way that we are sending out people to Israel, even if temporarily, and that is the vaunted Seminary Year, parallel to the boys' years of learning in Israel. And I am still scratching my head and asking why we are doing this.

Not all that many years ago a seminary year abroad was a rare thing relative to the size of Klal. And Israel was not the only choice or even the main choice. For the few girls whose parents sent them, Gateshead and Switzerland were top choices. Then there was Michlala and BJJ. That was it. You know who went abroad for seminary? The daughters of rich families. And there were plenty of people who wondered why they bothered.

The girls who stayed in the States, what did they do? Some went to full-time seminary here, many of them going to college at night. Others went to half-day seminary and either went to college the other half a day or worked the other half a day. And some girls didn't go to seminary at all. "Where did you go to seminary?" wasn't a question asked in all that many shidduchim. It was also fairly well assumed that the girls who were going to full-time seminary and not also going to college at night were preparing themselves to become teachers of limudei kodesh. The out of country seminaries? If Israel, again the assumption was that a girl was studying to become a teacher of limudei kodesh. If Europe, well seminary was the frum version of a finishing school. In addition to Hebrew studies the girls learned cooking and baking and how to set a gracious table, and some practical subjects like typing. Gateshead was for those more to the right, Switzerland for those more to the middle or left.

One thing most people agreed on was that girls needed a year out of high school before they were ready to go on the marriage market. Some people then thought that two years was a better idea. But what most parents thought then was that sending girls out of country where they would be away from their parents' influence was not the best idea. And yes, for most parents the thought of spending "all that money" to warehouse the girls until marriage was just not possible.

Fast forward to the present day. Suddenly seminary has become a "necessity." Mothers who themselves did not consider seminary in Israel an option or a necessity are preaching that only Israel will do. And the number of seminaries has multiplied according to the demand. There is now a competition for which seminary is the "best" seminary, which seminary will give you the best credentials for the type of shidduch you want to make. And the cost? $15K plus. The more "choshuv" the seminary, the more its charges have risen.

There are parents who "reasonably" point out that a year in seminary in Israel is not more expensive then a year in a private college here in the States, and the credits from seminary are transferable for those girls going on to college when they come home. Well yes, some of those credits are transferable, but the only colleges that take the maximum number of transfer credits are those that are private and under Jewish auspices: YU and Touro. And those two places can hardly be considered as "cheap" when you look at tuition and board.

Above I mentioned that once upon a time out of country seminary was limited to families of financial means. That is not the case today. Somehow going to seminary has become a requirement for making a shidduch. Somehow every family now has to consider how to pay for that seminary year, wealthy or not. Seminary in Israel has become another "must have" purchase, affordable or not.

Proponents of the seminary year in Israel point out that the girls who go to seminary are better educated in limudei kodesh than those who do not go to seminary. Okay, but can they also say that the girls in Israeli seminaries are better educated than those who go to American seminaries? So all girls who spend the year in Israel are super serious about their studies? Take off the blinkers, please. For many girls the year in Israel is about socialization, not studying. They do the minimum necessary to keep the school off their backs but it is the extra curricular activities that they are most interested in. And why not? You ever hear of a seminary that sent a failing transcript for any of its students? The "Gentleman's B" is alive and well in these places, as long as the tuition checks keep coming.

Why harp on seminary right now? In case you haven't noticed we're in something of an economic turn down right now. This comes in addition to skyrocketing yeshiva tuition for elementary and high school. This comes in addition to having a part of the frum population that is not working to support itself but is supported by others. This is coming with an older generation that is heading into the "golden" years and which is going to have to concentrate on itself instead of spending lavishly on the younger generations. Quite frankly, seminary is an expensive luxury right now, one that not too many families can readily afford. What we need right now is a retrenching to the ideas of the past, where seminary was not a requirement, and seminary in Israel certainly was not a requirement. We need to unequivocally say that seminary as a requirement for a shidduch needs to be ousted.

I'd be willing to wager money that there are a lot of parents who don't know how they are going to pay for that seminary year but who are going to go into debt for it anyway because they are fearful of making their children into some sort of social pariah. I'd also be willing to bet that those parents would breathe easier if "the powers that be" would make it clear that seminary is only an option, and only an option if you can afford it. It is more than time for girls' high schools to stop holding the Damocles Sword of seminary over the heads of parents vis a vis making a shidduch. And I also believe that it is time for parents to stop cowering in the corners and giving in to demands that make no financial sense.

And while I am laying myself open for some of the lambasting I'm sure will come, we might also want to look at the practice of sending our boys to Israel post high school for one, two or more years. These yeshivas are hardly free institutions and the same financial concerns that apply to seminaries for girls also apply to Israeli yeshivas for boys.

What ever happened to common sense and being sensible? What ever happened to financial responsibility? What ever happened to not biting off more than you could swallow?


Anonymous said...

Right on target! Seminary is a luxury that too many people can't afford today but are going to buy anyway because of fear what "yenim" will say. And what where you went to seminary should have to do with making a shidduch is still beyond me.

Anonymous said...

What I love is when I was in yeshiva high school and was being pressured into going to spend a year in Israel at yeshiva. My parents couldn't afford it and it was a non-issue. The tactic often used is that if you don't go to yeshiva in Israel you won't be as frum or as knowledgeable as your peers and might fall off the derech in college. My response: "Then what in the world were the last 13 years of yeshiva education for?" No one really had a response to that.

Anonymous said...

Having been to sem...

Yeah, it's a waste of money in terms of education (you can spend the year in college and the spare money on a summer semester and come out equal, with credits that will transfer anywhere). Some people do review their notes from seminary every now and then; mine were trashed. Every now and then I surprise the table with a bit of sem acquired erudition, but it's hardly worth the tab.

However, I did have an awesome time. It was mind broadening, educational in a non-academic sense, and maturing. I also made better friends there. A bit pricey for those things, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Judith said...

Please stop referring to the seminary problem, it is the post highschool year for both boys and girls that is the problem, not just the girls. Both are equally money wasters. One should not be seen as more worthy than the other.

Lion of Zion said...

"They give their answer that being in Israel trumps kibud av v'aim. Sorry, but my Rav sees that differently."

i'm not arguing with you practically, but from a stricly halakhic perspective i thought i remember learning that מצות ישוב הארץ is one thing that you can be עובר on כבוד אב ואם for

in general, the "neccesity" of the year in israel (for boys or girls) highlights the scam of the day school system. 12+ years wasn't enough to accomplish acquiring enough of a jewish education to prepare someone for a jewish life?

"the credits from seminary are transferable"

another scam. it's a nice lesson the yeshivot/seminaries teach. spend a year studying torah and they'll lie through their teeth for you so you can get credits.

Lion of Zion said...


"I did have an awesome time. It was mind broadening, educational in a non-academic sense, and maturing. I also made better friends there. A bit pricey for those things, but thoroughly enjoyable."

it's a little more than a "bit pricey." i have nothing against taking a year off before college and benefiting from all those things you mentioned by spending a year in israel. volunteering on a kibbutz is much cheaper.


from what i understand, the convention used to be (at least in MO schools) for israel-bound students to go the second half of their senion year in HS

Anonymous said...

I was in sem too. I hated every minute of it. It wasn't me that wanted to go. The school told my parents that I have to go and so my parents said I'm going. We're OOT and when the girls there heard that they got so snobby like someone not from New York just wasn't worth their time. I had plans to go to college and it wasn't Touro and you should have seen the looks the girls gave me. Oh yeah, the really fun activities, like the chesed projects we had to participate in that included babysitting for poor kollel wives with lots of kids. Nothing like bathing a bunch of kids and changing dirty diapers to let you see Israel. I'll say one thing for that top rated seminary I went to. I had been leaning way towards the right when I arrived in Israel and I left Israel firmly somewhere in the middle. And I learned one really important thing from that seminary. My daughter is never going to go to one.

Anonymous said...

Shush Professor !

Is this the time to talk sense/cents ? With the hole we are in now, we need lots of dollars, what will your cents/sense accomplish!

Shush, people might hear you and start thinking for themselves.

Shush, Shush, Shush !

P.S. A speedy refuah shelemah to your mother, among our other ill.

ProfK said...

You are, of course, correct that this is not only a seminary problem, which I do mention towards the end of the posting. I decided to split the posting into two different segments, each dealing separately with the issue of Israel post high school, because the history of the "seminary movement" here in the US is different from the push being made for the boys to learn post high school.

A Living Nadneyda said...

I began a comment.... it became this post..

I'll summarize here: My seminary experience was wonderful. But why stop at viewing seminary as a luxury? It could be argued that all of Jewish Day School is a luxury, considering the tuition fees.

Knitter of shiny things said...

Though you mention yeshivot at the end of your post, you still focus on seminaries as being the main problem.

I feel like if people were not able to afford both a year of seminary and a year of yeshiva for their male and female children, that the seminary year would be the one to go. Either that, or the school rabbis would say sacrifice the girls going to seminary but send the boys to yeshiva. I would say if you can't afford it for all your children, it's not fair to just send the boys. And it sends the message that men's learning is more important than women's learning, which is something I strongly disagree with. (Then again I'm also egalitarian, but even when I was Modern Orthodox I thought that women's learning was as important as men's learning.) Or even worse, that the Judaism of boys is more important than the Judaism of girls. I really hope it doesn't come to that, and that communities will address the problem of yeshivot and seminaries together.

Anonymous said...

For some people, going to Israel for a year after High School is great for them. But for many others, it is just a "scam" and ends up being a mostly wasted year. Also, many of the yeshivot in Israel are really businesses formed by retired US Rabbis and their sons. From what I know, it can be a very profitable business (i.e. able to support 4 full sizable families).