…How did a 15-year-old girl of the 21st century, who gave no thought to slipping tank-top straps, underage clubbing and kissing boys in camp cabins, end up considering covered elbows and knees a necessary virtue?
High school and university campuses have noticed this phenomenon for years: Their friends come back after school breaks from Orthodox outreach programs clutching Artscroll siddurs, imbued with a penchant for Zionism and an aversion to intermarriage.
"They've been Aish'd," is the commonly whispered comment, equivalent to "They've been brainwashed."…
…"They overload you with free stuff, and then you work because you want it. You'll do anything," says Sarah, a participant on two Israel programs and several long-term programs in Canada by Aish Hatorah and NCSY.
IS JUDAISM so compelling, so inherently true, that as soon as youths discover it, they cannot stay away?
In fact, Orthodox Jewish laws are exotic and offer a reverse way for youth to rebel. Drugs, drinking and sex are all passé rebellions by now. But how many young people actually refuse to touch the opposite sex? These organizations are offering an exciting way to be different and get attention.
Still, it's a tiresome lifestyle to maintain - and after the programs end, most participants don't. As valuable as the Orthodox lifestyle may be, the methods used by these organizations are eerily cultish and the results often short-lived.
The organizations present their Judaism as the uniquely accurate one, the Halacha that the non-Orthodox have merely forgotten but that all their ancestors invariably followed. Their assumption that all our great-great-grandparents grew up in an Eastern European shtetl contributes to divisiveness among Jews, for it fails to acknowledge that Halacha has had a variety of interpretations across different times and cultures.
A fellow participant on my trip was ignored by advisers when she remarked that for some Sephardim, the only halachic requirement was to be more modest than one's neighbors, and that the stringent laws that guide current frum fashion (good-bye collarbones, elbows and knees) were unnecessary. Outright dismissal of alternative views may drive sales of skirt manufacturers, but it is not beneficial to learning about the history of Judaism.
SOME PROGRAMS make participants adhere closely to Orthodoxy, and others just introduce them to it. But all are extremely effective at what they do by using rudimentary indoctrination techniques .
They remove participants from their normal environment and place them in a new, vulnerable context. Traveling is a mentally exhausting experience in any case. How much more so that is in Israel, where one suddenly finds oneself part of the majority - an intensely emotional experience that these programs capitalize on. Foreign ideas suddenly seem reasonable: Instead of lecturing someone with mostly secular friends to stop eating pork, it is easier to just stop serving it for a month in a completely Jewish environment.
Within such an environment, participants are made to feel guilty about a lack of observance. The organizations criticize the secular lifestyle as hollow so that young people, always in search of identity, undergo a crisis of confusion about which path to take.
A FALSE dilemma is presented: Be secular and remain in impurity, where life is merely a game played for fun - or move toward a purpose and filled with holiness.
When presented so simply, which road seems more attractive?…
But the teachings are superficial and the Orthodox world they present bears not a trace of dissatisfaction: Never did I ever hear a speaker or trip leader discuss any problems within the Orthodox world. Apparently, as long as they follow proper Halacha, everybody is happy and fulfilled, with neither depression nor repression, money nor domestic problems.…
…PARTICIPATION IN these programs is similar to a summer romance, which is removed from reality through a heady mix of sun and beach. It lacks imposing obligations. Everything moves fast and intensely, yet rarely lasts.…