'You've been Aish'd...'

The number of Orthodox outreach programs for non-Orthodox youth, like those of Aish Hatorah and NCSY, have exploded in the past decade.

birthright  248.88 (photo credit: Taglit-birthright)
birthright 248.88
(photo credit: Taglit-birthright)
With a brand-new, floor-length skirt swishing against the linoleum tiles, I walked into school the first day of 11th grade to confused stares. Where had the graphic, midriff-baring T-shirts and sweatpants gone? Three weeks of my summer vacation had been spent traveling the West Coast of the United States with an Orthodox outreach youth group. Alongside Grand Canyon hikes, I had been immersed in Halacha (Jewish law), and becoming "modest" seemed like a natural step. 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." The number of Orthodox outreach programs for non-Orthodox youth, like those of Aish Hatorah and NCSY, have exploded in the past decade. According to the Aish Hatorah Web site, it alone entices more than 100,000 people in 17 countries to its programs annually. Many of the programs offer several week-long trips combining learning and traveling in Israel, Canada or the US. They are ridiculously low-priced, often up to five times less than other tour groups. The participants pay through other means, though; they absorb a particular brand of Judaism that seems to be an extra ingredient in the twin hallot eaten every Friday evening. "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? The organizations transmit these teachings through trip leaders who often succeed in making observance seem fun and relevant, at least for the duration of the program. 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. The female trip leaders imparting the message of how wonderful Halacha is are born Orthodox, with a sweet, never-been-kissed, perky charm. Unfortunately, they are unable to relate to the secular world, where they have had no experience. Instead, they drivel out the same stock responses on subjects like why to refrain from touching boys: Everyone has heard "your soul is a diamond that should be kept in a special case" a hundred times. Metaphors like those sound wonderful and make superficial sense, but falter in the face of hormonal reality. The counsellors shut their ears to truthful comments such as "I want sex as much as he does." Their simplistic response is: "But as a female, you really want him to love you and hold you instead." By addressing issues from an archaic, non-scientific, pseudo-psychological perspective and refusing to believe that at times women can be just as sexual, forceful and unemotional as men, participants are left with beautiful-sounding concepts that prove unworkable upon return to the secular world. 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. "They make you some kind of fake family, that's why you feel all religious there. And then you get home and see your real family... and that's the way you have to live," says Sarah. Many absorb Halacha like a sponge. But a few weeks back into one's regular routine in the secular world, the rational reasons for not touching boys, praying before meals and refraining from electricity on the Sabbath fade as fast as a dream. Running into those who have remained Orthodox, unrecognizable from only a few years earlier, is an uncanny experience. They often work for outreach organizations and are as unsettling to me as Evangelical Christians. As for me, was I "Aish'd"? Well, I'm spending this summer in Israel, but I'm wearing jeans. The writer is currently an intern at The Jerusalem Post before returning for her final year in humanities and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.