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The Seminary Squeeze

Michal Eisikowitz

For nearly three decades, seminary in Eretz Yisrael has been the de facto route for thousands of graduating seniors from across the United States. But as families grow larger and money gets tighter, is the trend beginning to change?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rabbi Tuvia Vinitsky was a realist. There was no way he could afford to send his daughter to Eretz Yisrael. But the Chicago web developer and middle class father of five also knew the pressure would be immense. “So we made a pact,” he says in a recent interview. “Nine other fathers and I — we all didn’t have the means, at least without neglecting day school obligations, so we agreed to stick to our guns and reinforce each other.” Come registration time, however, Rabbi Vinitsky was left in the cold. Only one other father kept his word. “One father shook his head in defeat and told me, ‘My daughter threw a fit like you never saw,’” recalls Rabbi Vinitsky. Attending seminary in Eretz Yisrael today has become au fait, a near compulsory step for thousands of girls for whom the experience is nothing less than transformational. What began in the 1960s as an unpopular option for idealistic young women has morphed into a cottage industry, attracting about 85 percent of graduating girls from 70 high schools across the United States. “I don’t think I would’ve conceived of living my current lifestyle had I not gone to seminary in Israel,” says Miriam Gitlin, a mother of six who’s made the Holy Land her home. She says that even more impactful than the learning (which was certainly beneficial) was the regular experience of being hosted on Shabbos by an assortment of deeply committed families. “I saw people whose lives literally revolved around Torah and halachah. Their backgrounds were similar to mine, but they were happily living without lots of things I took for granted. That was a huge eye-opener.” But as tuition for seminary in Eretz Yisrael creeps steadily higher each year — along with ever-rising financial shidduch expectations — stretched-too-thin parents are beginning to reevaluate the trend. Is seminary appropriate for all girls? What are the benefits? What are the risks? And can local institutions offer comparable — but fiscally viable —alternatives?

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