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At the Doorway to Adulthood

Michal Eisikowitz

For some students, the pivotal seminary year is their best opportunity to work through issues and return home with a fresh slate

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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NO REGRETS In recent years, frum society has made great advances toward normalizing mental health treatment — but a shadow of stigma remains. Most girls who’ve pursued therapy, however, express no regret

B efore Suri headed to seminary in Israel, her life seemed under control.

Burdened with a complex family situation, she’d been urged by her sisters for years to seek therapy. “I insisted they were being overdramatic,” Suri recalls. “But then I noticed a recurring theme in my classes: the value of sorting out one’s issues before dating and marriage. I decided to test the waters.”

Suri sought out her seminary’s therapist. “It was as if the floodgates opened,” she says of beginning therapy. “My protective bubble popped and I realized, ‘Boy, do I need help. How did I think I could handle this myself?!’ ”

For a growing number of seminary girls, their seminary year has an additional chavayah: therapy. With “real life” postponed for another nine months, this time away from home seems opportune for finally hashing out difficult issues brewing beneath the surface, before they impact key future decisions — shidduchim, career decisions, parenthood.

“It was the best and hardest decision I ever made,” says Brachie, a well-spoken sem alumna who worked through trauma, trust, and relationship issues while in Israel. “I live the effects of my sessions every day.”

The arrangement can be tricky — How to fit therapy into their packed schedules? Do parents know? Who pays for it? — but many young women who take this courageous step report positive outcomes. “I came into my own,” Suri shares. “I didn’t wake up one day with an epiphany. But I have a better understanding of myself and the people around me.”

Therapy Triggers

Catalysts for therapy-in-sem run the gamut from anxiety and relationship issues to eating disorders, depression, and obsessive thinking.

“Some students come with a great deal of emotional baggage,” says Mrs. Chana Rabinowitz, staff social worker at Darchei Binah. For others, seminary life triggers unresolved feelings previously buried under layers of denial or discomfort. Still others notice unhealthy relationship patterns — with roommates, madrichot, parents, siblings — and become determined to fix them before life’s next chapter.

“This is the year many girls stop and say: ‘Wait, is this normal?’ ” says Deena Heisner,* a mechaneches with 14 years’ seminary experience who requested confidentiality to protect her students’ privacy. “They look around at their peers, they examine Shabbos tables, they listen to friends’ conversations with mothers — and they start questioning previously assumed models.”

She shares an illustrative example: one student, upon realizing how infrequently her family phoned as compared to other girls, began faking phone conversations from her mother.

“It’s too embarrassing to be the girl who gets zero calls from home,” she tearfully told Mrs. Heisner.

Furthermore, the angst induced by seminary’s social pressures — certainly at the year’s start — often gives rise to other issues.

“It’s like regressing to ninth grade,” Mrs. Heisner says. “Socially, you’re back to square one — and you have to make Shabbos plans to boot. Girls who used to be class queens realize ‘no one is running after me!’ They cry to me: ‘I went from being a real somebody to a total nobody.’ ”

During these emotional conversations, many girls — some from “picture perfect” families — open up, revealing painful realities, like an addict brother perpetually on death’s doorstep, or pillars-of-the-community parents who don’t talk to each other. Now that the girls are out of the situation — no longer in survival mode — the dams burst, and they finally let go of secrets too shameful to share on native shores.

“Far from home, girls feel more comfortable,” says Mrs. Heisner. “They know I won’t bump into their mother at Glatt Mart. They don’t see me as part of their world.”

Shabbos hosting and weekly chesed also lead to increased introspection. As they spend hours in others’ homes, observing endless marital and parenting interactions, some girls wonder: Do I have the skills for this? Am I capable of building a healthy marriage and family?

Ahuva, a confident 22-year-old now dating and in college, says an intense yom iyun opened her eyes. After sitting through lectures on topics like “Avoiding Difficult Marriages,” and hearing presenters stress that humans gravitate toward the familiar, she got panicky.

“I was like ‘Whoa, that’s me.’ My home life was very difficult, but I never spoke about it. There was so much yelling. I realized: I don’t want to repeat those patterns. I want to give my kids a normal, happy childhood.”

After speaking with a mechaneches and overcoming strong initial hesitations — the stigma! The cost! — Ahuva took the plunge. “Sharing my pain with an adult who had tools to help was an incredible relief. It also made me more open to seeking therapy in the future.”

Ariella Farkash, LCSW, is a Jerusalem-based social worker specializing in eating disorders who has treated dozens of seminary girls from a spectrum of schools and wide range of struggles. She says that seminary demands the overnight development of a slew of new skills — independently managing transportation, healthy meals, social obligations, laundry, Shabbos plans, and the school’s high expectations — all in a foreign country, and far from loving support systems. While almost every girl flounders at first, continued lack of coping can indicate an underlying struggle.

“’I’m always having trouble with Shabbos plans,’” she offers as an example, “can sometimes mean ‘I can’t make commitments;’ ‘I can’t ask people for favors;’ or ‘I can’t feel comfortable in homes that are different from mine .’”

Darchei Binah social worker Mrs. Rabinowitz notes that girls with sick or deceased family members may also benefit from therapy in sem. Many times, these girls — often thrust into caretaker roles at home — haven’t sufficiently processed the pain. In other cases, a girl’s parents will get divorced or remarried while she’s in seminary, and skilled therapy can empower her to deal with a life turned upside-down.

A Setting Ripe for Change
The setting and ambiance of seminary are also uniquely conducive to healing. “For many victims of the various forms of abuse — physical, emotional, verbal, etc. — seminary is the first time in their lives when they are away from their abuser,” notes Shana Aaronson, Israel Director of Services for Jewish Community Watch, an international organization dedicated to combating child abuse. “Even if the abuse stopped, it is nearly impossible to heal if the perpetrator is still around.” Over 85 percent of abuse happens at the hands of someone close to the victim. This means victims often encounter their abusers on a daily basis.

“You can pretend you’re okay so you can get married, but what happens next? Certainly not happily ever after”

In 2016 alone, Shana Aaronson helped seven girls and six yeshivah students report abuse, get much-needed therapy, and join international support groups. Victims of intrafamilial abuse in particular, she says, tend to come forward in Israel. “Once they feel safe, they’ll often find the strength to say: I will not let my little sister go through this. I’m going to do something.”

Other times, simply being extracted from the situation gives young women the clarity to say, “This was not okay. I need help.”

On a more general level, seminary is an ideal time for therapy because the goals overlap: both seminary and therapy aim to help you figure out who you are and where you’re going. “Seminary students are really open to growth,” reports social worker Ariella Farkash. “Maybe that’s why they often show less resistance than typical clients.”

The year, she points out, is also a golden opportunity for a new start. “It’s a chance to say: what do I like about myself? What do I want to keep? What do I want to toss?”

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