Tzvi Pirutinsky, PhD
Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis
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Continuity and Connection versus Disruption and Disconnection
Observations on the Transition from Kollel Yungerman to Ben Torah Baal Habayis
For the vast majority of those who identify as both a ben Torah and a baal habayis, life begins with a transition from learning in a yeshiva or kollel to working full-time in a business or profession. It is estimated that between 700 to 800 students leave Bais Medrash Govoha yearly, and while some relocate to other yeshivos or kollels and some move on to positions in chinuch, kashrus, or the rabbinate, many leave the yeshiva to undertake secular employment. A recent economic impact study found that Bais Medrash Govoha alumni have established hundreds of businesses that employ thousands of people, and local employment related educational programs serve upwards of 250 young men per year.
As a career counselor at Professional Career Services in Lakewood, New Jersey, I have had the zechus to work with over 500 young adults in both the early and late phases of this change of roles and transformation of identity. Through this work, it has become apparent to me that many of the challenges the ben Torah baal habayis grapples with trace their origins specifically to this vulnerable period of transition.
Disruption and Disconnection
Like any significant life transition, departing the koslei bais medrash (security of the yeshiva) for the tumultuous world of parnassa (making a living) involves a large degree of disruption and discontinuity. These changes range from the seemingly trivial and concrete, such as a different schedule or a daily commute, to the more consequential and abstract, such as altered self-perception and identity. These challenges frequently result in a prolonged or even unsuccessful transition process, whose effects are felt for years or even decades. Failure to establish a successful parnassa and engaged approach to life hampers the lives of these young men, with reverberations felt by their families and communities.
Several challenges tend to underlie a lack of transitional success. Specifically, some individuals fail to establish a substantive career direction or secure an entry-level position, despite desire and commitment. The resulting inability to support their families can lead to long-term feelings of failure, threatening both personal mental health, as well as shalom bayis (marital harmony). Others find it difficult to develop social connections and supportive relationships on their new path, and are unable to maintain existing social connections developed in their yeshiva or kollel. Moreover, there is a deeply uncomfortable tension between preserving one’s highly-valued engagement in intense Torah learning, with its attendant ideals and boundaries, and facing the pragmatic realities of life outside of the yeshiva, with its unrelenting demands and challenges. Many individuals successfully navigate this challenge and are able to accept their new role while preserving their identity and connections. Some, however, make a “clean break,” viewing their current life as disconnected from their years in kollel, leading to disruption in their Torah learning, ideals, and connections with their roshei yeshiva and rabbeim. While this process of change unfolds differently for each individual, the discussion below describes, and proposes responses to, three common areas of challenge – developing a career, maintaining social support and identity, and surmounting the risk of spiritual disconnection.
Developing a Career
An important first step when counseling others in any context is careful assessment of their current challenges, their historical and environmental context and the efforts they have already undertaken to solve these challenges on their own. When initially meeting a transitioning yungerman, I frequently inquire about previous experience or hobbies that might be relevant to a career, any ideas they may have considered and whether they have spoken to anyone in that field. While a minority of yungerleit do, in fact, recount experiences and ideas, the vast majority are unable to connect any previous experiences or interests to a potential career, appear to have limited or even no ideas and don’t know many working people at all, let alone in a particular field. Curiously, however, more specific questioning and continued interaction tends to reveal that most of these young men have engaged in some work-related activities or hobbies in the past, that they do have family members and friends who are working and that, with minimal prodding, they can generate at least a few solid ideas for possible careers. So why the gap? This typical profile, with the imagined sense of being removed from any career path, needs to be explained.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have been systematically studying the limits of human thinking for the past five decades. Through this research, they have identified several highly-prevalent cognitive errors that reflect the mind’s tendency to process information using mental shortcuts, called “heuristics.” One of these is the “availability heuristic,” which refers to the tendency people have to form a judgment on the basis of what they can recall most easily. Thus, the information most accessible to their conscious mind is most likely to be considered. For example, the average person would assume that sharks kill more people each year than cows do, because it is easier to recall a story about a killer shark than a killer cow. Statistically, however, human-shark encounters are very rare, while cows and humans interact all the time. Accordingly, cows kill roughly twenty-two people per year in the US, while sharks kill an average of less than one. As the saying goes “if all you have is a hammer, you see only nails.”
Outside of their immediate family, kollel and yeshiva students rarely interact with individuals in the workforce on more than a superficial level. They don’t tend to develop relationships with them, they are rarely interested in how they are employed and they are not exposed to the challenges of balancing the various aspects of life as a baal habayis with the ideal of living as a ben Torah. Accordingly, the availability heuristic then limits their recall of even those experiences with baalei batim that they have had, until they are prodded to think about them. This gap is more than an anecdotal observation – it has real implications on the career paths of most yeshiva and kollel students.
In a recent empirical study, I found that kollel students seeking career counseling tend to report significantly lower levels of interest in all fields versus similar individuals within the general US population. Moreover, they are even less likely to desire scientific, mathematical, entrepreneurial and creative careers or blue collar jobs, while they are most likely to express interest in the teaching and helping professions, office work and low-level business management. These careers, while suitable for some, are often low-paid and well below their ability level. There are many explanations for this trend, but one important factor may be the availability heuristic. The disconnect between yungerman and baal habayis limits exposure to many more lucrative careers and professions, it limits their ability to obtain information, mentorship, and entry-level opportunities, limits their familiarity with the language and culture of business and it limits their knowledge of the technology and skills required to succeed.
Maintaining Social Identity and Support
Beyond difficulties choosing a career path and establishing a career, this disconnect continues to have an impact once the transition is underway. Research suggests that in any period of transition and stress, social support – being cared for, esteemed, and a member of a network of mutual obligations – is highly protective. In regards to career transitions, supportive social conditions have long been recognized as key determinants of a variety of career and academic outcomes. Pursuing any particular career or profession requires a large degree of perseverance to overcome barriers and weather disappointments, and encouragement and support from others is key. For young men in kollel, social connections are mostly limited to other full-time learners, and leaving such settings significantly disrupts these relationships. Schedules differ, perspectives and concerns begin to change and daily life takes on a different feel. Soon, the fledgling baal habayis feels excluded from yeshiva life. It takes time and opportunities for them to replace these relationships, and many find it difficult to establish new relationships, meet potential mentors, develop business and professional connections and find a footing in their new stage in life.
More profoundly, moving from kollel to work changes one’s fundamental sense of self and identity. In April 1968, school-teacher Jane Elliot divided her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa into two groups – the blue-eyed versus brown eyed children. She designated the blue-eyed as superior and gave them extra privileges. The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, while the brown-eyed children were sent to the back. They were not allowed to play together or drink from the same water fountain. As a result, blue-eyed children quickly became arrogant and bossy, but saw their grades improve, while brown-eyed children became timid and subservient, as their academic performance suffered. Hundreds of studies demonstrate that this process of social categorization is innate and fundamental to social cognition and behavior. Even children less than a year old divide their social environment into categories and groups, and these social categories prescribe behavior, influence others’ reactions, enhance self-esteem and provide meaning and belonging.
The transition from kollel to work disrupts a powerful and highly valued social identity that for many years separated the yeshiva student from the outside world, preserving his learning, commitment and values. This social identity is explicitly and implicitly supported through shared dress, language, attitudes and behavior. Deviations are enforced through institutional rules, but – even more powerfully – by social disapproval. Leaving yeshiva or kollel (even when guided to do so by one’s rebbi or rosh yeshiva) violates many of these social norms, leaving the transitioning baal habayis virtually bereft of this identity. Even the polite “so where are you learning?” often asked by a new acquaintance triggers discomfort and anxiety.
Of course, there is significant individual variation in the degree to which different individuals preserve, transform or even abandoned their identities as yeshiva or kollel students. While most eventually adopt an identity as a ben Torah baal habayis, the transition is typically achieved only through a painful and protracted adjustment period, and this profound loss of identity and the hidden struggle to reconstruct it is another point of disruption and disconnection.
The Risk of Spiritual Disconnection
One of the most challenging dimensions of the shift from kollel to the workforce is the adjustment of one’s spiritual focus and religious fulfillment. The avodah of a kollel yungerman is well defined and easily understood. It revolves around full-time Torah learning, generally to the exclusion of almost anything else. Having been steeped in this highly-focused religious paradigm for years, the Torah student who no longer enjoys the comprehensive benefits of total spiritual engagement can be completely unprepared for the alternative. For example, the style of Torah learning that is available to him is rarely the slow, lomdish (analytical) approach typical of yeshiva and kolell, but the quick, lighter style of Daf Yomi. The types of shaalos that confront him, both in halacha and hashkafa, will be different and often unfamiliar, and for a variety of reasons, many find it difficult to maintain relationships with their roshei yeshiva and rebbeim.
Moreover, while beliefs and values would ideally remain unchanged, the application of these values likely differs dramatically. For example, most kollel yungerleit can easily avoid the challenges of technology, while most professions and careers necessitate the use of technology on a daily basis. Similarly, a kollel yungerman can avoid sustained and close interaction with women, while in many business environments, the Torah baal habayis will have female co-workers, customers and even managers. This tension, between dramatically transforming behavior and the effort to preserve essential values, can substantially disrupt these values, potentially leading to significant spiritual disconnection. Psychologically, it is far easier to adapt one’s attitudes and values to a new environment than to constantly monitor and adjust one’s behavior to match ideals and values that are significantly challenged.
Balancing Separation with Continuity
As discussed above, the transition from kollel yungerman to ben Torah baal habayis tends to involve a significant degree of disruption and discontinuity. Some of this is inevitable, as sheltering young men from the tumult of the outside world they must now face is an inherent part of the mission of the yeshiva and kollel. Nevertheless, it is my contention that the degree of isolation and discontinuity often present at advanced ages can “backfire” and, paradoxically, leave the former yeshiva student more subject to the ills of general society rather than less, while resulting in financial, emotional and even spiritual disruption. Of course, anyone can point to dozens of Torah baalei batim that successfully navigated these challenges, but I have encountered dozens if not hundreds who struggle with this transition. Careful integration of the social connections, identity, lifestyle and spiritual challenges of the future ben Torah baal habayis, at developmentally appropriate times, would ameliorate many of the problems.
English pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) developed the idea of the “transitional space” by observing how very young children transition from the safe and restricted environment created by their mother at home to the vagaries of the outside world. He observed that children navigate this transition through imagination, symbolic play and the use of transitional objects, such as a teddy bear or favorite doll. For example, everyone has observed children “try on” different roles and activities by playing school, doctor or “hatzalah.” This play provides a safe mental space for imagining new situations and exploring the challenges associated with them. It is widely recognized that the concept of the “transitional space” remains relevant throughout life. Even adults need a space within which to explore expected changes and “try on” potential new roles (e.g., think of the chassan gleefully trying on his new talis for the first time). The typical transition from kollel to work, however, is often abrupt, with little room for any process of transition. There is no physical or mental “space” within which kollel yungerliet can safely explore, develop and adopt a new role. One is either “learning” or “working,” with little room in between.
Perhaps yeshivas and kollelim could provide this transitional space, while preserving their insulation from the outside world by creating designated programs for transitioning yungerleit. These programs could include work-related training, but more importantly, they would provide (a) a space to develop new relationships and adapt more smoothly to a new identity, (b) a safe environment to discuss and adjust to new spiritual challenges, and (c) an opportunity for the students to preserve their connections to their Torah institutions as well as to each other. Roshei yeshiva and rebbeim could then proactively identify struggling students and utilize these programs to provide guidance and support from within the yeshiva system in a way that legitimizes their struggle and maintains their connection to the yeshiva culture.
While the specifics of such programs require guidance from Torah leaders, I offer several suggestions for their consideration. First, for these programs to be “transitional,” they must strongly preserve the structure and identity of a yeshiva and kollel, maintaining continuity and connection with other programs within the institution. Moreover, they should include elements of life as a baal habayis, such as a faster learning style, work activities, technology, training and educational opportunities and the possibility of interacting with a more diverse set of people. They should integrate Torah leaders, community rabonim and others familiar with the challenges of life outside of the yeshiva to discuss on a practical level the halacha, mussar and hashkafa relevant to life as a ben Torah baal habayis. Finally, they should create meaningful partnerships with community baalei batim, encouraging them to integrate into the student body so that they can provide social and material support for students, while enabling these baalei batim to maintain their spiritual and social connection to the yeshiva or kollel.
In summary, for many, the transition from kollel to work is inevitable, yet it currently takes place absent appropriate guidance or support. Providing continuity and connection for the transitioning kollel yungerman may be an important key in planting the seeds for long-term growth and success as an engaged and fulfilled ben Torah baal habayis.
Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist working in Lakewood, NJ and frequently publishes in academic journals such as the Journal of Career Assessment, Affective Disorders, and the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
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