Normally, a parent might agonize over her teen's decision to defer her freshman year of college. But when my 18-year-old daughter Lauren left recently on a flight to Israel -- deferring her first year at college for yet a second time -- I was thrilled.
As a young couple, my husband Mark and I, like so many of our generation, began to live as more observant Jews. We wanted more than anything for our two daughters to benefit from the richness of a lifestyle that includes the warmth of community, commitment to tradition, and strong Jewish values.
My daughters attended Jewish day schools that provided academic excellence but lacked the joyousness for which I had hoped. By high school's end, Lauren was a Torah-observant girl who looked longingly at the secular world's definition of fun.
I started thinking that it would be a mistake to send her straight to college. Despite her initial protests, we presented Lauren with the "opportunity" to devote a year of religious study at a seminary of her choosing in Israel. We hoped that the warm blanket of Israel would strengthen her spiritual connection to her people and help her find greater happiness in her traditions. She chose Michlelet Esther, a seminary known for warmth, but a "hands-off" approach to religious "coercion."
The summer before she left was filled with angst. Lauren was reluctant and scared, my in-laws told me I was crazy and my husband and I were plagued with safety concerns. How would we survive our fears?
Almost immediately I began an ongoing correspondence with her spiritual advisers -- two gifted rabbis talented at appeasing nervous long-distance parents, and able to relate to their student's reluctant beginnings.
My daughter felt so lost during her first few weeks in Jerusalem. She was distressed that she could jog through surrounding observant neighborhoods only if dressed modestly in a skirt. She found more comfort in the familiarity of beaches, malls and restaurants. I lobbied intensively in my e-mails to her rabbis so that my daughter could progress beyond the modern attractions of Israel to find ecstasy in her spiritual growth. Quietly, without fanfare, the magic that is Michlelet Esther took hold. Friendships developed, mentors emerged and the learning jumped off the page into real life examples of Torah-observant joy.
When my family and I visited her that January, I saw a self-assured young woman, maneuvering easily through the streets of Jerusalem, chatting confidently with shopkeepers and taxi drivers and hosting her friends for get-togethers in our rented apartment. There was so much hugging, kissing, crying and laughing during that visit I had little chance to scrutinize my daughter's progress. Still, I witnessed enough to know that Lauren had grown a lot on the inside.
"Mommy, you were so right about coming to Israel," she said before we returned to Los Angeles. Breathing easier now and confident that the Israel opportunity was being fulfilled, I set about making arrangements for her freshman year in college.
However, my daughter surprised us with her decision to return to Israel for a second year of study. In explaining this she was levelheaded and controlled, clearly sure that her year's discovery deserved more exploration. I was proud of this decision, but others were not so sanguine.
My very even-tempered husband greeted this news with stunned silence. Her sister urged her to come to her senses. My relatives expressed concerned opposition. Even the observant friends who I expected to share my happiness seemed tentative. They offered sympathetic looks, assuming that I was distressed by this unexpected development. Implicit in those worried looks was the query: When is she going to get down to business and get her college degree?
What's the rush, I wondered? Time spent in Israel and her college education are not mutually exclusive. I consider this experience an investment in her soul. My daughter is not deferring her education, but continuing the learning and the spiritual growth, which will bring her happiness and guidance for a lifetime. Lauren has said that the highlight of her year in Israel was feeling "comfortable in her own skin" and she just wants time to continue the journey that brought her to that place.
This first year in Israel brought incredible changes. Lauren now has a distinctive inner glow and there is a special quality to her demeanor as she incorporates prayer, ritual and continued learning into her day, along with generally more appreciation for her family. This next year will solidify the groundwork that Michlelet Esther laid, by breathing more joy into her observance, answering the questions that confront her and helping her deal with the challenges that will surely be in her future.
Last year, I tearfully asked my daughter's high school principal if I was doing the right thing.
"You will see, you will be rewarded," she said.
As we saw Lauren off for this second odyssey, we gave each other our signature bear hug and kisses on both cheeks (so we won't be lopsided) and she said to me, "Mommy, I love you, thank you so much for this opportunity to return Israel."
With that statement I can assure you, I am richer than any lottery winner.
Phyllis Folb is principal of The Phylmar Group, Inc, a public relations firm specializing in arts, education and nonprofit organizations. She is also a member of the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue.