The gap year in Israel is a phenomenon that has sprung up in recent decades in most Modern Orthodox communities. The idea is simple: 18-year old boys and girls who have just graduated high school spend a year of intensive study in yeshiva or seminary in Israel before they return to attend college. It is intended to be a year of reflection and growth, and it is not uncommon for many participants to return more religiously connected and observant than when they left.
This occurrence, otherwise known as “Flipping Out,” was a major factor in filmmaker Anna Wexler’s decision to study and document the year in Israel. Her resulting film, “Unorthodox,” grapples with, among others, the question of what compels certain students to flip out, and follows closely the religious development of three gap year students from the NY tri-state area before, during and after their year in Israel.
Wexler documents the three phases to the year in Israel that many students experience. According to the film, first they go wild with their newfound freedom, often experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Second, after several weeks and/or months, they get bored of the partying and begin to take their religious classes more seriously. And finally, the students begin to start making major transformations, in essence laying the groundwork for them to flip out. In the film, all three participants go through some version of this and are captured in major, poignant moments of change and personal growth.
But the film is as much about the three participants as it is about Wexler. By shooting this film and devoting so much of her time to its development, Wexler, who left her Modern Orthodox community at the age of 16, reexamines her own religious beliefs. In a touching scene, Wexler’s religious grandmother says to her, “One day you’ll come back. The very fact that you’ve chosen to do this [film] shows that you can’t get your religion out of your system.”
Of the many issues about the year in Israel and religious life the film tackles, perhaps the most compelling is the question of whether the year in Israel in crucial for the preservation of Modern Orthodoxy in North America. Wexler speaks with noted writer and lecturer Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, who professes his belief that indeed it is. “It’s a medicine that resolves a certain malady in a very particular community,” he says.
To quote one of the three participants, “People spend a year in Israel looking for some kind of experience. If you take a year to find yourself, you will find something.”
Unorthodox will have its New York premiere at Doc NYC on Sunday, November 17th.
Elie Lichtschein is a NY-based writer currently pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing. He runs a monthly musical project called Celebrate Hallel.